Tokyo is considered the original megacity.
TOKYO, Japan – Don’t get us wrong, we like big cities.
That’s why we love living in Beijing and visiting, well, any of Asia’s capitals.
Tokyo, in particular, is a favorite.
That’s a whole ‘nother thing.
We were filming a story in the Japanese capital when a story emerged that local officials in southern China’s Pearl River Delta were planning to create the world’s largest megacity.
The report was long on impressive statistics. Nine cities in Guangdong Province would link up 42 million people just north of Hong Kong. The area would measure 16,000 square miles – that’s roughly twice the size of the state of New Jersey – and would encompass the nation’s manufacturing heartland, which accounts for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.
It was, however, a little short on details. Roughly 150 infrastructure projects spanning six years would interweave the cities’ transport, main utilities, and telecoms services.
Which begged more questions: What does that mean exactly apart from building more bridges, highways, and rail links? Does a high-speed rail a megacity make? How does one standardize telecoms when there are only state-run companies? How would the Chinese hukou (a decades-old household/residency registry system originally designed to impede the rural-to-urban migration flow) work in this instance? And how does one define a megacity anyway?
Somewhat moot questions, however, since a few days later officials in Guangdong denied the report and others similar to it. Calling the accounts “false,” they said that “Guangdong province is improving integration of infrastructure, industries, urban-rural planning, environmental protection and basic public services in the delta region” all in line with a masterplan approved by the central government in 2008.
One billion urbanites by 2030
The fact remains, however, that China is urbanizing at an unimaginable speed. Every year, an estimated 15 to 20 million people are moving into cities to achieve an urbanization rate of 70 percent of the entire national population by 2030. (That, incidentally, means one billion Chinese will be living in cities.)
To accommodate such a flow, roughly half of all new buildings constructed on the planet during the first 25 years of this century will be in China, according to a recent book that details the environmental impact of the nation’s growth. The country will also have to build perhaps as many as 170 mass transit systems and pave nearly 2,000 square miles of road.
Already, China has seven cities with populations over 10 million.
“For China, with its high population density and its land and water scarcity, megacity development is probably the most efficient option,” writes Sean S.C. Chiao of AECOM. “Chinese megacities will be hubs for jobs, culture, leisure, and education, a model that will be radically different from the manufacturing-center model that forms the basis of many Chinese cities today.”
Such sentiments are echoed by some international environmentalists, who believe energy and other basic services can be delivered more efficiently to concentrated populations.
Other urban planners say megacities can serve as hubs for smaller urban satellites and thereby avoid the dead-city phenomenon that plagues countries like the United Kingdom, where the workforce migrates to London at the expense of the smaller cities.
Adrienne Mong/NBC News
The area around Beijing is tipped to become a Chinese megacity known as the Bohai Economic Rim.
Megacity = Megacongestion?
But back to Tokyo. This metropolis, which still feels like a city of the future with its gleaming skyscrapers, rigorous pollution controls, and high standards of efficiency, was the largest in the world in 1975, at the time already numbering over 26 million residents.
Today, it’s the center of a declining economy, just like London and, yes, these days, even New York. “All suffer growing income inequality and outward migration of middle-class families. Even in the best of circumstances, the new age of the megacity might well be an unparalleled human congestion and gross inequality,” observed Joel Kotkin.
Congestion is a major problem already. Beijing is believed to have 20 million people and is notorious for its intractable traffic jams. Municipal authorities so far have failed to find any immediate solutions to accommodate a fast-growing population, of not just people, but also vehicles. The city added five more subway lines last December, has instituted an alternate license plate numbering system to limit the number of cars on the road, and introduced a license plate registration lottery system in January that has been widely ridiculed.
And that's without getting into the challenge of marshalling resources like water to supply a megapolis. Beijing – which has been linked to Tianjin and Hebei Province as part its own megacity – has experienced its driest winter in more than 20 years, and its South-to-North water diversion project (if the whole system ever gets off the ground successfully) is highly controversial.
So while everything seems to run smoothly in Tokyo, we can’t help but wonder whether that is possible in China. There is no doubt that the Chinese can build cities that look just as shiny and modern as those in Japan, but will they run as efficiently? As cleanly?
More curiously, who would want to live in a city or megacity of 40 million or more?