Source: FT © The Financial Times Ltd 2011

Last updated: September 15, 2011 7:01 pm
By Edwin Heathcote

For a long time the world’s attention has been focused on the seemingly unstoppable growth of the megacities – cities in which the population exceeds 10m. Their sheer mass seems to attract headlines by a kind of gravity, like black holes; they suck in reporters and urbanists, but they throw out beams of incredible statistics.

There are facts and figures about unbelievable densities, horrific crime rates, seemingly insurmountable problems of education, health, coping with ageing, employment and industry and, of course, about the environment: about how to make such places – almost incomprehensible in scale – sustainable.

Mumbai, Beijing, Istanbul, Tokyo, Mexico City, Cairo – even the old-school megacity pioneers London and New York – are the subject of endless meditations on the future of the city. But, despite their size, the real, phenomenal growth in world cities is happening outside these famous, historic – almost romantic – centres, in the second-tier cities of Asia that can seem to spring up overnight.

Earlier this year I ascended the 100 storeys or so of Guangzhou International Finance Centre – the tallest building ever built by a British architect, Wilkinson Eyre. It is an elegant, streamlined cigar of a building. From the top you could see perhaps four or five miles in every direction before the yellowish industrial smog swallowed up the horizon. The young architect showing me around said that when construction on the tower started a couple of years ago virtually nothing was there, it was all farmland, there was no city to see from the site.

Guangzhou has exploded – the same goes for Wuhan, Chengdu, Shenzhen and dozens of others. But these are not cities growing through informal settlements at their edges, haphazardly; they are ruthlessly planned. A McKinsey report published in March this year predicted that, in 2025, 100 of the world’s 600 top cities will be new entries from China.

It is calculated that 40 per cent of global growth over the next 15 years will come from 400 midsize cities, many of which we will never have heard of. That growth equates to more than that predicted for all the world’s developed economies and the megacities of the emerging markets (including São Paulo, Mumbai, Shanghai and the others) together.

The top five fastest growing cities in the world are all in Asia – and they may come as quite a surprise: Beihai (China), Ghaziabad (India), Sana’a (Yemen), Surat (India again) and, despite everything, Kabul. Somehow business will need to reorientate itself towards these exploding cities and their vast opportunities.

The Chinese government has long realised that its extraordinary industrial boom is not only attracting former agricultural workers from the country to these new midsize cities but that it is creating a new bourgeoisie, a business class of entrepreneurs and managers.

This emerging and increasingly wealthy middle class is exactly where China has decided to invest. It has realised that they will begin to demand the infrastructure of bourgeois city life, from education, healthcare and public transport to leisure facilities, shopping and parks. And China’s notably top-down planning system allows the creation of these at a stroke. Huge, almost unimaginable infrastructure projects are being put in place not only in the big centres, in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but in these secondary cities.

The journey has not been trouble free. The bullet train crash in the eastern Zhejiang province in July, which saw 35 die, not only pointed to inadequacies in planning but to a readiness of bloggers to protest and openly express their outrage – exactly the kind of thing that seems to unnerve the government in the wake of the Arab Spring.

But what will these new cities look like? Is there still the skill to design cities from scratch? The established megacities – New York, Istanbul, London, Cairo, Beijing, Tokyo and São Paulo developed over many centuries, from historic cores that bred poorer, less formal settlements around them, which were then themselves subsumed and upgraded into new quarters, so that cities grew in concentric rings.

These new cities, theoretically, will allow their planners to bypass the problems of historic cores and ageing infrastructure, to wire in connected city tissue from the outset. And, if you stroll along the green spine of Guangzhou’s Zhujiang new town, which conceals a subway built beneath a central pedestrian park space and a seemingly endless shopping mall at sub-basement level, you get the feeling that these cities could work.

The authorities have meticulously programmed in cultural infrastructure – Guangzhou has at its centre a dramatic library, a Zaha Hadid-designed opera house and a striking museum. It is true that the building of the opera house has preceded demand – it is there, just in case.

It is easy to criticise these new cities as soulless and corporate – which they are – but the scale of the achievement in building these places is astonishing. These are cities that will be capable of housing the millions still pouring in from the country. The rural population, currently standing at 900m, is expected to decrease by 500m over the next 30 years.

Other models look precious in comparison. South Korea’s $40bn Songdo provides the prototype for a wired city. A fully integrated high-tech hub near Seoul with services supplied by Cisco and architecture design by US firm KPF, it heralds the advent of city-conceived-as-CBD (central business district). But, with its golf course and parkland, is it really much more sophisticated in its planning and architecture than Guangzhou or the dozens of other cities like it?

Masdar (masterplanned by Foster & Partners) in Abu Dhabi provides the model for the eco-city – a joint venture between the Emirate and MIT, an experiment in creating a sustainable city in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. It is feeling its way along but it still feels tiny compared with the default experiments the Chinese are undertaking.

One extraordinary statistic to appear recently is that, according to an Ipsos/Mori poll, Mumbai, a city with 55 per cent of its population living in slums and 65 per cent of its population working in the informal economy, is the “happiest” city in the world, its residents the most satisfied with their quality of life. London, just as astonishingly, comes in at number two.

It is difficult to imagine a more striking contrast between the rickety, dirty and dysfunctional Mumbai existence so vividly described by the Indian writer Aravind Adiga in his new novel Last Man in Tower and the sterile, endless expanses of extruded modern blocks that radiate in every direction in China’s new cities. Yet here they are – the models for Asia’s future.

Is it a choice between vibrancy and inefficiency versus the grimly repetitive but inarguably efficient? One is making do and getting by, the other is getting on with it. It is impossible not to admire the Chinese for their extraordinary determination, even if their vision of the future is not necessarily one we all might want to live in.

At least they have a vision.



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