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Cities in Southeast Asia have expanded rapidly and the urban population has doubled over the past 25 years. In   2013, nearly 300 million of ASEAN’s populations lived in cities, of which 84 million lived in cities with over  one million inhabitants. In the next fifteen years, ASEAN’s urban areas are expected to have to  accommodate another 100 million people. Despite numerous planning challenges, well-managed cities and  other human settlements (i.e. towns, villages, slums, etc.) can be benchmarks for innovation and ingenuity  and key drivers of sustainable development. 


These trends put high pressure on ASEAN Member States particularly on their urban planning on infrastructure and other public services, including green areas, farm land and public space for recreation, to make them environmentally sustainable and liveable. Accommodating such expansions in planned and  coordinated urban systems that increase quality of life of urban citizens is a key challenge that requires  strong policy coordination. People living in urban areas are also increasingly at risk to natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, and the impacts of climate change. Therefore, developing climate resilient  and low carbon cities that support greenhouse gas reduction and climate resiliency is another key challenge. 


Likewise, managing solid waste is often problematic in densely populated areas. In fact, in many developing  regions, less than half of solid waste is safely disposed of. As per capita waste generation continues to rise,  the collection and safe disposal of solid waste will continue to require serious attention. Urban air, land and  water pollution are also a challenge in cities, causing illness and millions of premature deaths annually.


It is important to ensure that cities and urban areas in ASEAN are environmentally sustainable and climate  resilient, and that they meet the social and economic needs of the people. As stipulated in the ASCC  Blueprint 2025, ASEAN has committed itself to supporting environmentally sustainable cities, in particular,  enhancing participatory and integrated approaches in urban planning and management for sustainable  urbanisation towards a clean and green ASEAN and promoting coordination among relevant sectors to  provide access to clean land, green public space, clean air, clean and safe water, and sanitation. Success  of developing environmentally sustainable cities in ASEAN will also contribute to the achievement of the  United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities)  which promotes the need to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable at a global level.


ASPEN provides a forward-looking plan for the next 10 years to promote cooperation and joint actions across ASEAN Member States that would allow for addressing key challenges on planning and developing  environmentally sustainable and climate resilient cities. Efforts under this Strategic Priority will focus on two  programmatic areas: (i) sustainable urban planning, development, and implementation, and (ii) climate  resilient and low carbon cities. 




1. The ASEAN Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AIESC)

The ASEAN Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AIESC), which was endorsed by the ASEAN  Environment Ministers in 2005, serves to assist ASEAN cities to pursue environmental sustainability. AIESC supports mainly small and rapidly-growing cities in regional activities that are based on the Environmentally  Sustainable Cities (ESC) Key Indicators for clean air, clean land, and clean water. To recognise the efforts  and identify best practices in cities towards environmental sustainability, ASEAN initiated the ASEAN  Environmentally Sustainable City (ESC) Award programme and Certificates of Recognition on Clean Air,  Clean Water and Clean Land. The ESC Award aims to encourage urban environmental sustainability by  recognising exemplary efforts and sharing best indigenous practices to keep cities clean, green, and  liveable.



2. ASEAN ESC Model Cities Programme

The ASEAN ESC Model Cities Programme is a regional initiative aimed at promoting the development of  Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) across ASEAN Member States. It provides seed funding,  technical assistance and other forms of support to raise local capacity for implementing innovative and  voluntary bottom-up initiatives, as well as to strengthen national ESC frameworks and actions that facilitate  the replication and scaling up of good practices and policies within and across countries. It also promotes  city-to-city collaboration and provides a broad and inclusive platform matching ASEAN cities with interested  resource partners. This programme has been realised with support from the Japan-ASEAN Integration  Fund (JAIF). 



3. High Level Seminar on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (HLS-ESC)

The High Level Seminar on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (HLS-ESC) has been organised annually  since 2010 to promote information exchange and foster concrete collaborative actions on Environmentally  Sustainable Cities among East Asia Summit (EAS) countries. The Seminars typically showcase policies  and legal frameworks as well as practical projects on ESC for the consideration of EAS Environment  Ministers. 



4. Clean Air for Smaller Cities Project

The Clean Air for Smaller Cities Project, with funding from the Government of the Federal Republic of  Germany, supported small and medium-sized cities across 8 ASEAN Member States in the development  and implementation of Clean Air Plans (CAPs), with the aim of improving air quality and supporting  sustainable urban development. The Project has been able to support the implementation of ten emission  inventories, development of six clean air plans and delivery of five training courses through 35 training sessions. 



5. CityLinks Pilot Partnership

ASEAN is also supporting the CityLinks Pilot Partnership, an 18-month technical exchange programme focusing on strengthening urban climate resilience and adaptation in selected cities across ASEAN Member  States. The programme is funded by USAID, and implemented by the International City/County  Management Association (ICMA) and Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC). The CityLinks Pilot  Partnership aims to define a structured and strategic approach to city-to-city learning on environmental  sustainability in line with ASEAN goals and builds on the initial success of the ASEAN Environmentally  Sustainable Cities Model Cities Programme (MCP). ASEAN cities will become part of an existing online  knowledge network to connect practitioners and promote sustained technical exchanges.




Over the next 10 years, the main objectives of the AWGESC Action Plan are: 

  1. To ensure that cities and urban areas in ASEAN are environmentally sustainable, while meeting the  social and economic needs of the people.  

  2. To promote sustainable urbanisation and climate resilient cities in ASEAN towards a clean and green  ASEAN.  


Means of Implementation


ASEAN Working Group on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (AWGESC) will be the main responsible  body for the implementation of the programmes and activities of this Strategic Priority Area. Other relevant  sectoral bodies and/or partners will be consulted for cross-sectoral and cross-pillar activities. 


The AWGESC will oversee the planning, technical and implementation issues under this Strategic Priority,  while the ASEAN Environment Ministers and the ASEAN Senior Officials on Environment will provide policy  and strategic guidance for its work. Lead countries of each programme/activity under the strategic priority  are expected to develop proposal of detailed implementation workplan, implement the activity in  coordination with AMS and ASEC, and provide regular progress updates to AWGESC.


Potential Partners and Stakeholders


The activities under this Strategic Priority could be implemented through partnerships and regional  collaborations with organisations working on environmentally sustainable and climate resilient cities and  urban development. Potential partners or platforms include United Nations Development Programme  (UNDP), United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), European  Union, International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and Institute for Sustainable  Communities. 


Activities to support planning, capacity building and knowledge exchange in ASEAN could also be  implemented through cooperation and support from Dialogue/Development partners, for example, Japan,  United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale  Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), China and India.



Credit: ASEAN Foundation Photo Competition - Singapore New Vision: City in a Garden (2021)