Introducing metacities, mega-regions, smart cities, instant cities, technoscapes and other new types of settlement growth
The world is experiencing urban growth on an unprecedented scale. For the first time in human history, people living in towns and cities outnumber those in rural areas.
An entire new vocabulary – comprising words like megacity, metacity and megaregion – is needed to describe the enormous transformations underway, especially in the emerging economies of India and China. Africa is also predicted to experience an enormous fresh wave of urbanisation in coming decades.
This article examines the new characteristics of 21st Century urban growth and analyses the accompanying environmental and social challenges.
Megacities and more
Making city growth sustainable
The global growth of ‘two-speed’ cities
Exam practice zone
Many newspapers have been reporting on the incredible new era of city-building currently underway. What are the key facts about this latest era of urban growth? Which expert terms are writers using to describe incredible new 21st Century settlements?
Since 2007, town-dwellers have outnumbered country-dwellers. Given that the world’s population is currently more than 6.8 billion, the number living in urban areas has now reached 3.5 billion. Of the additional 2.2 billion people that will be alive by 2050, the majority will be born in large cities. By mid-century, over 70% of the world will therefore be urban dwellers; only 14% of people in rich countries will live outside cities, and 33% of people in poor countries. (Guardian, 22 March 2010).
The world’s largest ten cities will soon boast a population of 20m or more: “This is a new breed of city – the metacity. Tokyo can already be classed as a metacity, while eight other emerging markets agglomerations – Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, Beijing and Karachi, all in Asia; São Paulo and Mexico City in South America; and Lagos in Africa – are heading in the same direction.” (Financial Times, 06 April 2010).
What is the global geography of the new urban growth? Trends vary from region to region, as the table below shows:
China & India
India’s total urban population is now 30% (of 1.2 billion people) and Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are all major megacities. China’s percentage is 43% (of 1.3 billion people). Three major megacity clusters exist in China’s Yangtze River Delta (including Shanghai), Pearl River Delta (including Shenzhen, which used to be just a fishing village) and the Bohai Sea rim (including Beijing). There are also 60 smaller Chinese cities with populations greater than one million and by 2025, according to one estimate, there will be more than 220 Chinese cities with more than a million people each. Both China and India are currently building literally hundreds of instant cities from scratch. The Chinese government has pledged to build 400 new cities between 2000 and 2020 (this ambition was announced in 2001 by China’s State Minister of Civil Affairs, Doje Cering). India and China both also have plans to “leap-frog” a stage of urban development and build brand-new smart cities and eco-cities.
With less strict planning controls than the UK, growth of edge cities continues to be a hallmark of the US urban environment, notably so along the west coast from California to Seattle. Cities like Los Angeles grew 45% in numbers between 1975-1990, but tripled their surface area at the same time. “Southern California, from Los Angeles to San Diego, has become a vast, dispersed city of smeared suburbs, strip developments and gentrified but sparsely inhabited downtowns. It bursts across the Mexican border into Tijuana, which has become, in effect, its transnational suburb.” (Financial Times, 06 April 2010). Technology and the ability to work from home has more recently encouraged a dispersal of population away from traditional core areas and into lower-ranked cities within urban hierarchies. For instance, Wenatchee is a fast-growing city near Seattle where people work from home 3 days a week but commute 300 km to Seattle for two days per week of “face time” with colleagues. The fastest-growing urban areas in the USA are dispersed like this (Financial Times, 07 September 2010).
Cities such as Dubai or Riyadh have become amazing technoscapes (the world’s tallest building is the 828-metre tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai). These cities’ carbon footprint is large due to the demand for air conditioning driven by an arid climate. Fears of water security are a big issue that may threaten the long-term sustainability or urban growth in this region. 30% of the world’s entire desalinisation capacity is already found in UAE (Dubai) and Saudi Arabia where the expensively-produced freshwater product meets growing demand from major urban populations. But for inland cities like Sana’a in Yemen (population: 2 million), distance from the sea makes this an expensive option and future growth could slow as a result.
Continued periurban growth and reliance on the informal sector remains a hallmark of African megacity and smaller city growth. Infrastructure in existing cities is often lacking; but hurriedly-constructed overhead cabling and railways can now be seen in richer cities along the west Africa urban coastal corridor. This 600 km-long urban area runs through Nigeria, Benin, Togo and Ghana. The megacity of Lagos and other major cities such as Ibadan, Accra and Porto-Novo are all becoming regional economic hubs.
Charting the growth of global mega-regions
According to the UN (quoted in the Guardian, 22 March 2010) the biggest urban mega-regions are:
Hong Kong-Shenhzen-Guangzhou, China This region is home to about 120 million people.
Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe, Japan This region is expected to grow to 60 million people by 2015.
Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo region, Brazil 43 million Brazilians already live here.
To put all of this in perspective, in 1970 there were just three megacities, London, New York and Tokyo (each with populations of more than 8 million – which used to be the definition of a megacity). But by the start of 2010, “Tokyo was top of the list of the world’s largest cities, New York was only just scraping into the top 10, and London had dropped off the bottom. New York will join it in megacity oblivion in less than a decade and, with the exception of Tokyo, every other megacity will be in what is referred to as the ‘global south’” (Financial Times, 06 April 2010).
Can breakneck-speed urbanisation be reconciled with the need to meet wider 21st Century sustainable development and low-carbon agendas?
There are two possible reasons for responding positively to this question.
Urbanisation may be the best solution to ecological problems given humanity’s long-term goal of “make poverty history”. If the world’s 7 billion people are to eventually all become powered-up with access to electricity, health and education services, then ‘compact living’ in cities may be preferable to dispersed growth patterns (in terms of overall levels of energy and natural resource consumption)
Dispersed populations in rural areas of the developed world tend to be highly reliant upon personal transport and must regularly travel significant distances to buy food, goods or to use services such as schools and hospitals. In urban areas, proportionately more people make use of public transport and do not own cars through choice. In turn, the per capita carbon footprint of delivery services including the daily post is typically higher in rural areas.
As Edwin Heathcote argues (Financial Times, 07 September 2010), “So can a city ever be green? I would argue that it can. In fact the city is a very efficient way of living. Proximity to work, services, leisure and family all make for a relative greenness.”
“Green” management strategies can be introduced to all urban areas (though it is often harder to retro-fit green technology to older cities than it is to apply green thinking at the planning stages of brand new settlements such as eco-cities).
The table below details a range of interesting initiatives that have recently been reported on in newspapers – as well as follow-up links for student research.
The world’s largest city by population size, Tokyo has suffered from an extreme urban heat island effect. As a result, many new building developments are covered with shrubs or grass (the vegetation stops heat from penetrating into the urban fabric, thereby lowering urban air temperatures). The Roppongi Hills multiplex cinema complex is covered with a 1,300 square metre spread of grasses, trees and shrubs.
Some new skyscrapers are being designed with a sustainability agenda in mind. One new $200m, 320-metre tower design can store enough rainwater to service the complex for 12 days, processes its own waste, and features a 215-metre atrium that provides natural ventilation for the building. (Financial Times, 03 October)
The Augustenborg district is famous for its roof gardens which improve insulation and reduce storm run-off water.
Masdar City, Abu Dhabi
Masdar is a planned eco-city with intelligent design of buildings, amenities, public transport systems, cycle-ways, water utilities and recycling facilities that can contribute to sustainability goals such as carbon-neutral, zero-waste living. For instance, deliberately narrow street design promotes shady conditions and encourages cycling at ground level.
Carbon controls have undoubtedly become the most important green issue for city managers in recent years. In developed countries such as the UK and the USA there is even a competitive spirit on display, as rival settlements may attempt to position themselves as the number-one carbon-neutral place in their region.
During the current global economic turndown, managers of urban areas in the UK have felt a pressing need to project a city image that is both entrepreneurial and resilient – in order to try and attract new investment. Speaking at the recent 2010 annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), Aidan White and Andrew Jonas suggested that demonstrating an ability to meet tough carbon-neutral targets has become an important facet of urban management. It has become an important part of the “urban representational regime” that helps attract new talent and money.
Good case studies of developed world cities with ambitious carbon-neutral plans include:
Chicago Climate Action Plan
Producing more food locally within urban areas limits the volume of produce that needs to be transported from the city’s sphere of influence, thereby lowering carbon emissions. In developing world cities, small-scale urban agriculture (either on vacant city sites or in peri-urban fringe areas) often remains fundamental in helping some families meet their own food needs; until relatively recently it was very important in UK cities too, with many families tending allotments or back gardens where vegetables were grown (this was especially important during the period of rationing that ended in 1954).
In recent decades, open space in developed world cities has more usually been associated with post-productive leisure uses; many households have paved over their gardens or covered them with decorative decking. “Urban agriculture” had become something of an oxymoron for developed cities – until now.
Food production is now back on the agenda for developed world urban areas as it helps meet:
sustainable development goals (reducing a city’s ecological footprint)
food security concerns (reducing import dependency)
flood risk worries (by increasing interception storage areas).
One well-known urban food production project is the edible schoolyard project introduced at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, California. The garden used to be a vacant parking lot; more than a decade later, it is a thriving acre of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers. You can find out more about this innovative project at on their website.
On a more ambitious scale, there is growing interest in the potential of vertical farms – high-tech high-rise buildings in cities that could soon be used to grow food, employing:
Hydroponics (soil-less crop growing)
Aeroponics (air and mist-based crop growing)
Aquaponics (a system of agriculture involving the simultaneous cultivation of plants and aquatic animals)
Columbia University’s Professor Dickson Despommier has led the way in thinking about vertical farming and you can find out more about this on his website.
Globalisation is sometimes criticised for bringing “two-speed” growth to places – describing a trend where “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (in relative, if not absolute terms). Looking around the world at hot-spots for new urban growth, two-speed growth does appear clearly on display in many of the megacities that also function as major global hubs. Striking views of luxury skyscrapers back-to-back with ramshackle slums can be seen in all continents of the global south.
“The emerging megacities – from Mumbai to São Paulo – accommodate extreme asymmetries of wealth. In these conditions, the wealthy begin to fear while the poor become envious. The result is ghettoised cities in which walls and gates become the norm as communities, often in close physical proximity, vie to exclude the other.” (Financial Times, 06 April 2010)
Mumbai is a particularly interesting and useful example. The 450-metre 117-storey World One tower that is currently planned for midtown Mumbai will have apartments that sell for US$10 million. It is the most ambitious development in a new wave of super-tall apartments springing up around Mumbai (Financial Times, 03 October 2010). Average building size for new luxury developments has doubled from 25 to 50 floors in some prized areas. These new super-tall gated developments tower above the slums that are home to some of India’s poorest people.
Many of the Mumbai slums are even more densely populated than they used to be, following a policy of slum clearance to make room for new developments as part of the £20 billion development programme known as Vision Mumbai. The informal settlement of Bhimchaya, for instance, was levelled by bulldozers back in 2005, along with many other slum areas, leaving as many as 350,000 people temporarily homeless. You can find out more about Vision Mumbai on the website.
In Mumbai (previously known as Bombay), some people now criticise the emergence of a two-speed division between “Bombay High” and “Bombay Low” lifestyles. “Most of the people I know in Bombay High have no interaction with Bombay Low, except that they look down upon them from a great height, like barons in medieval fortresses,” Indian novelist Suketa Mehta told the Financial Times (03 October 2010).
This unequal and socially polarised picture is repeated around the world, from Lagos to Jakarta. In a recent sample survey of world cities reported on by the Guardian (22 March 2010), the United Nations found that:
The most unequal cities are in South Africa (Johannesburg is ranked as the least equal in the world by the UN).
Latin American, Asian and African cities are generally more equal, but mainly because they are so uniformly poor, with a high level of slums and little sanitation (thus some of the most the most egalitarian cities are found to be Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh).
Due to its extreme inequality of wealth distribution, the USA emerges as one of the most unequal societies, with cities like New York, Chicago and Washington ranked as less equal than Managua in Nicaragua.
Rising wealth amongst the middle-classes in the major emerging economies of Brazil, China and India means that inequality is rising in these societies; and their cities are becoming more divided too.
UN report: World's biggest cities merging into 'mega-regions' Guardian 22 March 2010
From megacity to metacity, Financial Times 06 April 2010
Financial Times Special Report: The Future of Cities - Save our cities from themselves, 07 September 2010
Beating the Heat in the World's Big Cities : Feature Articles, NASA Earth Observatory
Mumbai property rises above slums, Financial Times 03 October 2010
Augustenborg: Green roofs and storm water channels
The Edible Schoolyard
Urban agriculture: Multi-storey farms in a city centre near you, Financial Times 01 October 2010
Are vertical farms the future of urban food? Guardian 29 July 2010
Vertical farm design
Wikipedia: List of tallest buildings in India
India's Ambani hosts party for 'world's priciest home', BBC 27 November 2010
United Nations biannual State of World Cities report
“Examine the consequences of rapid urban growth.” (25 marks)
Many A Level students could face a compulsory or popular optional exam question focused on the consequences of rapid urbanisation. What themes do we expect an A-grade answer to cover?
We can expect good case studies of shanty towns. Be careful to revise thoroughly: make sure you have good details for your case studies (be specific about the numbers of people that live there, the names of the diseases than threaten residents, average per capita incomes and so forth).
Better answers may move beyond basic assertions about pollution and generalised social problems to focus on a sustainability agenda that is geographically specific (e.g. water shortages and water security fears for Middle Eastern cities and megacities).
Good responses could examine the way in which income and housing inequalities may increase over time as a result of rising wealth amongst the new middle-classes in emerging economies. As a result, urban inequalities in megacities such as Mumbai are seen to be on the rise as the city strengthens its functional role as a major global hub.
The very best answers might question whose perspective we are answering the question from and over what timescale. When viewing the development of a nation as a whole, informal housing / ‘shanty towns’ are a necessary aspect of early urban growth in poor nations that lack the resources to properly house everyone. These residential areas house a large labour force that can attract foreign Transnational Companies. This may lead, in time, to improved conditions as the nation industrialises (this has happened in parts of Rio and Sao Paulo’s favelas). Equally, if a country lacks the resources for public housing projects then what other options exist? The alternative that city residents should return to the countryside seems entirely unrealistic.
There is also an interesting “positive” ecological argument to consider – namely that it is better for the planet to concentrate economic activities in urban areas as per capita carbon emissions can be reduced when more people can walk or cycle to work.
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, who is a senior A-level and IB diploma examiner
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