Barely two decades ago China was known as the “Kingdom of Bicycles” and cars were a rare sight on the streets. Now there is hardly any room to park. The likes of Shanghai and Guangzhou have morphed into giant urban centers as millions of new arrivals flooded in to pursue economic opportunities. They are widely touted as examples of the new Asian megacity.
As China reaches the limits of its current export and investment-based growth model, its biggest cities have also begun to reach a developmental limit. The megacity no longer appears to be a sustainable path forward. Changing track will not be easy, but plans are already underfoot to break existing megacities up into clusters with a central hub surrounded by smaller cities.
Across the country, in Shanghai and Suzhou, in Beijing and Tianjin, and in the Pearl River Delta around Guangdong and Shenzhen, cities are linking up, clustering together into urban units of a truly grand scale – approaching and potentially exceeding 100 million people. By building stronger physical and economic links with their surrounding areas, big cities can relocate industry, jobs and people, making them less dense and more efficient. The formation of these clusters is not simply the future of the urban landscape, but the future of China’s development.
Megacity vs. cluster
The sheer scale of this phenomenon is dizzying, to be sure, and not a little bit confusing thanks to a complicated nomenclature. The terms megacity and cluster cities are often used interchangeably to describe what is going on, but in fact each has a distinctive meaning, and the differences are crucial to China’s development.
“Megacity” is a hefty term. Written in proper, that big capital “M” imparts a swagger commensurate with the cities themselves. It conjures up an image of towering skyscrapers by the dozens, hundreds of kilometers of subway track, people and cars filling the streets, big money, big opportunity… and big smog, too. But like most buzzwords, it’s a bit more fanciful than descriptive.
The United Nations officially defines a megacity as any municipality with over 10 million residents – an arbitrary but convenient benchmark. However, this doesn’t account for how municipal boundaries are drawn. For example, it’s easy to be wowed by Shanghai’s 24 million people versus the eight million in New York City. But it is often omitted that Shanghai covers an area five times that of the Big Apple that includes large swathes of farmland. The broader New York Metropolitan Statistical Area, essentially greater New York, has a population of 19.9 million. Yet nobody considers New York as ranking among the world’s megacities.
“Everybody has a different definition” of a megacity, says Jonathan Woetzel, co-chair of the Urban China Initiative and director at consultancy McKinsey. “I think 10 million on up is reasonably accepted as a megacity, but we may end up changing that definition over time.” Particularly, he added, if the population of cities in the average continues to push higher.
According to the China Urban Sustainability Index, an annual research project carried out by UCI and the McKinsey Global Institute, an urban planning model known as cluster cities might be more appropriate for China. “In the first report, we contrasted two versions of urbanization: Concentrated megacities and clusters,” said Woetzel. “We concluded that the cluster form made a bit more sense … and that has been borne out [by the data].”
Clusters, as he refers to them, comprise at least one very large city as a central hub surrounded by many other smaller cities as its spokes. This model allows for more diversity, as each city remains an individual player and can bring its complementary strengths to bear regionally through smart integration. This geographical huddling has major implications. “We think of clusters as the most sustainable form of urbanization,” said Woetzel. “In all ways.”
Best laid plans
Cities across China are a curious mix of careful planning, thoughtful consideration and a whole lot of happenstance in between. The vast urban regions of today are the result of planners forging ahead with their ideas first and then reacting to change.
Most of the big urban centers we see in China now resulted directly from the opening up of the country in the 1970s and the productive tumult that followed. The Pearl River Delta manufacturing hub is a prime example: Before 1949, a huge portion of Chinese goods were sent through Guangzhou and on to Hong Kong for export. Once that route closed, the need for a new one became apparent, setting in motion the birth of the port city and factory hub of Shenzhen where once a sleepy fishing village stood.
“15 years ago, there was no Shenzhen,” said Ma Xiangming, chief planner at the Urban and Rural Planning and Design Institute. “When Deng Xiaoping opened up policy in Shenzhen… it meant that things could only be sent to Shenzhen. For ten years things concentrated in Shenzhen.”
Money flowed, factories were built, more people followed. Soon the city was expanding. In 1990, the region’s highway system was severely underdeveloped, so Shenzhen took it upon itself to begin correcting that. “The city itself planned its own road system, and then the central government connected it and formed the regional highway system,” Ma said. “So it comes two ways: Bottom-up, and top-down.”
The new Shenzhen was not a naturally occurring urban center; the city was created through policy, and then it grew. The newly built highways encouraged further growth, and its population exploded. Greater Guangdong grew as well: Dongguan, its third major city, became the destination of choice for young migrant workers fresh from the countryside. The region became what we know it as: China’s engine, the world’s factory. “If there is no new China, there is no Shenzhen,” Ma said. It would seem the same is true vice versa.
The current planning ethos is both active and reactive, both bottom-up and top-down. China’s urban population surpassed 50% a few years ago and now it is the explicit goal of the central government to keep the trend going. By 2020, 60% of the population will be in urban areas, rising to 70% by 2030, according to a new urbanization blueprint released by the State Council in May. As Ma concedes, there is no way to wrench the fire hose of migration closed, whether you plan for it or not. The question now is figuring out the best way to turn villagers into urbanites.
Rethinking the economic model
Huge cities tend to conjure mostly negative images of sprawl, density, overpopulation, crime, social inequality and all the other downsides of modern urban living. These cities might be economic centers, but they are tough going for most residents and rank poorly in terms of sustainable living.
But that doesn’t always have to be the case. The China Urban Stability Index 2013, published by McKinsey, shows that most Chinese cities have in fact improved their level of sustainability in recent years, and that the top 10 best performing are located mostly in the coastal or eastern regions. Sustainability is positively correlated with increased population size, density, migration and foreign investment, the index noted. As urban conurbations grow, public services and utilities scale up quickly, in effect reducing the negative footprints of their inhabitants. Water and heating are provided in tighter networks over shorter distances, while waste collection is more focused and therefore more efficient. While some Chinese urban dwellers continue to dispose of their rubbish in public streets, armies of cleaners are there to remove it quickly; no urban dweller burns refuse in open pits or lights crop fires that pollute the skies.
Still, cities can only be green and clean up to a certain point. “There is a limit to how far one can go without reth
inking the economic model,” said Woetzel. According to the CUSI report, the “turning point” where big cities outgrow their efficiency comes when the population tops 4.5 million, density reaches over 8,000 people per square kilometer and migrants make up over 30% of residents. Places like Shanghai and Tianjin passed that point long ago.
Over the next 15 years or so, more cities will join the ranks of such giant urban areas. In order for them to be sustainable and successful, urban planners will need to improve how they are put together. Cluster cities can provide one such path forward.
The cluster cities paradigm is, at its heart, a way of rethinking the urban economic model. A traditional megacity, by contrast, typically encompasses all functions within itself. Many of the other factors generally considered necessary for sustainability are more or less related to that core principle of centralization. But in the cluster model, one big city acts as the main hub for administrative functions, capital and talent, and plays host to a few core sectors such as services. Meanwhile, smaller outlying cities develop their own specialized economic fields, such as high-tech or industrial production. This axle-spoke style of planning allows for industry, services, jobs and people to be spread out, but still easily connected.