Photo of Bangkok’s skytrain, from Shutterstock by Pakorn Amonstian.

Urban growth is rapidly advancing in Southeast Asia, and this trend will have profound environmental impacts on the region and the world in the coming decades. Nearly half of the world’s urban expansion through 2030 will take place in Asia (Seto et al., 2012a), with China and Southeast Asian countries accounting for 16 percent of the anticipated growth. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) estimates that, in 2050, two-thirds of SEA’s people will be urban-dwellers, up from half in 2020. The SEA countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam have experienced nearly 5 percent annual growths in urban population, as these countries have undergone major agrarian to urban shifts (Schneider et al., 2016). Assessing Southeast Asia’s anticipated urban expansion to determine the drivers of this growth is integral to create informed urban sustainability policies and planning processes.

Along with rapid urban growth, SEA has experienced a surge in cross-border trade and investment – bilateral trade between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased from $8 billion in market value in 1991 to $472 billion in 2015, and the two sides have set a target of $1 trillion in trade by 2020. There is evidence that economic globalization has local land-use impacts. Urban population growth and agricultural product exports, for instance, are found to be associated with tropical deforestation – an example of the interacting forces driving land-use change at local, regional, and global scales (Lambin and Meyfroidt, 2011). Major overseas investment projects like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $5 trillion development initiative, seek inject billions of dollars of foreign direct investment into Southeast Asian countries, with large, yet unknown, impacts on urban expansion and other land-use changes in the region. These processes, known as urban land teleconnections (Seto et al., 2012b) , have lasting impacts on land use and land-use change in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas; for instance, when new urban areas are built, increased demand for raw materials s may lead to land-use change in areas entirely remote from and unlike the city being constructed (Seto et al., 2012b; Guneralp et al., 2013).

PI Hsu received a Humanities and Social Science Seed Fund grant to explore initial questions related to the BRI’s impact on land-use and urban expansion in Southeast Asia. Specific goals include: 1) to characterize urban land use change as a result of BRI; 2) to characterize land use change for resource extraction to support urban expansion and BRI; 3) to understand the role of international capital as a driver of urban infrastructure development and land use change, both urban and agrarian; 4) to develop a better understanding of the complex drivers of land use beyond population and GDP growth to include cross-border migration and capital flows.  


Güneralp, Burak, et al. “Evidence of Urban Land Teleconnections and Impacts on Hinterlands.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, vol. 5, no. 5, 2013, pp. 445–451., doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2013.08.003.

Lambin, E. F., & Meyfroidt, P. (2011). Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(9), 3465-3472.

Schneider, A., Mertes, C. M., Tatem, A. J., Tan, B., Sulla-Menashe, D., Graves, S. J., … & Schelly, I. H. (2015). A new urban landscape in East–Southeast Asia, 2000–2010. Environmental Research Letters, 10(3), 034002.

Seto, K. C., et al. “Global Forecasts of Urban Expansion to 2030 and Direct Impacts on Biodiversity and Carbon Pools.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 40, 2012a, pp. 16083–16088., doi:10.1073/pnas.1211658109.

Seto, K. C., et al. “Urban Land Teleconnections and Sustainability.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, no. 20, Jan. 2012b, pp. 7687–7692., doi:10.1073/pnas.1117622109.