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Jon Kher Kaw on Transformative Solutions for South Asia’s Growing Cities

Jon Kher Kaw, a senior urban development specialist at the World Bank, believes the most pressing challenge for urbanization in South Asian cities is accommodating the overwhelming number of new residents.

Reflecting on his wealth of experience working with cities in South Asia, Kaw recently spoke with WRI during a workshop for WRI’s flagship World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City.” He spoke about the region’s acute challenges and potential opportunities. The World Bank projects that around 250 million more people will be living in South Asian cities by 2030. “How we manage that [growth] to make cities continue to be productive and livable centers for people will be very, very important,” Kaw says.

Of course, South Asia isn’t a monolithic region, and cities need diverse solutions tailored to their local context. Nevertheless, Kaw sees patterns in how cities transform and says there are common solutions that have proven environmental and economic benefits.

Improving intra-city connectivity through bus rapid transit (BRT) systems and containing urban expansion through land use policies are two opportunities for tackling common challenges across the region, according to Kaw. BRTs can improve access to jobs, reduce time lost to congestion and make people more productive at relatively little cost. Managing sprawl, likewise, can help reduce a city’s carbon footprint and improve resource efficiency, although cities will need to address affordability concerns with more compact development.

As for cities that show progress, Kaw points to the example of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. “The city has transformed quite dramatically over the last 10 years. Today, [it] is a very different city from five years ago; it has very much improved in terms of connectivity as well as how land is managed within the city. There’s a lot of improvements in the urban space and freeing up land for productive and livable uses.”

Clearer Governance for More Efficiency and Accountability

For promising and innovative ideas to translate to change on the ground, there should be clear responsibilities outlined for each level of government, Kaw says.

City-level decision makers need to be responsive to immediate city needs and ensure basic services for all residents. “On the national government front, I think it’s important to set the urban agenda up front, thinking in terms of being very clear on their role on issues such as creating a system of cities [and] coordinating how cities come together,” he says. “Also, things like fiscal transfers and empowering local governments to make decisions on how to manage cities will be very, very important.”

Getting the relationship right between municipal and national governments is not easy, but it is imperative to making cities more financially effective and accountable to their residents.

Kaw suggests that cities should be empowered to leverage local assets. “What I mean is not only to just invest in capacity building but also to think about how to leverage on, for example, land value capture,” he says. “Only then can you think about how cities can be sustainable in the longer term.”

Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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