This paper was written for the ASEAN Work Life Balance Conference 2016

Living in cities has been the aspiration of many. But despite the economic opportunities that open up, there is a price to pay for an urban lifestyle. Cities have become synonymous with crowded living, traffic congestion, insufficient affordable housing and social disparity. In short, cities are reaching their limits.

Take infrastructure.

Utilities that were created 50 years ago can no longer serve the current population. Roads are no longer able to bear the weight of the increased vehicle volume; energy and water systems require urgent maintenance; and waste management is stretched by exorbitant consumer trends.

The uneven distribution of wealth in cities is another problem. This has created urban poverty, even in the most affluent of cities. The tension, particularly in middle class societies, is exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing, rising food and necessity prices, and expensive healthcare and education costs. In cases where public security is inefficient, petty crimes start to become widespread. Ageing populations in cities can add to the challenge as housing and healthcare needs for the elderly have to be provided. Mobility among the aged is also an issue as accessibility to public spaces and transport systems cannot be taken for granted.

Climate change also affects us. This is not a new phenomenon as shifts in weather patterns have historically occurred with ice ages and the like. What differs today is the pace and scale of change. Greenhouse gas emissions tied to the burning of fossil fuels have risen rapidly over the past three decades with China overtaking developed nations like the US to become the largest emitter in the world. The original Kyoto talks in 1995 attempted to set targets for developed and developing countries to avoid increases in carbon levels but these have made little headway even up to the recent discussions in Paris late 2015. The latest declared commitments by nations show that there is still much to do.

At city level, climate change spells natural disaster. Flooding, heatwaves and rising sea levels mean that cities, especially those on the coastlines are at risk. Communities face disruptions and discomfort and vulnerable sectors of society such as slum dwellers suffer the most during flooding or severe weather storms.

Places belong to people

So with all these problems, how do we improve cities? How can we inject a more positive attitude to stressed-out citizens?

Firstly, a place to live must be affordable. House ownership or rental must be accessible to the majority of the population. Financing models of the future may allow for a flexible hybrid of rental and purchase  to fulfil housing needs at an accessible level depending on income and life stages while still creating the sense of owning a home.

The feeling of connection is important and cities should be redesigned to reduce the need for more highways that isolate communities, towards incorporating carbon-friendly mobility modes such as walking and cycling to link them up. We are still reticent about surrendering our dependence on motor vehicles, but planners of the future should be looking at how infrastructure for driverless cars, carpooling and transport-on-demand can be developed. This will trigger new ways of thinking around user-centric mobility and connecting people and places.

With connection, people will acquire a sense of belonging. This is more than just making people feel good about where they live. A strong connection to places means that people will be less likely to turn to vandalism as they will respect public assets. Coupled with a vibrant economy and community spirit, a sense of belonging becomes a form of self-regulation which in turn reinforces public security and makes policing much easier.

Uniqueness of place helps draw outsiders to a city where they will invest their time and money. This is not to support the notion that every city needs a grand monument to achieve uniqueness. Rather, a simple symbolic icon like a highly acclaimed college, an interesting museum or even a successful sports team would be sufficient to instill pride and strengthen local culture.

An inclusive society is one that can accommodate intergenerational communities, where families can thrive and grow. Ageing in place will become more prominent in the near future with the rise of greying populations. Accessibility to elderly healthcare and daycare facilities discretely blended with schools and youth centers is a feature of integrated communities. There is an opportunity today to design adaptable and affordable housing to suit the needs of different generations.

A balancing act

Ultimately, we need to appreciate that resources are finite and being stewards of the environment means that we have to use them wisely. Systems to build a ‘circular economy’ to re-use waste, to recycle water and to produce energy from renewable sources are not new – what needs attention is the need to shift public behaviour to respect resources. Policies are important to shape such attitudes. City authorities need to work with manufacturers to wean the population away from one-trip items to deposit schemes whereby products are reused as much as possible and discarded only as a last resort.

Lastly, a sign of healthy communities is a balance between work and quality of life. By the very fact that people have chosen an urban lifestyle means that they want to succeed as entrepreneurs or be part of a thriving workforce. But unhappy workplaces make for unhappy workers. In addition, if the quality of life is low, this compounds the unhappiness.

Getting the balance right between economic performance and enjoying life is key. Sitting in traffic commuting to work or dealing with debilitating politics or corruption are examples that beset the typical citizen. Work life balance involves many stakeholders – governments to understand that happy societies are ones that make cities prosper; employers to understand that workforces can be more productive when they are inspired; and employees to make life choices to enjoy quality of life while leading fulfilling careers. A balanced city is a healthy city. But there is a lot of work to do to get there.

Making cities affordable, connected, unique, inclusive and resource-conscious will set the scene for work-life balance, improved way of life and a happier society.

(The views in this article are solely that of the author)

Dr. Thomas Tang