Before we attempt to understand the patterns of urbanization in Asia, it will be useful to make a distinction between “urbanization” and “urban growth,” the terms that we commonly use. The former refers to the rise in proportion (i.e., percentage share) of the total population living in urban places within the countries; it connotes the changing balance between rural and urban populations.
It should not be confused with urban population growth—a measure of change in urban areas only, having no reference to rural population. However, it is quite obvious that the two terms are interrelated. Two other terms that we commonly employ— “level of urbanization” and “rate of urbanization” also need an explanation.
The former is the proportion of urban population at point of time, while the latter refers to the pace of change in the level of urban population over a period of time. It is also useful to understand that the term “urban” is used by different nations according to widely different concepts. Hence, the classification of places defined as urban differs widely among nations. Thus, the comparisons of urbanization and urban growth cannot be precisely made.
By world standards, Asia is not highly urbanized. In mid-1999 a little over 45 percent of Asia’s population lived in places defined as urban. This figure is far below that for Latin America, Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Within Asia, the South Asian nations have the lowest levels, with India, the largest of the South Asian countries, close to the average for the region (26 percent).
In general, nearly a quarter of South Asia’s population lives in the cities. Basically, South Asia has been a land of villages containing one-half of world’s total number of villages, although several well-known cities have existed for a long time. The land-locked nations of Nepal, Bhutan, and Afghanistan, remained the least developed and have the lowest levels of urbanization.
On the average, urbanization in Southeast Asia is higher, but there is a wider range from 21 percent for Cambodia to over 57 percent for Malaysia, and for a 100 percent for the city-state of Singapore. The regional average for East Asia runs close to that of South Asia and Southeast Asia (nearly one-quarter of its people live in the cities).
Japan, the most industrialized Asian nation is an exception; 79 percent of its population lives in urban population. Urbanization levels in Southwest Asian nations are much higher than for the rest of the continent, resulting largely from the definition of the term “urban” applied in these nations, but also due to the recent economic progress made possible by the oil revenues.
The regional average is over 60 percent. Saudi Arabia and Israel registered 79 and 90 percent of the population as city-dwellers. The land locked, and least developed country of Afghanistan is the exception. Urbanization levels for the Central Asian nations range between 28.5 percent for Tajikistan to 57 percent for Kazakhstan reflecting the stages of their development.
Although Asia’s urbanization levels are considerably lower in comparison to other continents, its rate of urban growth has gone up significantly during the last several decades. Between 1970 and 1980, Asia’s urban growth was 4 percent annually, nearly four times that of Europe and the U.S.A., and nearly twice the rate of its population as a whole. This trend continued through the 1990s.
While these figures are averages for the continent, the growth of the individual cities, particularly the larger ones, was exceptionally higher. Cities like Bangkok, Beijing, Delhi, Jakarta, and Tehran, for example, averaged between 6 and 7 percent annual growth during the 1980s. This situation is a striking contrast to mostly European cities and several American metropolises, which experienced population stability or in some instances decline during the last two decades.
Urban growth was exceptionally higher during the 1980’s in two of Asia’s largest nations, China and India, where it was close to 7 and 5 percent respectively. As an overall summary, some significant trends in Asia’s urbanization picture may be noted. First, m general the larger cities and metropolitan areas have been growing much faster than the smaller cities for the last three-four decades. Second, despite a slight deceleration of urban growth during the 1990s, the numerical gains in urban population have been large, due largely to significant population increases in the “millionaire” cities.
Third, a notable phenomenon has been the extraordinary concentration of large number of people and economic activity in the leading city of the nations. This is generally referred to as “urban privacy.” A commonly employed measure of a country’s urban primacy is the percent- of a country’s urban population (or total population) residing in the largest city, which is also known as its “primate city” and typically the national capital.
Primate cities are generally most common Ml smaller or developing nations. Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila, Seoul and Yangon (Rangoon) are good examples of urban primacy. Nearly one-half of Thais in Bangkok, one-third of Bangladesh’s and Myanmar’s populations reside in their leading cities of Dhaka and Yangon respectively. A quarter of South Korea’s population resides in the capital city of Seoul.
Manila, Jakarta, and Karachi show a similar pattern. Although the degree of urban primacy usually is associated with a nation’s physical size or the state of its development, other factors like system of government and policies, geographical location and historical evolution may also affect the size of the leading city.
To an extent it reflects the degree of development of a nation’s regions. The more developed the regions are, the lower will be the urban primacy of its leading city. Asia has now 13 cities of over 5 million inhabitants each, and over 100 “millionaire” cities. With the exception of Hong Kong all of these “mega cities” with population of over 5 million are the primate cities.
Although urbanization in Asia, as elsewhere has been an instrument of economic and social progress, it has also been accompanied by serious socio-economic problems. The physical expansion of the cities has not kept pace with the rapid increase in their population. This has resulted in excessively high densities, substandard living conditions, and the growth of slums.
The average densities of population in large metropolises like Karachi, Ahmedabad, Dhaka, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Pusan, Tanjin, Bangkok, are over 100,000 persons per sq mile, and those of Manila, Kolkata, Mumbai, Tehran, Surabaja are close to this figure. Parts of these cities, particularly the older sections of the cities are incredibly congested, where the densities rise to over twice or three times the average for the cities.
The housing shortage in large cities like Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo is so acute that a tiny two-room apartment with a kitchen, and dining area costs a quarter of a million dollars. Recent surveys in India and Indonesia indicate that over two-thirds of the families in the larger cities of these nations occupy one room or less for living.
Shantytowns or slums have developed in nearly all major cities of South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia. So acute is the housing problem that tens of thousands of the poor, unable to afford housing in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Jakarta must literally sleep in the street or railroad sidings.
The high population densities in the cities have resulted from a large and continuing stream of rural migrants into the cities. The rising densities are usually at the root of several urban problems, such as rise in unemployment, substandard living and growth of slums and shantytowns. Problems of urban unemployment and destitution are so serious that urban unemployment is estimated at 15 to 25 percent of the urban populations in South Asian countries and in Indonesia.
The Asian cities have begun to feel the strain of population numbers. The breakdown of infrastructural facilities is being experienced in such large cities of South Asia and Southeast Asia as Bangkok, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Jakarta, Karachi, Manila and Surabaja. Electrical failures and inadequate pressure of municipal water supply are commonplace.
Increase in the numbers of automobiles without adequate legal constraint on their exhaust emissions, and the proliferation of industrial plants have exacerbated the air pollution of large cities. Parts of Delhi, for example, are perpetually enveloped in yellow-colored haze resulting from the automobile exhaust emissions, making it the fourth most polluted city in the world. Pollution problems resulting from air pollution in several other Asian cities such as Beijing, Tokyo-Yokohama, and Karaganda are also quite severe.