ASEAN Urban Systems

Understanding Nuances to Address Complexities

Understanding Nuances to Address Complexities

Throughout history, people move for a variety of reasons; mainly seeking improved living conditions. This urge to move is quashed only when certain demands are met. Some choose to leave for better economic opportunities or other social factors such as access to healthcare and education; others choose to move because they simply want to be closer to their family. The rural-urban divide present in most societies till today stands as the primary impetus behind the prevailing trend of populations moving from their countryside to urban settings. This mass migration of populations (also known as urbanisation) creates continuous demand in the urban areas. 

Urban systems are, or need to be, designed well to address and support the needs of the growing urban population.

Today, 55% of the world’s population (4,349,304,763) lives in urban areas, and The World Bank estimates this proportion to increase to 68% by 2050. 

The enormous expansion of urban regions globally presents a variety of opportunities and challenges integral to any city – housing, transportation, water resource management, green environment, and energy. 

People Housing Transportation Water Resource Management Green Environment Energy Energy Housing

Water Resource Management

Green Environment




Do Cities Experience the Same Urbanisation?

Impacts of urbanisation can manifest differently and vary significantly across cities. Some cities have managed to cope well – maintaining good air quality, adequate housing, less urban sprawl; while others may have experienced structural and complex challenges – causing city developments to become unsustainable.

Should we then replicate these “successful” urban policies in entirety (which had helped cities achieve sustainable urbanisation) into the urban towns which “failed”? No, because each city has unique characteristics with varying functions, cultures and aspirations. 

Urban Systems - Why Are Nuances Required to Address Complexities?

Policies that are suited for New York’s urban development, may not be suited for Singapore, while policies that have yielded results in Singapore could be an impediment for Jakarta. There is no one size fits all!

Every city is a complex system of systems, and it requires a deeper unpacking of its intrinsic links and nuances to curate its own successful version of itself.  Complex systems often involve multifaceted, interconnected factors that require a deeper level of understanding to effectively navigate and resolve. When tackling an urban issue, urban leaders need to account for a lot of considerations to see effective outcomes in their urban policies. 

Besides city infrastructure requirements, population demographics, economic structure, geographical location, and cultural influences also play a big role in the city’s approaches to urban planning, public service delivery and community engagement. These nuances help urban policy makers navigate through inherent uncertainties, ambiguities, and contradictions present in complex issues with good contextual understanding, so that enough flexibility and adaptability can be weaved into the solutions and policies for the city to achieve effective and sustainable outcomes. This is especially so for a vastly diverse region like ASEAN who is rapidly urbanising. 

Where Does ASEAN Stand in This Urbanisation Wave?

ASEAN countries displayed different urbanisation velocity over time; some crossed the 50% urbanisation mark as early as the 1960s, while some still see no signs of convergence.

Urban and Rural Population Trends in ASEAN Countries

Select Country
Central Africa
East Africa
East Asia
Mexico and Central America
North Africa
South America
South Asia
Southern Africa
West Africa
Western Asia

As a region, ASEAN crossed its 50% urbanisation mark recently, placing itself at an important crossroad now amongst other developing economies. Analyses have projected 70 million more people to be living in the region’s urban areas by 2025. By the year 2040, urban regions in Southeast Asia are also expected to account for 60% of the world’s total population. This growth poses huge opportunities and a fair number of challenges for ASEAN city governments to grapple with. 

Urbanisation Levels in Developing Economies

Select Country
Brunei Darussalam

What Does This Mean for ASEAN and Its Future?

The region is urbanising quickly, and ASEAN cities need to be ready to meet the increasing urban demands.

Ultimately, not all ASEAN cities are the same and they will face different urban development pathways. To prepare for ASEAN’s future, it requires a deeper appreciation of its differences. ASEAN cities have vastly differing socio-economic attributes and cultural differences from one another, making the region an excellent case study to show how and why nuances are important when crafting urban policies.


ASEAN is culturally diverse, comprising hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, each with their own languages, customs, and traditions.


ASEAN is geographically diverse – its landscape consists of archipelagos and continental land masses with low plains and mountainous terrain.


ASEAN is politically diverse – with member states adopting a wide range of political systems.


ASEAN is also economically diverse, with all ten member states at varying stages of economic development.

A region’s urbanisation follows an S-shape development sequence with 4 different stages: Urbanisation, Sub-urbanisation, De-urbanisation, Re-urbanisation. How far a city or country moves in this sequence, or where it is positioned, is often dependent on a varied number of push and pull factors that affect the development, liveability, and sustainability of its urban areas.


Stage 1 – Population moves into urban settlements


Stage 2 – Urban sprawl starts to happen as city boundaries grow outwards and spread into its surrounding hinterland


Stage 3 – Population moves out of the urban area into commuter towns or rural areas


Stage 4 –Regeneration/ Redevelopment of urban area that brings people back into them

If the city core’s capacity can no longer support the demand brought by the increase in the urban population, we will start to see an outward growth of urban development (or what is commonly termed as an urban sprawl) which may spillover to surrounding villages and towns to form a larger urban agglomeration. Rapid and unplanned growth of cities can also place a significant strain on city resources, spurring counter-urbanisation trends to emerge. 

Considering relevant signposts collectively, a brief urbanisation spectrum of ASEAN economic cities can be painted.

Urban Insights Series — Future of ASEAN

The story of urbanisation in ASEAN is one of contrasts and complexities, shaped by a multitude of factors — economic growth, social dynamism, and environmental. It is a tale of cities swelling with ambition, and it is vital to explore the intricate interplay of macro and micro trends, providing valuable insights for a sustainable and prosperous urban future in the ASEAN region. In this Urban Insights series, MORROW Intelligence (MI)’s research explores the complexities and opportunities within urban systems across ASEAN countries and its cities to provide a more bespoke and appropriate lens against the urbanisation backdrop.

For any queries on potential collaboration, please reach out to us here or send an email to hello@morrowintel.sg.  

The Gap We See

ASEAN is heavily under-represented in most global indexes. In the 10 indexes surveyed, ASEAN Cities such as Bandar Seri Begawan, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Yangon seems to be excluded almost in entirety in most indexes.

City IndexOrganisationLatest YearTotal No. of CitiesNo. of IndicatorsBandar Seri Begawan, Brunei DarussalamPhnom Penh, CambodiaJakarta, IndonesiaVientiane, Lao PDRKuala Lumpur, MalaysiaYanggon, MyanmarManila, PhilippinesSingapore, SingaporeBangkok, ThailandHanoi, Vietnam
Innovation Cities Index2THINKNOW2022-20235001624572461633155145403
Happy City IndexInstitute of Quality of Life20232002415226190
Global Liveability IndexEconomist Intelligence (EIU)20231733013994129
IMD Smart City IndexIMD World Competitiveness Center202314139102891157100
Arcadis Sustainable CitiesArcadis202210051837193357285
Sustainable Cities IndexCorporate Knights2023701248
Urban Mobility
Readiness Index
Oliver Wyman Forum and University of California, Berkeley20236556494260645
Safe Cities IndexEconomist Intelligence (EIU)2021607646326051343
Global Power City IndexThe Institute for Urban Strategies (IUS)202348704541538
Resilient Cities IndexEconomist Intelligence (EIU)20232541224
Quality of Living City RankingMercer20232411122011481808622613529124167

Country level data and city level data are sometimes even used interchangeably. For example, Greater Bangkok statistics are often used to represent Thailand’s socio-economic situation. This comes with a risk of misrepresentation

Taking population density as an example, the population density of ASEAN economic cities are easily 50 times of its national average. Substituting country-level data to infer city-level impacts, or vice-versa will skew comparisons.

ASEAN is one of the most diverse regions in the world, and the cities have vastly differing socio-economic attributes and cultural differences from one another. For example, the standard deviation in average incomes among ASEAN countries is more than seven times that of EU member states.  Understanding ASEAN requires a more bespoke and dynamic approach. Ultimately, not all ASEAN cities are the same and they will face different urban development pathways. More focus and conversations need to be held to make sure important nuances are rightfully captured.

A Slight Peek into ASEAN’s Urbanisation

A region’s urban development can be split into four different stages: Urbanisation, Sub-urbanisation, De-urbanisation, Re-urbanisation. Where the city is positioned on the curve, is often dependent on a varied number of push and pull factors that affect the development, liveability, and sustainability of its urban areas. 

Based on current signposts, a brief urbanisation spectrum of ASEAN economic cities can be painted. 

Brunei – Bandar Seri Begawan
  • Population Density: 4,443 persons / km2
  • Brunei’s first Master Plan enacted in 1986 have already highlighted the need for increased polycentric growth of several village areas peripheral to the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) city area 
  • The city still poises a lot of opportunities of urban development and growth that has not been tapped on; Increasing foreign investment and opportunities for business & real estate show signs of further growth in the city.
Singapore – Singapore
  • Population Density: 8358 persons/km2
  • City Boundary: Singapore is a unique case on its own as the city has no hinterlands and rural areas. Similar to what the Brunei and Vietnam government has done, Singapore tries to make its internal township development a poly-centric one to spread out its population.
Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh
  • Population Density: 4481 person/km2
  • Migration: City continues to have a high in-migration rate of 25.4% (2021)
  • Nformal employment rate at 48% (2021) 
  • City Boundary: Development remains concentrated in the city centre and nearby residential areas, but interest in the suburbs is picking up. Government makes conscious effort to grow Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh at the same time for polycentric urbanization to happen.
  • City Traffic: Negative consequences because of rapid urbanization have been emerging

Lao PDR – Vientiane

  • Population Density: 209 persons/sqkm  
  • Development Potential: Only 11% of the land
    is urban currently,
    but 78% of its population is urban 
  • City Boundary: Though the urbanization level
    is not particularly
    high compared to the other ASEAN economic cities,
  • Vientiane has already displayed signs of urban sprawl – with a lack of dense housing, the city is physically spreading, mostly along improved highways, areas that have been cleared for private development and SEZs.
  • Migration: Almost half of the rural urban migrants within the Lao PDR moved into Vientiane City between 2005 and 2015
Cambodia – Phnom Penh
  • Population Density: 3,361 persons/ km2
  • Housing: 1 in 5 people in Phnom Penh live in an informal settlement.
  • City Traffic: Congestion on the streets of Phnom Penh – a result of the city’s growing population, rapid motorization, and over-strained infrastructure – costs the city an estimated US$6 million per month.
  • City Boundary: Phnom Penh has already shown signs of the urban sprawl, and developers are actively looking to develop and enact large scale real estate projects to build satellite cities in the peri-urban areas
  • The current eight peri-urban khans and outlying areas lack a comprehensive drainage and flood protection system and remain at great risk to more frequently occurring flooding
Thailand – Bangkok
  • Population Density: 3523.9 persons/km2 
  • City Traffic: Average time lost annually in traffic during rush hours was 108hr in 2023 (per 10km); Congestion levels have reached 62% on average. 
  • Housing: Informal settlements have proliferated on the city's outskirts and marginalized areas, becoming a defining feature of Bangkok’s urban landscape
  • City Boundary: Urban sprawl of Bangkok to its five adjacent provinces, which are developing at rapid rates, has been observed over the past years
Philippines – Manila
  • Population Density: 73920 psm
  • City Traffic: Average time lost annually in traffic during rush hours was 105hr in 2023 (per 10km). Congestion levels have reached 46% on average.
  • Housing: 1 in 4 people are currently residing in an informal settlement in Metro Manila, with no security of tenure
  • City Boundary: Peripheral areas such as the nearby provinces of Rizal, Cavite and Laguna are increasingly being developed, showing signs of sub-urbanization
  • Migration: Peripheral areas have been steadily displaying higher net migration rates.
  • Remote work emerged from the pandemic as a significant trend, which may lower the motivation for migration especially when seen as trade-offs against the negative implications of rapid urbanisation.
Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur
  • Population Density: 8235 persons/km2
  • City Traffic: Average time lost annually in traffic during rush hours was 81hr in 2023 (per 10km). Congestion levels have reached 43% on average.
  • City Boundary: Urban sprawl is apparent in the peripheral areas of Kuala Lumpur especially during the process of rapid urbanization
  • Migration: signs of counter-urbanization in KL is observed through negative net migration rates – KL is the highest migrant sending state in the country 
  • Increasingly, Malaysians who are working in KL would rather stay and purchase homes in the suburbs or in neighbouring cities such as Klang/ Selangor, and only commute into KL everyday 
Indonesia – Jakarta
  • Population Density: 16,158 persons/km2
  • Housing: There are more than five million slum dwellers in Greater Jakarta alone, and 32% of slum houses in Jakarta have less than 7sqm of space per person.
  • City Traffic: Average time lost annually in traffic during rush hours was 117hr in 2023 (per 10km). Congestion levels have reached 53% on average.
  • City Boundary: Rapid urban expansion that started in the mid-1990s has led to urban sprawl and the emergence of suburbanization with gated communities in the outskirts of DKI Jakarta. 
  • Migration: Net migration has been declining and negative since the 1990s, into surrounding areas such as West Java, which leads to counter-urbanisation.
  • Government is moving its capital due to issues of overcrowding

What is Lying Ahead for ASEAN Cities?

While its economy triples in size, the region will also see the rise of over 200 small secondary cities in the next 30 years, and an 80% increase in cities’ energy demand by 2040. Urbanisation in ASEAN is taking place rapidly across the urban-rural continuum, from the smallest and most remote communities to burgeoning megacities. ASEAN urban leaders need to be well-equipped to capture emerging policy opportunities that lies in the current urbanisation trajectory, to shape the city’s bespoke urban development pathway. 

In this Urban Insights Series, we explore the intricate interplay of macro and micro trends in each urban system pillar and analyse the causes and effects of urban challenges against potential outcomes of policy interventions, while accounting for its nuances. We start off with one of the core urban systems: Housing

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