The challenge of transforming our societies may lie in tackling complex questions which pit ecological protection against social justice, or vice versa. On the other hand, there may also be synergistic solutions where progress in environmental protection is also accompanied by social justice – these are the social-ecological transformations that cities should strive for. We therefore use the term ‘social-ecological transformation’ to refer to societal processes of change that address social and ecological issues alongside each other, rather than in opposition to each other. Another requisite for social-ecological transformation is the participation of all citizens, including those most often excluded in decision-making processes, such as slum dwellers, youth, women and girls.

We explore such synergies in this report, focussing on three sectors that are crucial in driving these social-ecological transformations in urban settings, namely, built environment, transport and the public participation sectors. For instance, in the built environment sector, this means instituting energy efficiency into all new construction as this is more cost-effective than retrofitting existing buildings. It means ensuring that those living in informal settlements benefit from access to affordable and secure housing that integrates climate adaptation and energy efficiencies, but also recognises that wealthier population groups are far greater contributors to emissions and their housing should be built to minimise energy consumption too. It also requires considering opportunities for implementing nature-based solutions which can offer co-benefits for climate change mitigation and adaptation, rather than relying solely on concrete infrastructure.

The current pandemic, has, at great social and economic cost, also presented opportunities for policymakers, industries and individuals to rethink unsustainable patterns of consumption and unequal distribution of development. It has highlighted the inequalities and injustices rampant in Asian cities, from deficient migrant housing conditions to misappropriation of the crisis to forestall participatory planning processes. It is time for initiatives towards green infrastructure or sustainable development in cities to step beyond a short-term, project-based approach towards long-term, structural shifts for social-ecological change. We explore what this means for future urban development in the region, highlighting the opportunities, challenges and the way forward for cities of Asia.