Think Again: Megacities

By Kalan, Jonathan | Foreign Policy, May-June 2014 | Go to article overview

Think Again: Megacities


Kalan, Jonathan, Foreign Policy


"Megacities Pose the Most Dire Development Crisis of the 21st Century."

WRONG.

TWO HUNDRED YEARS AGO, JUST 3 PERCENT OF the world's population lived in cities. Today, cities hold more than half of all people on Earth. The number of urban residents is growing by nearly 60 million every year, a trend driven by rapid industrialization, rural-urban migration, and globalization. If this pace continues, by 2050 over 70 percent of people will call cities home.

The largest of today's urban centers are known as "megacities." Behemoths of tightly packed humanity, each megacity holds more than 10 million people. Back in 1950, only New York City held that distinction. Today 24 cities do, and at least a dozen more are expected to join the club by 2025. Most megacities are and will continue to be in the developing world--Delhi, Jakarta, Shanghai, and Lagos, to name a few.

It's easy to look at statistics and view megacities as the looming development crisis of this century. The United Nations estimated in 2006 that there was just one toilet for every 1,440 people in Mumbai's Dharavi slum. In Cairo, meanwhile, traffic has gotten so bad that a recent World Bank report estimated that congestion costs the economy upwards of $8 billion each year in lost productivity.

Seizing on these gritty details, many journalists, environmentalists, and leaders of NGOS and development organizations portray megacities as calamities--vast, open sewers that fuel a vicious cycle of poverty, increase income and health disparities, and degrade the environment. NGOS routinely highlight the worst of megacities (and garner support for their work) by telling stories of human desperation. Larger institutions like the World Health Organization emphasize figures, such as the fact that Cairo residents inhale the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in air pollution each day, on which the international media feed. Others are more direct in their criticisms: Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, argued in a 2011 Forbes article that "megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred previously in the West."

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To be sure, tens of millions of people in megacities do live in poverty and pollution. But emphasizing megacities' economic, social, and environmental problems discounts the fundamental opportunities they provide and the enormous capacity their residents possess. The popular perception is, in a word, incomplete.

In fact, the vast size and dense concentration of people and resources in megacities, which currently produce some 14 percent of the world's economic output, are their greatest assets. They are tools that can actually be used to drive economies, diminish poverty, and empower residents.

Making proper use of these tools is critical because mass urbanization is inevitable. From Europe to North America to Asia, no country has ever developed without it. Moreover, the world has already seen how megacities can emerge and grow in a sustainable way. In Seoul, for example, infrastructure projects and economic reforms from the 1960s onward helped transform South Korea from one of the world's poorest economies (equivalent to modern-day Benin) into the 15th largest, becoming a global commercial hub.

Transforming developing megacities--and soon-to-be megacities--will certainly take time, and no two cities will transform in the same way. Seoul had highly centralized governmental structures that not all cities do, especially those in poorer countries. But there are other ways to leverage the power of density, technology, and economies of scale. Megacities hold enormous value for the developing world, and ensuring that they deliver this value starts, fundamentally, with no longer seeing them as utter catastrophes.

"Megacities Are Too Crowded." SOMETIMES BIGGER REALLY IS BETTER. …

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