Words by Joel Kotkin
Last December, a massive hillside of waste material, piled up from Shenzhen’s construction boom, collapsed. The manmade avalanche was a human tragedy, killing 69 people and destroying 33 buildings, but it was also indicative of 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.
“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”
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 an encumbrance 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. The country may have been freed last year from 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 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% a year from 2000 to 2010; this slowed to 2.3% annually from 2010 to 2014. In Shanghai the growth rate for the same periods slowed from 3.4% annually to 1.3%. High degrees of pollution have led at least some affluent urban Chinese to move back to 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 urbanisation 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 mid-size 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.
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 country’s industrial and tech growth.
Urban decentralization has become something of a theme of the government of prime minister Narendra Modi, who implemented a programme 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 South-east 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 further away.
Slowdown in Chinese megacities
Since the start of the millennium, China’s largest cities have experienced some of the most rapid growth in world history.
During 2000-2010, the population of the 21 largest grew by 2.2% annually. Shanghai and Beijing added between 6 and 7 million residents, growing by 3.4% and 3.9% each year respectively.
But since 2010, average annual growth has fallen to 1.2%, with Shanghai and Beijing slowing to 1.3% and 2.3%. Of China’s 10 most populous cities, only Tianjin has grown faster than during the 2000s — as it welcomes former residents of Beijing.
According to UN estimates, 99% of all population growth between 2010 and 2100 will take place in developing countries, some 83% in Africa followed by 13% 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 in South Africa and Luanda in Angola. They will join Lagos in Nigeria, 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 not only of their countries but also of 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. Ultimately, a shift toward dispersion — both within regions and between them — has been made more feasible 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.
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. A longer version of this article appeared on Forbes.com