Korea can help show the way

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Korea can help show the way

Curtis S. Chin, Abhinav Seetharaman
Curtis S. Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is the inaugural Asia fellow of the Milken Institute. Abhinav Seetharaman is the former Princeton-in-Asia fellow at the Milken Institute Asia Center in Singapore. Follow them on Twitter at @CurtisSChin and @AbhiSeetharaman


As South Korea begins to vaccinate its residents against the coronavirus, and the nation’s cities seek to emerge stronger from the pandemic, Seoul and other municipalities should also leverage the opportunity to reassess and to reinvent themselves.

South Korea could well contribute to the conversation if not lead the way in the rethinking of urban infrastructure development. Across the region, relentless urbanization has meant growing demands for water, power, transport, and waste treatment.

Yet, the Asia-Pacific region has long suffered significant infrastructure financing deficits. In 2017, the Asian Development Bank projected an annual gap of $459 billion from 2016-2020 for 25 developing member countries. Adding in funding of social infrastructure such as health and education nearly doubles the gap to $907 billion.

“Municipalities must foster more effective multi-sectoral conversations to generate responsive and inclusive urban infrastructure investments,” says Lauren N. Sorkin, executive director of the Resilient Cities Network, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. “This will help create more resilient cities, bringing together intellectual and financial capital to revitalize local economies ravaged by the pandemic.”

One unfortunate side effect of the pandemic has been a severe strain placed on urban waste management systems. In one example, plastic waste, already a challenge, has spiked. This has been driven in part by consumers returning to single-use cutlery and plastic and other packaging due to health concerns and greater use of lockdown-induced food delivery services.

In South Korea, according to the Ministry of Environment, Seoul produced some 850 tons of plastic waste per day in the first half of 2020, a 16-percent increase from the previous year. South Korea is also one of the world’s largest plastic-consuming countries per capita.

The pandemic, however, has also led to new approaches to business. This has included a greater embrace of telemedicine, e-commerce and working from home. All could well also bring long-term benefits as cities in turn reallocate resources.

The continued exponential growth of urbanization across Asia also underscores that governments and investors must not now forget the long-term need to build smarter, more resilient and more sustainable cities. Already and fortunately, municipal authorities around the world are emerging as drivers of holistic change. This has included via the C40, a network of megacities committed to addressing climate change as part of an ambitious agenda launched in 2020.

Under the C40 Mayors’ Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery, mayors of 96 global cities including Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo, London, and New York, are spearheading measures to create green jobs, protect mass transit, support essential workers, and give public spaces back to people and nature.

South Korea’s government and business leaders should take to heart three lessons from the C40.

First, a shift is needed away from long-held norms. Asia’s city leaders and investors can help accelerate the move from linear economies, in which raw materials are turned into finished goods that are eventually dumped and replaced, to circular economies, which aim to redefine and eliminate waste and encourage constant use of resources to benefit businesses, society, and the environment.

Prominent examples include waste-to-energy plants, which both provide energy and help cities address the growing waste generated via increased consumerism.

Innovations in the delivery of services and measuring environmental impact should be explored. This is critical to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. Specific areas of focus include safe and affordable housing, environmental impact reduction, access to inclusive green spaces and sustainable transport systems.

Second, Asia’s government and business leaders must commit to a “greening” of their cities.

Of particular note, Seoul has reportedly the lowest availability of urban green space per capita in South Korea. That’s one reason to welcome the metropolitan government’s announced plan to plant nearly 400,000 trees along 68 tree-lined streets and unused road spaces. Such greenspace and rest and leisure areas for residents must be encouraged and maintained.

Covid-19 has highlighted the necessity of green spaces that are accessible and equitable for all residents. Amidst lockdowns and travel restrictions, urban residents will benefit from a rethinking of urban spaces. Public green space has been shown to improve mental health and well-being.

Adapting existing road infrastructure to be more bicycle-friendly and better integration of spaces for green transport into the urban landscape could certainly be a welcome consequence of the pandemic. Singapore, as an example, is exploring the possibility of converting underused road lanes to cycling and bus lanes, and pedestrianizing certain roads. Likewise, the Seoul government has pledged to increase the city’s bicycle lanes from 940 kilometers (584 miles) to 1,330 kilometers over the next decade.

And third, Asia’s urban leaders must learn from the successes and failures of past and ongoing efforts to shift to more sustainable economies. Intriguingly, several nations have already incorporated environmentally conscious measures into stimulus-related infrastructure measures.

This includes Malaysia’s incorporating large-scale solar energy as part of post-pandemic recovery plans. The country has reportedly allocated $2.9 billion for rooftop solar panels and LED street lighting. And South Korea unveiled a green new deal last year, with projects totalling more than 73 trillion won ($62 billion) of the nation’s entire 160 trillion won ($142.6 billion) stimulus package. As Asia’s urban areas recover from lockdowns, city and business leaders have a golden opportunity to move towards a more sustainable urban economy and development model.

Sorkin of the Resilient Cities Network reminds us that by embracing resilience and sustainability as a lens for planning and investment, cities contribute to healthier seas and waterways, generate jobs, and help drive a return to growth even in some of the worst-hit places by Covid-19.

Ultimately, urban development must be redefined and reimagined to encompass healthier approaches if Asia’s cities are to build back better. Our belief is that South Korea can help show the way.
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