The Problem With Megacities


The triumphalism surrounding the slums and megacities frankly disturbs me. It is, of course, right to celebrate the amazing resilience of residents living in these cities’ massive slums. But many of the megacity boosters miss a more important point: that the proliferation of these sorts of communities may not be desirable or even necessary.

Cities may be getting larger, particularly in the developing world, but that does not make them better. Megacities such Kolkata (in India), Mumbai, Manila, Sao Paolo, Lagos and Mexico City — all among the top 10 most populous cities in the world — present a great opportunity for large corporate development firms who pledge to fix their problems with ultra-expensive hardware. They also provide thrilling features for journalists and a rich trove for academic researchers.

But essentially megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred previously in the West. They play to the nostalgic tendency among urbanists to look back with fondness on the crowded cities of early 20th Century North America and Europe. Urban boosters like the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane speak fondly about going back to the “the way we were” — when our parents or grandparents lived stacked in small apartments, rode the subway to work and maintained a relatively small carbon footprint.

Unfortunately such places were often not so nice for the people who actually lived in them. After all, they have been moving from higher to lower density locations for over fifty years, a trend still noticeable in the new Census. As my mother, who grew up a slum-dweller, says of her old Brooklyn neighborhood: “Brownsville was a crappy neighborhood then, and it’s a crappy neighborhood now.”

My mother considers herself a tried and true New Yorker, but she and my late father chose to raise their kids on Long Island. She now lives in an apartment in Rockville Centre, somewhat farther out on the Island. One could imagine many slum-dwellers in developing countries would also choose a less crowded environment for themselves and their children, if that option existed.

Most slum-dwellers, at least from what I have seen in India, move to the megacity not for the bright lights, but to escape hopeless poverty in their village. Some argue that these migrants are better off than previous slum-dwellers since they ride motorcycles and have cell phones.

But access to the wonders of transportation and “information technology” is unlikely to compensate for physical conditions that are demonstrably worse than those my mother endured.  At least Depression-era poor New Yorkers could drink water out of a tap and expect consistent electricity, something not taken for granted by their modern day counterparts in Mexico City, Manila or Mumbai.

More serious still, the slum-dwellers face a host of health challenges that recall the degradations of Dickensian London. Residents of mega-cities face enormous risks from such socially caused maladies as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, urban violence, unsafely built environments, and what has been described as  ”the neglected epidemic” of road-related injuries. According to researchers Tim and Alana Campbell, developing countries now account for 85% of the world’s traffic fatalities.

One telling indication of the difficulties the newcomers face is the relatively low level of life expectancy in the city — roughly 57 years — which is nearly seven years below the national average.

Even with solid economic growth, these megacities are not necessarily becoming better places to live. In 1971, slum dwellers accounted for one in six Mumbai-kers; now they constitute an absolute majority. Inflated real estate prices drive even fairly decently employed people into slums. A modest one-bedroom apartment in the Mumbai suburbs, notes R. N.  Sharma of the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences, averages around 10,000 rupees a month, double the average worker’s monthly income.

Traffic congestion is also worsening. Nearly half of Mumbai commuters spend at least one or two hours to get to work, far more than workers in smaller rivals such as Chennai, or Hyderabad. Fifty percent of formal sector workers expressed the desire to move elsewhere, in part to escape brutal train or car commutes; only a third of workers in other cities expressed this sentiment.

What does this say about the future for megacities?  When conditions become oppressive enough, people generally respond by finding a better place to live. Poor village dwellers in Bihar may not all stay in the countryside, but they — and many better-skilled immigrants — may find other, less intense urban options.

Recent research suggests that these immigrants will increasingly move to the urban fringe or to smaller cities. A massive research effort published earlier this year for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy found that since 1990 “built-up area densities” have been dropping by roughly 2% a year, including in the developing world.

An impressive new study by the McKinsey Global Institute, called “Mapping the Economic Power of Cities,” has found that “contrary to common perception, megacities have not been driving global growth for the past 15 years.” Many, the report concludes, have not grown faster than their host economies.

McKinsey predicts these cities will underperform economically and demographically as growth shifts to   577 “fast growing middleweights,” many of them in China and India.  We can see this already in the shift of industrial growth to smaller cities in India. There may be an additional 25 million jobs added to the Indian auto industry by 2016, according to recent estimates, it appears most will go to other states, such as Gujarat, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, enriching cities such as Chennai and Ahmedabad, nut not Mumbai.

These realities lead some advocates in developing countries to question the logic of promoting megacities. Tata’s Sharma notes that as manufacturing and other industries move to smaller, more efficient cities, they remove many middle-income opportunities. Instead, the gap between the megacity’s rich and poor expands more rapidly.   “The boom that is happening is giving more to the wealthy.  This is the ’shining India’ people talk about,” Sharma says. “But the other part of it is very shocking, all the families where there is not even food security. We must ask: The ‘Shining India’ is for whom?

Ashok R. Datar, chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network and a long-time advisor to the Ambani corporate group, suggests that Asian megacities should stop emulating the early 20th Century Western model of rapid, dense urbanization. “We are copying the Western experience in our own stupid and silly way,” Datar says. “The poor gain on the rich. For every tech geek, we have two to three servants.

Datar suggest that developing countries need to better promote the growth of more manageable smaller cities and try bringing more economic opportunity to the villages.  One does not have to be a Ghandian idealist to suggest that Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” concept — conceived as a response to miserable conditions in early 20th Century urban Britain — may be better guide to future urban growth.

Rejecting gigantism for its own sake, “the garden city” promotes, where possible, suburban growth, particularly in land-rich countries. It also can provide a guide to more human-scale approach to  dense urban development. The “garden city” is already a major focus in Singapore, where I serve as a guest lecturer at the Civil Service College. Singaporean planners are embracing bold ideas for decentralizing work, reducing commutes and restoring nearby natural areas.

These ideas may be most relevant to cities on the cusp of rapid growth, such as Hanoi. As we walk through the high-density slums on the other side of the dike that protects Hanoi from the Red River, Giang Dang, founder of the nonprofit Action for the City, tells me that rapid growth is already degrading the quality of Hanoi’s urban life, affecting everything from the food safety to water to traffic congestion. Houses that accommodated one family, she notes, now often have two of three.

Expanding Hanoi’s current 6 million people — already at least twice its population in the 1980s — to megacity size — say between 10 million and 15 million — may thrill urban land speculators but may not prove  so good for city residents.  Like Datar, Dang favors expanding conditions both smaller cities, and the Vietnamese countryside.

“The city is already becoming unlivable,” she  insists. “More people, more high-rises will not make it better. Maybe it’s time to give up the stupid dream of the megacity.”

Such voices are rarely heard in the conversation about urban problems.  But the urban future requires radical  new thinking.  Rather than foster an urban form that demands heroic survival, perhaps we should focus on ways to create cities that offer a more a healthful and even pleasant life for their citizens.

This piece originally appeared in

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo by Dey Alexander

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It is not mentioned nearly

It is not mentioned nearly as often as it should be how many megacities have an undue, undemocratic, corrupting, and self-aggrandizing stranglehold on the countries where they are found. I don't think we know what the true economies of scale of cities are, but can any of us imagine that the US would be better off if Wall St., Hollywood, Madison Ave., and Silicon Valley, were all located in DC? Take Mexico City, the original developing-world, internal migrant megalopolis. Continuing the example above, add to DC the Ames, Iowa USDA Research Center, the Johnson Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Boeing, the Ivy League and 30 next best schools, the Mayo Clinic and rest of the top 50 research hospitals, the 1st-5th Navy fleets (on dry ground, no joke), West Point, Fort Knox, half the NFL and MLB teams, including the winners of 8 of the last 10 championships... and so on. Imagine that Ford is located somewhere in Northern Virginia, that the best-maintained road in the country connected DC and Virginia Beach. Imagine that in Virginia Beach the clams in your chowder were bought in DC too, because local markets are so underdeveloped. This is the situation that obtains in Mexico, it is a horrific misallocation of resources, which I see hints of in places like Nairobi, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Hanoi, etc. How many megacities are "mega" only because regional and national elites have an interest in avoiding a saner, wider distribution of economic and political power? Last thought experiment: suppose Robert Byrd was one of 18 senators from DC, and that country was busy with the construction of the Robert Byrd Memorial Freeway, the Robert Byrd Memorial Subway, the Reagan-Byrd InterContinental Airport, and a massive Clinton-Eisenhower Memorial Rocket Launching Facility. Should thousands of Minnesotan construction workers living in shacks along the Potomac be considered proof of the economic dynamism and promise of this hypothetical DC?