The massive construction waste collapse last month in Shenzhen reflects a wider phenomenon: the waning of the megacity era. Shenzhen became a megacity (population over 10 million) faster than any other in history, epitomizing the massive movement of Chinese to cities over the past four decades. Now it appears more like a testament to extravagant delusion.
In 1979, Shenzhen was a small fishing town of roughly 30,000 people when it became a focus of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s first wave of modernization policies. Now it is a metropolis of 12 million whose population grew 56 percent between 2000 and 2014. For years, it stood as the brash wunderkind of Chinese cities, proud of its gleaming infrastructure that is now increasingly suspect.
The Shenzhen collapse came four months after a similar deadly public safety disaster in Tianjin, another relatively new megacity, where an explosion at a chemical warehouse killed 173 people. And of course, there is the widespread urban air pollution that is hazardous in Beijing and simply noxious elsewhere. Simply put, the once compelling “economies of scale” offered by increasing the size of cities have broken down in urban agglomerations over 10 million people, where their size has now become encumbrances to further growth, not to mention the happiness and health of their citizens.
One big problem with megacities, the Chinese are discovering, is their impact on property prices and fertility. Chinese may have been freed last year from the tyranny of the one-child policy, but don’t expect a baby boom in any of the biggest, most glamorous cities. Shanghai has among the lowest fertility rates in the world, one-third of the replacement rate. Beijing and Tianjin suffer a similarly dismal fertility rate.
This reflects both crowded conditions and insanely high property prices that, on an income-adjusted basis, now are far higher than those in expensive world cities like Vancouver, London, Sydney, San Francisco and New York — two times higher in some cases.
The population growth rate in Beijing and Shanghai has dropped dramatically since 2010, according to demographer Wendell Cox. The population of China’s capital expanded 3.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2010; growth slowed to 2.3 percent annually from 2010 to 2014. In Shanghai the population growth rate for the same periods slowed from 3.4 percent annually to 1.3 percent. High degrees of pollution have led at least some affluent urban Chinese to move back toward the countryside, as well as to cleaner, less congested regions in Australia, New Zealand, and North America.
Nonetheless, the Chinese government remains committed to driving further urbanization to boost economic growth, aiming to turn more rural farmers into city-dwelling, free-spending consumers. In 2014 the government set a goal to increase the ratio of the Chinese population that lives in cities to 60% by 2020 from 53.7% then. But the urbanization strategy aims to funnel migrants to small and midsize cities with less than 5 million residents, maintaining tight restrictions on legal migration to the megacities.
To make the smaller cities more attractive Beijing promised to ramp up infrastructure spending, and local governments have rolled out housing subsidies, tax breaks and cheaper mortgages to lure migrants. Whether that will be enough to counteract the pull of the megacities’ bigger job markets is an open question.
Peak Megacity In Much Of The World
Until recently the worldwide trend toward megacities — there were 34 in 2014 — has seemed relentless. But in much of the world this trend is slowing down. The populations of Europe and North America are growing slowly, with the exception of London and Moscow. In the last decade the population of New York City grew at roughly one third the relatively low national rate.
Where megacities can be expected to grow in the future are in the backwaters of the global economy, in Africa and parts of Asia, where the most rapid population growth and urbanization is taking place.
In an impressive 2011 study, the consultancy McKinsey predicted that through 2025, population growth would shift to 577 “fast-growing middleweight” cities many of them in China and India, while, in contrast, megacities would underperform economically and demographically.
In India as well, population growth rates have slowed considerably for two of its three largest cities, Mumbai and Kolkata, while New Delhi has become the country’s largest megalopolis. More rapid population growth has taken place in mid-sized cities such as Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, and Bangalore, as well as in smaller cities like Coimbatore, home to 2.5 million, that have seen much of the industrial and tech growth in the country.
Urban decentralization has become something of a theme of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who implemented a program of “rurbanization” as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. Villages are still home to the vast majority of Indians and serve as the primary source of new urban migrants. Modi speaks of human settlements with the “heart of a village” and developing “the facilities of the city.”
Singapore-based scholar Kris Hartley notes a shift of industrial and even service businesses to more rural locales in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, and parts of China. As megacities become more crowded, congested, and difficult to manage, Hartley suggests, companies in these areas are finding it more convenient, less costly, and better for the families of their employees to locate farther from giant cities.
Where Megacities Will Grow Fastest
According to U.N. estimates, 99 percent of all population growth between 2010 and 2100 will take place in developing countries, some 83 percent in Africa alone followed by 13 percent in Asia, particularly the less developed parts.
Rather than an indicator of the future, megacity growth in these regions increasingly is something of a lagging indicator of an early phase of urbanization. Growth projections suggest the evolution of two more megacities in Africa: Johannesburg-East Rand (South Africa) and Luanda (Angola). They will join Lagos in Nigeria, as well as the rapidly growing and poor megacities Cairo and Kinshasa, as well as Karachi in Pakistan.
As is the case in India, these cities will likely be most prolific in producing slums. Worldwide there are now as many as a billion denizens of these depressed areas, threatening the social stability of not only of their countries but also the world, as they tend to generate high levels of both random violence and more organized forms of thuggery, including terrorism.
One does not have to be a Gandhian idealist to suggest that perhaps dispersion, not concentration, provides a better model for future urban growth in developing countries, offering more space, privacy, and connection to nature, note social scientist Robert Obudho. A focus on large city development, he argues, will exacerbate problems, while shifting toward smaller-scale areas could encourage more “self-reliance, spatial equity, [and] local participation.”
Ultimately, a shift toward dispersion—both within regions and between them—has been made more feasible in the developing world, as in the West, by new technology. Smaller cities and even villages are no longer as economically isolated and are brought closer to the outside world through the use of cell phones and the Internet. Economic growth in these places could help stem megacity migration by closing the gaps in living standards of rural people relative to their urban counterparts, as has occurred in western countries.
Such ideas need to be heard more in the discussion about cities in the developing world. We need to confront the urban future with radical new thinking. Rather than foster an urban form that demands heroic survival, we should focus on ways to create cities that offer a more prosperous, healthful and even pleasant life for their citizens.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.
Photo: Shenzhen: Binhe Avenue from the Shun Hing Tower (by Wendell Cox)