Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Forget big cities, think endless cities

URBAN TRENDS. When UN Habitat recently released its report on major trends in the rapid urbanisation of the world, there was one figure that underlined the scale of things.
While we are getting used to the thought of major metropolitan regions with 20 or even 30 million inhabitants, the United Nations agency for human settlements is now talking about mega-regions with populations of up to 120 million people.
This mind-boggling figure reminds us of the pace of development of what has been called The Urban Age. More than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities – by 2050 that figure is expected to be 75 percent.
In its “State of the World Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide”, UN Habitat talks of huge urban corridors of cities pushing beyond their original boundaries and merging into massive new conurbations.
These are the new mega-regions and the best example – or perhaps worst? – can be found in Southern China.
The Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangzhou mega-region is, according to UN Habitat, home to some 120 million people in a continuous, seemingly endless city.
“When you travel there you can’t tell when you go from one city to another”, says Lamia Kamal-Chaoui, an urban issues expert at OECD who is now leading a study of the region.
She spoke recently at a seminar in Stockholm on the growth of the Swedish capital. Just to remind her hosts of what they are up against, Kamal-Chaoui mentioned the development in the Hong Kong-Shenzen-Guangzhou mega-region (using a population figure of “only” 50 million).
Stockholm wants to be a world leader in fields like information technology, life sciences and environmental issues. But Kamal-Chaoui told the audience not to underestimate the competition from regions in countries like China.
“They have high skills, and they put a lot of focus on research and development. In the southern China region I have seen a number of clusters for environmental research, for instance”, says Lamia Kamal-Chaoui.
The endless cities of the new mega-regions will be a driving force in future development. But they will also hold all sorts of challenges.
UN Habitat mentions one new urban corridor that raises issues. In West Africa, from Ibadan and Lagos in Nigeria to Accra in Ghana, spanning roughly 600 kilometres through four countries, a cross-border endless city is rapidly developing.
The UN report points out that while these mega-regions, urban corridors and city-regions reflect the emerging links between city growth and new patterns of economic activity, they are in danger of creating a new urban hierarchy and further patterns of economic and social exclusion.
The endless city is not a new phenomenon. The corridor stretching through Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington on the American east coast has long been an example of large cities forming an even larger unit.
The same has been seen in Japan for many years where for instance Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe forms one mega-region likely to hold 60 million people by 2015.
In Europe, we often think of Berlin as the largest metropolitan region in Germany with some five million people. But the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region in North Rhine-Westphalia has some 12 million inhabitants, if you count all cities from the old Ruhr industrial area to Düsseldorf and Cologne on the Rhine.
And in the Netherlands more than half the country’s population lives in the conurbation known as Randstad (“Rim City”), which consists of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and a number of smaller cities.
When I was a schoolboy, geography was my favourite subject and I took great pride in knowing all cities with more than a million inhabitants.
That knowledge is obsolete today. The big city as we new it is part of history.
The future belongs to the endless city.

Copyright: UN Habitat
A market i Accra, Ghana, part of a new mega-region stretching to Nigeria.

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