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A devil of a job in the City of Angels

Cover Story
How to Make Cities Work

Great metropolises have to learn to live with the Crisis - and to meet the demands of their citizens

By Choong Tet Sieu

Heard the one about the happy taxpayer? It happened in the Philippines, where a contented citizen wrote to the Manila Bulletin newspaper, declaring: "It's now a pleasure to pay taxes." What brought on this odd state of euphoria was a simple project initiated by Joselito Atienza, the new mayor of Manila - one of the 11 cities that make up Metro Manila. Out of the warren of offices in his administration building, Atienza created a spacious, well-lit Taxpayers' Lounge, where his constituents can wait in air-conditioned comfort to pay their dues.

Gone were interminable waits and unruly queues in hot, crowded rooms - conditions that prompted the letter-writer to describe previous trips to City Hall as "dread" experiences. Atienza says one of the philosophies that drove him when he took up office four months ago was to "treat taxpayers well since they are the ones paying for the services." And he has told city employees that they too had better recognize this fact.

In Tokyo, a baker has been making a similar point, but from the other side of the payment counter. Goto Yuichi, 49, is engaged in a crusade to keep the metropolitan government honest. Battling waste and the misuse of public funds can be exhausting, tedious even. But Goto has persevered - and, without the help of a lawyer, he has won every one of the 50 cases he has taken on. The enemy, he says, is not individual officials but downright bad bureaucracy. His ultimate goal: to reform the way City Hall operates so that its actions are transparent. "This is for civil justice," he proclaims. "It's the duty of every citizen." Once a loner, Goto has now inspired other activists in Tokyo and elsewhere.

Cities are enormously complex hives of human activity. Running them can sometimes be as difficult as taking charge of a whole nation - even more so at a time of economic crisis, when huge migrations from the countryside can overload public services just when budgets are drying up. What to do when hospitals can no longer afford drugs, transport services collapse for lack of spare parts and once-peaceable citizens turn to crime to feed their families?

Size counts too. Compare Singapore with Seoul. One is a tidy community of 3.1 million equipped with immigration officers to keep the unwanted outside the city gates. The other has an official population of 11 million - 25 million if you count the surrounding commuter towns. It is home to more people than Malaysia.

Seoul doesn't suffer greatly from rural migrants, but the Crisis has driven up unemployment (7.6%), seriously affecting the quality of life. This helps explain why the South Korean capital slides in this year's Asiaweek rankings from joint-6th position to 14th, which it shares with Cebu, Kaohsiung, Metro Manila and Pusan. Taipei moves up from 10th to 5th, boosted by Taiwan's still-robust economy and the determined efforts of mayor Chen Shui-bian to improve governance and make the city a more pleasant place to live. China's relatively unscathed economy helped lift Beijing from 13th to 10th, just behind Kuala Lumpur, but its chronic air-pollution problem will have to be mastered. So will City Hall corruption - the enemy of efficient government and public goodwill.

As the millennium approaches, the managers of Asia's cities face a special dilemma. They have to learn to grapple with the effects of the Crisis while meeting the expectations of communities that are becoming more informed about the world - through better education, experiences abroad and, recently, the Internet. People want access to jobs, but they also expect good sanitation, safe streets and an honest and competent City Hall. Good governance has become everyone's concern. Without it, you have . . . well, you have Delhi (31st this year, up from 37th, mainly because of India's relatively sheltered economy).

Laid out partly by British architect Edwin Lutyens, New Delhi was once a garden city, a gracious host to the Asian Games and a not-to-be missed destination for any tourist hoping to catch the flavor of the "exotic" East. Now it is an urban nightmare - the world's fourth-most-polluted city (measured by suspended particles), with traffic jams from morning to night and the highest crime rate in India. More than a third of its 13 million people live in unsanitary slums.

Yet the problem is not necessarily a lack of funds. Says Kiran Bedi, a former senior aide in the lieutenant-governor's office: "Delhi is very pampered, so much money is pumped into it. But dishonest functioning and indifferent administration have rendered it unmanageable." The result is a city as unloved as it is unlovely.

So how can a chaotic metropolis be overhauled to meet the needs of its people? Specialists such as Akhtar Badshah of the U.S.-based Asia Pacific Cities Forum (APCF) argue that the answer is a city government that is participatory, transparent and accountable. B.S. Kusbiantoro, professor of urban studies at the Institute of Technology in Bandung, Indonesia, talks of the need for what he terms "PPCP" - a public-private-community partnership. Attitudes and procedures have to be changed to let this happen, he says. And transparency has to be backed up by laws that have genuine bite.

Continued on Page 2

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