Asia’s Megacities to Become Mega-Mega Cities

By 2030, New Delhi will be challenging Tokyo at 37 million residents to be the largest urban agglomeration in Asia and the world. Shanghai won’t be far behind and Mumbai and Dhaka will be on a par with Beijing at 27 million.

The only cities on other continents to come anywhere near are Mexico City and Sao Paulo, both at 20 million while New York-Newark is only 16 million. Those are some of the conclusions of a just published report by two UN agencies, the Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, and Habitat, the Nairobi-based outfit that studies Human Settlements.

The prospect of urbanization on such an enormous scale raises big questions over how to cope with it. Governments from Delhi to Jakarta to Manila – especially in the poorer agglomerations – are going to be faced with providing adequate infrastructure, liveable environments, slum clearance as the rural population flocks to the cities and provision of liveable housing. The outskirts of some of these cities now are a sea of slum dwellings for miles.

At the same time, there are reasons for optimism – a big one being the effect on population growth. As countries urbanize, their total fertility rate, for a variety of reasons, starts to drop. In many of these highly urbanized countries including South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore, for instance, total fertility rates have fallen below replacement levels. Average household incomes are higher along with education levels and creation of economic opportunity, which is why the rural dwellers move to the cities in the first place.

In a sense there is nothing surprising at Asia’s continued rapid urbanization, given that even in countries such as China and Thailand, about half – 45 percent and 51 percent respectively -- are still classified as non-urban. Yet the data make clear that even within one country different cities expand at greatly varying rates.

This is obvious in the case of very new cities such as Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital, and relatively new Shenzhen and Dongguan in China across the border from Hong Kong. Shenzhen is now larger than London and Paris.

But it also applies to already very large cities, thus over the past 15 and 25 years Delhi has grown far faster than Mumbai and Kolkata rather slowly while in China since 2000, Beijing’s growth has outstripped Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Many second-tier cities have grown fastest of all with Suzhou, Hangzhou and Xiamen in China and Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad in India also excelling.

Meanwhile Southeast Asia’s giants have been relatively slow growing, with Manila, which was almost as populous as Beijing in 2000 up just 28 percent to 12.7 million since then, a remarkably slow rate given how Manila dominates Philippine urbanization to a degree only rivalled by Bangkok.

The Manila data applies to the Metro Manila area but that for Bangkok and Jakarta is questionable because of definitions. Thus Samut Prakan is described as one of the fastest growing cities in Asia with 375 percent expansion to 1.6 million between 2000 and 2014 but this province is in reality part of Greater Bangkok, not a separate city. Jakarta is supposed to have grown only from 8.1 to 10.1 million since 1990 but the urban agglomeration, known as Jabotabek, which includes Bogor, Tangerang, Bekasi and Depok, already had 27 million at the time of the 2010 census. For sure, there are some rural parts to the bigger entity but so there are too for Shanghai.

Such lazy statistics devalue this huge and costly publication. Urban decentralisation also accounts for the fact that according to the report the population of Seoul city has actually shrunk from 10.5 to 9.7 million since 1990 the greater Seoul agglomeration is about 25 million.

Such definitional problems are normal. Other sources put London’s at 8.5, 9.7 and 13.8 million depending on where and how you draw boundaries. But it does help to know because comparisons make no sense otherwise.

One might also some estimates query estimates of future growth. Beijing is forecast to grow by another 40 percent by 2030 despite the nation’s near static population, falling urbanization rate and Beijing’s environmental problems. Indeed one would expect city growth in India to be significantly faster than China both for demographic and broader economic reasons.

Overall the volume has a wealth of information and data on issues ranging from pollution to car ownership, climate change and urban governance some of which is valuable but some of which seems out of place – eg subjective data ranking universities. Too much of the text is earnest boilerplate, data is plentiful but much goes unexplained and such a costly production was worthy of a graphic designer.