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asia's best cities
 1999 | 1998 | 1997 |

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home introduction Fukuoka list

David Hartung
The night market in Taipei -- a fast-rising city in the Asiaweek chart

Pressure Points
Identifying problems and then aggressively fixing them - that's a key to improving Asia's cities. Read on to see who has been successful, and why

It's a city that has never been short on attitude. Its residents are often earthily blunt, and yet can display genuine neighborliness. This is a community whose vibrancy spills into its lively media and political life and into the scores of little lanes that provide everything from invigorating snake soup to hot jazz. Don't know where we're talking about? Then let's add that things haven't always been like this. Just a few years ago, traffic was so bad a trip across town was a test of endurance. Rat-infested garbage provided an endless obstacle course for pedestrians. And the air seemed to become thicker by the day.

Yes, this is Taipei - proof that, with the right will, even an urban nightmare can be made enjoyable. Today, the air in Taiwan's capital city is visibly better, sidewalks are mainly clean and green space is expanding. Thanks to no-nonsense traffic police and two new mass-transit rail lines (another one is opening this month), getting around downtown is . . . well, not easy, but no longer the challenge it was. What's more, as Hong Kong seems to fall more under the influence of the mainland, Taipei is developing into an international center for Chinese culture.

Three years ago, when Asiaweek began its ranking of the most livable cities in Asia, Taipei barely registered on the radar. Livable? Correspondents choked on the word. Then in 1997 it scraped into 10th position; the next year it appeared at No. 5. This year, it joins Osaka in joint second position. Fukuoka, which enjoys a growing reputation as Japan's cosmopolitan trendsetter, especially in architecture and the arts, regains the No.1 rank it held two years ago. Tokyo won last year.

t h e  t o p  1 0
1999 1998 CITY PTS
1 2 Fukuoka 73
2 3 Osaka 72
2 5 Taipei 72
4 1 Tokyo 68
5 4 Singapore 66
6 8 Bandar Seri Begawan 65
7 6 Georgetown 64
8 9 Kuala Lumpur 63
9 7 Hong Kong 62
9 13 Shanghai 62
Beijing, No. 10 last year, disappears from this year's list. But China is still represented, thanks to Shanghai, which comes in ninth, equal with Hong Kong

How we did it
Taipei is not the only surprise in this year's listing (for details see the following page). For a start, Shanghai appears in the top 10 for the first time. Once known as the Paris of the East, for years it bore a distressing resemblance to a vast, filthy construction site. But that has been changing. A newly opened Grand Theater and the fabulous Shanghai Museum enrich the bustle around a rejuvenated People's Square. Green issues are now high on Shanghai's agenda too. Clean fuels such as compressed natural gas are replacing diesel in taxis and buses (ahead of Hong Kong), residents are chivvied to get into the recycling habit, and some 530 hectares of greenery are to be added to the downtown area. Mayor Xu Kuangdi plans to devote 3% of the city's gross domestic product to improving the environment. Also planned: comprehensive waste-treatment systems and a program to clean up the Suzhou river.

Depending how you value lost time - and opportunity - Bangkok's infamous gridlock costs the city between $270 million and $1 billion a year. In Seoul, such losses are estimated at about $154 million. And that doesn't include the cost of health care. The message is clear: Those cities that get a grip on the problems of traffic congestion and the environment are often the most likely to reap early benefits in the quality of life.

Bangkok Gov. Bhichit Rattakul and his team have made breathing less of a health hazard on the streets of the Thai capital. Nevertheless, traffic jams remain an enormous problem, thanks in part to the fact that 80% of commuters drive to work - economic downturn or no economic downturn. Mass-transit systems promise relief, but the city is a late-starter: Its $1.3 billion Skytrain began service Dec. 5, years behind schedule. Even with the addition of a subway line (by 2002, if all goes well), success will depend on a good system of feeder buses - something efficient Singapore factored in from the start.

In Seoul, where traffic was almost as bad as Bangkok's, a series of elevated expressways and ring roads has helped unclog the major arteries - as has the introduction of bus-only lanes. The consequence? Banker Yang Hee Ja says it now takes her 40 minutes by bus to get to her office from her home 40 km away, compared with up to 90 minutes before. And commuting will get even easier when two new subway lines are added to the existing 400-km network next year. Mayor Ko Kun acknowledges that in its single-minded pursuit of growth, Seoul has become a mass of concrete. But green areas are beginning to sprout. Yoido, a former airport site in the financial district, has been turned into an 18-hectare park. Most famously, the authorities spent $270 million to buy back private land and apartment blocks on Namsan mountain, in the center of the city. The area is to be converted into a pine forest.


Introduction: Identifying problems and then aggressively fixing them - that's a key to improving Asia's cities. Read on to see who has been successful, and why

Naga: Business buzzwords work in the Philippines
- Mayors' Picks: Cities That Made An Impression
Dalian: In China's industrial north, Dalian shows cleaning up the environment is good for business
Surat: A city mired in indifference stages a remarkable turnaround

Bandung: The saving grace for an Indonesian city

Cities | The Full 40

In its search for Asia's most improved cities, Asiaweek tapped its network of correspondents - and then went one step further. We also approached city mayors and specialists at such organizations as the U.N. Urban Management Program and the Asia Foundation for their suggestions (see page 52). In the following pages, we highlight how the four cities that came out of that survey have addressed their problems. They are Dalian in China, Naga in the Philippines, Surat in India and Bandung in Indonesia. Some have been more successful than others, but, as with Taipei, their stories contain lessons for even the most affluent urban centers.

How does transformation take place? Sudden crises can overcome the inertia that holds communities back. In the case of Surat, the trigger was, of all things, an outbreak of the plague in 1994. Anything would be an improvement on that, of course. But the key to change is to maintain the momentum. Surat has managed that - and in doing so has become a yardstick for South Asia's city managers.

Purposeful leadership can make a difference. Consider Marikina, one of 18 cities and towns that make up Metro Manila. Several years ago, it was as dirty, pot-holed and crime-infested as much of the rest of the metropolis. Its river was a public dumping ground. Bayani Fernando figured Marikina needed "an engineer" to clean things up. He convinced voters he was the one. Now in his third term, the mayor has not only improved sanitation (free toilets and plumbing assistance for everyone), he has resuscitated the Marikina river and built a 220-hectare park along its shores.

Fernando, 53, used shock tactics - "psy-war," he calls it - to get things moving. When evicting 14,000 squatters to make way for the riverside park (they were relocated to residential land), he arrived in a hard hat, accompanied by a fleet of ambulances "to show [the people] we were prepared for the consequences - that the government was dead serious." To clear obstructed streets, Fernando had all goods displayed on sidewalks classified as garbage and disposed of. Erring police officers were made to perform squats in public. But, this being the Philippines, there was some resistance. When the city passed a law declaring all homes without toilets liable for demolition as "menaces to public health," some people refused to comply. One person defiantly used his toilet bowl as a planter.

Chen Shui-bian, who was Taipei mayor until he lost to the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou last year, is credited with many of the city's early gains. The number of violent crimes fell from 2,356 in 1995 to 1,654 in 1998. Many of his reforms were minor - but he made lots of them. When women's groups complained of a shortage of public toilets, he had more installed. He insisted that government officials, such as the police administrator, attend his meetings with grassroots representatives. They were gestures that earned the community's trust - and its backing for more ambitious programs. "Chen's force for change came from the bottom up," says Ingrid Liao, a former assistant to the director of social services during the mayor's term.

Greater devolution of powers usually makes for more responsive city government. Four years ago, Seoul residents began electing leaders to the city's 25 wards, which are responsible for matters ranging from restaurant licensing to sanitation and care for the homeless. Kang Jung Hee notices the difference in Yongsan. Where it used to take half a day to get documents certified by the ward office, she can now phone in a request and collect the papers at a convenient time. Naved Hamid, senior strategist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), says decentralization and greater local autonomy will be an important factor in the successful cities of the future. That's the trend worldwide - except in Hong Kong, where the government is eliminating layers of local government and centralizing their responsibilities.

In an increasingly complex world, cities need to be run more like corporations, with an emphasis on planning and competent management. Hence the appearance of buzzwords more usually heard in business, such as "benchmarking." This, if you like, is progress by imitation. The idea is simple, says ADB's Hamid: First, identify which cities are doing well. Then compare their approaches with your own, establish what is the difference and take remedial steps. The process creates its own incentive to do better, says Hamid. And as a tool for change, it allows city administrations to develop customer focus (another buzzword) and to examine how they allocate their resources.

In the end, of course, sustained progress requires motivation from within. The entire community - from municipal employees to business leaders to the ordinary citizen - must be convinced of the need for improvement. Even Marikina's hardball mayor Fernando recognizes that. He says he was disappointed to learn that many local mothers try to make their children behave by invoking his name. That's not the right attitude, he says. People should act not out of fear, but because they believe it is right to get involved. In democratic societies, that means transparent governance and informed participation by citizens. Not change by fiat.

At an Asian mayors' conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this year, Pratap U. Usnani of the City Managers Association of Gujarat shared some practical experience. Five years ago, he had been on a team overhauling Ahmedabad in India, where city services were so poor members of the peaceful Jain community were threatening violence. Within a couple of years, the city had shaped up enough to raise its own funds on the bond market. Among Usnani's tips for success: Treat the public as you would like your mom to be treated. And don't pass the buck. Officials, he suggests, should welcome complaints as free advice. Dealing with them seriously shows you are willing to learn from mistakes. And to be effective, grievance systems should be simple, well publicized and easy to use. On the following pages: Four cities that are listening to their citizens.

With reports by Raissa Robles/Manila, Laxmi Nakarmi/Seoul and Jane Rickards/Taipei

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