By Renard Teipelke
At the end of last year, my ‘scale’ perspective and understanding was challenged when I moved to the gigantic metropolitan area of Manila in the Philippines (article here). Earlier this year (2014) I have been challenged again by a field trip (a.k.a. “mission”) to urban areas in Lao PDR: In the blink of an eye, scale – once again – presented itself to me very differently. While I have been mostly concerned with necessities of infrastructure scale and size in response to high densities and rapid urban growth in metropolitan areas, the experience in Lao made me think about other urban development settings and requirements.
Although a rather underdeveloped country in the shadows of its striving neighbors of Viet Nam or Thailand, Lao PDR is no peculiar case: Out of the roughly 200 countries in the world, only one third has more than 15 million inhabitants (source). In most cases, we can find a primary city, which acts as the key attractor of people, goods, investments, political attention, etc. Once we go beyond the highly populated countries and cities, we find an abundance of small- and medium-sized cities – in many cases, one would rather talk about these places as towns (source).
Obviously, urbanization is an on-going process across the globe and we are (again) in an era where the urban is cherished over the rural (for better or for worse), with cities being ascribed to offer various remedies to a multitude of (development) problems. However, the attention on striving urban regions, in particular large metropolitan areas, can be misleading. It remains a distinct feature that more people are living in cities or towns with less than a million inhabitants in most parts of the world. Very often, there are even more people in cities or towns with less than 500,000 inhabitants.
Referring back to my first article on scale (here), this large amount of smaller urban areas requires an approach to meet their spatial growth with infrastructure, services, and amenities appropriate to their size. In order to save resources, particularly natural resources such as land, density is still to be advocated. Besides, city managers want prosperity; they want income for their city treasuries. More recently, they also want to be green/environmentally sustainable, while making modern information communication technologies available. In order to achieve corresponding objectives, what do urban planners and developers have to offer to these smaller cities and towns?
A bus rapid transit or metro-rail system, a large convention center or special economic zone, a full-blown 3G or 4G internet network, or a big theme park – these kinds of infrastructure, service, and amenity options are ‘a bit’ over-sized for a majority of towns. What is needed are more fine-grained solutions, which trigger sufficient densities, while being economically viable and sustainable. In the case of climate change and disaster risk measures, this could for instance mean to actually cherish the available natural space instead of seeking a more structural solution. High-density, urbanized areas such as Manila (capital of the Philippines, 12 million inhabitants; density 19,000/sqkm) have reached a point, where high-capacity urban drainage infrastructure needs to be put in place or significantly improved to tackle the recurring problem of yearly floods. In contrast, lower-density urban areas such as Vientiane (capital of Lao PDR, 0.75 million inhabitants, density 200/sqkm) can put extensive remaining natural environment to use to address yearly flooding – an approach which is both more sensitive to nature and less costly to the city treasury.In conclusion, there remains the challenge to find ‘livable design’ options for large-scale infrastructure in mega-regions. At the same time, another significant group of smaller cities and towns requires a different scale perspective, in which smaller-scale infrastructure options are considered – solutions which are not to be belittled, just because they appear to be much smaller, have hardly ever flagship potential, and usually do not make headlines in international media or even expert circles.