The Rise of the Megacity

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Nov. 5 2011 7:46 AM

The Rise of the Megacity

Jakarta, Lagos, and Sao Paolo, and other massive population centers are changing the way we think about cities.

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McKinsey counts one megacity in Europe (London), three in Africa (Kinshasa, Lagos and Cairo), and five in the Americas (São Paulo, Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires). That leaves 11 in Asia, seven of which (Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, Beijing, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka) occupy the top seven global spots.

Megacities are not easy to count. They are even harder to classify. Take Shanghai and Mumbai, the commercial capitals of China and India respectively. If you ignore the pollution and don’t stray too far off the main thoroughfares, Shanghai might remind you of New York. Indeed, by some measures it has surpassed that great American city. In 1980, Shanghai had just 121 buildings over eight storeys tall, according to D’Heilly. By 2005, it had more than 10,000. Shanghai boasts 91 skyscrapers more than 200m tall, trumping New York’s 82. Since 1995, it has built the world’s longest metro system, and plans to double it again by 2020.

Compare Shanghai – planned, vertical and (sometimes) gleaming – with Mumbai, unplanned, low-rise and mostly filthy. Still, India’s “Maximum City”, the title of a thrilling portrayal by Suketu Mehta, somehow manages to retain its glamour. For millions of Indians it offers the hope of a better life and escape from the drudgery of the countryside. Building regulations mean Mumbai has few skyscrapers. Rather than living in high-rise towers, many crowd into tiny spaces in slums like Dharavi.


Mumbai has no metro system, though one is being built. Its railway, which transports the equivalent of the population of Israel every day, is so hazardous that hundreds are killed each year. Yet the city somehow functions. To take just one example, its tiffin-carryingdabbawalas supply millions of lunches – for Muslims, Hindus, vegetarians and meat-eaters – in a feat of supply-chain management that has consultants swooning.

Gil-Hong Kim, an infrastructure expert at the Asian Development Bank, says that, to be successful, cities need leaders capable of implementing a vision. In 1970, nearly one-third of people in Seoul lived in squatter settlements. Thanks to careful land-use planning – supplemented by brutal use of the bulldozer – the city has been transformed. Now with a population of 24.5m, it is a mostly pleasant and prosperous city with the world’s third-biggest metro system by passenger numbers.

That’s the exception. The way most cities are run has not caught up with reality. According to McKinsey, more than one-fifth of the world’s population live in just 600 cities, which together generate half of global output. Yet many of these have little sway over their own budgets, planning or policy. Fauzi Bowo, governor of Jakarta, complained at an FT/World Bank conference in Singapore that he had to beg the national government for funds. “By 2025, 60 per cent of Indonesians will live in cities, but how can we cope if we are not given adequate authority and sources of funding?”

Many cities in Asia have little ability to tax their inhabitants or to charge them for water or electricity, let alone to provide the sewerage, roads and public transport that might improve life. We still think in terms of the nation state. But the world’s people have moved to cities, many of them administratively powerless.

Clearly, there are huge problems associated with living an ever-more urban existence, not least the environmental impact. A middle-class Shanghainese consumes far more resources and generates far more greenhouse gases than a farmer in Anhui province. Yet, as Glaeser argues forcefully in Triumph of the City, cities are at the apex of human endeavour. High-density cities are creative, thrilling and less environmentally destructive than sprawling car-based suburbs typical of America. Cities are passports from poverty. They attract poor people, rather than creating them. They are where humans are at their most artistically and technologically creative.

Whether we like it or not, it is no longer possible to keep the bulk of humanity down on the farm. By 2050, three-quarters of the world’s population will be urban. That means more cities – and more megacities. “These megacities are a big part of humanity’s future and the prospect should be both exhilarating and terrifying,” says Glaeser. The examples of Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai show that megacities don’t have to be monstrosities. For many of us, the megacity is our fate. The goal of humanity should be to manage that fate, not succumb to it.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.