Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Will the World’s Emerging Megacities Turn the Corner?

My latest post is online over at New Geography and is called “Will the World’s Emerging Megacities Turn the Corner?” There’s an explosion of megacities happening around the world, often in developing countries. These cities face huge infrastructure issues, social issues, poverty and slums, etc. The question is whether they will ever achieve escape velocity from that. I don’t think so. Here’s an excerpt:

Most emerging megacities likely will never turn the corner to developed status and achieve a decent standard of living and quality of life for their residents. They may be important national centers of aspiration, but most of them will never become influential global cities. Their huge size and vast problems will leave them with perpetual entrenched poverty, poor infrastructure and public services, and low quality of life by global standards.

The general rule seems to be that a megacity can only escape pervasive dysfunction if they are a major city in a country that is the world’s current rising economic (or historically imperial) power.
In the second edition of Peter Hall’s landmark book The World Cities, he describes a 1970s Tokyo in which the night soil pickup industry was alive and well. Only in an era of national economic hyper growth – culminating in the 1980s – was Japan able to fully modernize its urban infrastructure and clean up the massive environmental problems resulting from its rapid industrialization and urbanization. This was the time when Japan seemed destined to become the world’s leading economic power, and America was fretting as Japanese investors bought trophy assets ranging from Columbia Pictures to Rockefeller Center.

We are witnessing the same today in China. It’s no accident that cities like Beijing and Shanghai are becoming fully modernized at the same time that China is the world’s rising economic power. Even there, serious problems with social integration, pollution, and low quality development remain. China had best hope its economic growth continues until such time as it’s rich enough to solve those problems too.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Education, Globalization, Public Safety, Sustainability, Transportation, Urban Culture

5 Responses to “Will the World’s Emerging Megacities Turn the Corner?”

  1. David Holmes says:

    I would agree with your somewhat pessimistic assessment.
    The stream restoration project in Seoul (the city that you viewed as the one exception to this assessment) is impressive and I believe served as one inspiration for a four-year, $18 billion project focused on revitalization of the Han, Nakdong, Geum and Yeongsan Rivers in (whose combined watersheds contain 60% of Korea’s population). This project (the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project) provides an example of the scale of projects needed to address just one type of problem facing the megacities. This project is also interesting in that the principal academic advisor was an engineering professor from UW-Madison, who in 2012 was awarded Korea’s highest civilian honor for his contributions to the project.

    I think there is a tendency to underestimate just how difficult and expensive it will be to correct the environmental and other problems resulting from uncontrolled growth, and well as from the era of industrialization in these cities. There was a great article series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel over the past week on the efforts over the past 40 years to revitalize the Milwaukee River (on which more than $5 billion has been expended to date). The cost for an equivalent project in one of the megacities would be substantially greater.

  2. Kendall A says:

    It seems to me that given the history of the current list of global cities, these mega-cities really don’t have to solve their problems to “turn the corner,” they simply have to compartmentalize them away from their wealthy and productive sectors. Global cities emerge when the large social problems are no longer a threat to impact the stability of the elite class, and the city has the critical mass of global trade connections to start drawing more of this elite population from other parts of the world.

    In this way, it seems Mumbai is probably the closest, if it’s not a global city already, and I think Sao Paolo is probably not far away either, whereas a mega-city like Bangkok that has the global network still has a lot more work in walling off its social ills and keeping them from impacting the city’s financial sector. Other mega-cities often don’t have the global networks in place to put them on the radar.

    Btw, I’m not meaning to condone this as a city planning model, it just seems to me that this is how most global cities have developed. They’ve had their slum problems too, they’ve just been able to keep them under the rug long enough to make them desirable enough for the elites to move in.

  3. Racaille says:

    “My latest post is online over at New Geography”

    Cough, cough…

    “In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy”

    Completely unhinged..

  4. K says:

    “The general rule seems to be that a megacity can only escape pervasive dysfunction if they are a major city in a country that is the world’s current rising economic (or historically imperial) power.”

    I think this statement is unnecessarily limiting and not very useful. Cities like Madrid, Milan or Amsterdam are considered global cities even though they were not part of a rising economic power to the extent of Japan. Sure, Madrid + Amsterdam were at some point imperial capitals, but that was so long ago as to not have a major effect on their current growth. The 20th century found them both to be parts of small, and in the case of Madrid, poor countries.

  5. @K, I think you’re making my point. Global cities and megacities are different things. Madrid, Milan, and Amsterdam are not megacities (meaning a population of greater than 10 million in the urban area)

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