Our world is changing. For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the country. Which inevitably means that our cities are growing. In 1950, only one place met the megacity criteria of a population in excess of ten million – New York. Now there are more than 20 megacities. By 2050, 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. By the end of the century, three-quarters of the planet will be urban.
This epic emptying of the countryside is happening everywhere, with Asia – home to two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants – at the forefront (in fact, almost all the world’s population growth over the next 30 years will take place in the cities of developing countries).
It’s a mass migration which is being prompted by the promise of wealth and a better life. Millions are looking to climb the ladder of opportunity, but most fail miserably. Where do those poor unfortunates usually end up? Having to endure a life of abject poverty in one of the 200,000 slums that people now call home.
The statistics are mind-boggling. Tokyo – the largest city on Earth – is home to a staggering 33 million people. There are more than 20 million in both Shanghai and Mexico City, while Lagos in Nigeria is set to overtake Egyptian capital Cairo (population 16 million) as Africa’s biggest city within the next five years.
For the record, Europe’s only megacity is London (13 million). And what of India? Delhi is said to be creaking at the seams, while Mumbai has roughly doubled in population in the last 25 years. Over the border in Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, Dhaka, where 85 percent of its 13 million people live in slum conditions.
In 2009, a World Bank report said that this rapidly escalating process of migration should be welcomed and encouraged as a way of lifting people out of poverty. But the sheer weight of numbers is putting huge pressure on land, resources and urban infrastructure.
It’s perhaps easier to grasp when put like this – around 7,500 people are estimated to be moving to the city every hour. Some are coping better than others. In Shanghai, for example, 100,000 new homes are being built on the edge of the city every month. Described as the fastest-growing city on the planet (and capital of the world by some), back in the 1980s, Shanghai used to house 121 buildings over eight stories high. Now there are more than 10,000.
By contrast, in Dhaka, half a million new people arrive every year, the majority of whom end up in the slums and are left to salvage scrap and waste in an effort to eke out an existence. Yet the pull of the city is only going to intensify.
“The tide of ever-increasing congregations of people in an ever-sprawling urban region is unstoppable,” says renowned architect and planner Dr. Liu Thai-Ker, who is Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Center For Livable Cities Singapore. So what can be done to help cities cope?
“It is imperative that a new theory or urban structure be considered,” he continues. “To make such an area livable, the challenge is to find out how to recognize the need for a higher density environment, to minimize the encroachment of valuable agriculture, and to create an environment which is livable, green-and-clean, with ample amenities and flowing traffic. Once you recognize that, we need to rise above the vested political interests and legal boundaries of the towns and regions, and focus our energy on solving the challenges presented by megacities.”
Those challenges are hardly inconsiderable. In Mexico City, for example (the kidnap capital of the world), its population produces an Olympic swimming pool full of human excrement every minute. Space is so tight in Tokyo that soccer pitches are built on rooftops. London alone produces 20 million tons of waste a year, and only around 25 percent of it is recycled. Gridlock is causing traffic mayhem everywhere.
In Delhi – where around 20 percent of people are thought to live in slums – the infant mortality rate was reported to have doubled in the space of a year in 2009. Food, healthcare, power supply, crime. The modern megacity has to contend with a burgeoning list of demands and problems resulting from their ever booming populations.
There is, however, another way of viewing the rise and rise of the megacity. As an opportunity – or a mega-opportunity. Because these huge metropolises offer possibilities for everyone, especially if they can be made to work efficiently and effectively.
In Africa, for example, the 18 largest cities are expected to have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion by 2030. But future cities can’t be built on old models that don’t work. They need new technologies and new ways of thinking. They need to be retrofitted to turn them into the sustainable urban centers of tomorrow.
“It’s clear that we all need to innovate and find smarter ways to improve our buildings,” says Nico Maaskant, AkzoNobel’s Director of Sustainable Construction. “People expect more from a building than it simply being a roof above their heads. We are spending more and more time indoors, so we want our buildings to be safe and healthy, even to the point that they clean the air for us. They should also make us feel good. All of this will require new functionality and new solutions, which could open numerous doors for companies such as AkzoNobel.”
But with the construction industry currently consuming around 40 percent of all energy and 40 percent of all raw materials, simply building more and more is totally unsustainable. “Currently there is a very strong focus on reducing energy use,” continues Maaskant.
“Improving energy efficiency and increasing energy generation is a huge challenge, but at the same time represents another opportunity. Legislation is increasingly forcing us to build in a more energy-efficient way, so products such as the heat reflective paints and high visual spectrum reflective coatings that we supply are making it easier for contractors to meet these requirements.”
Look around any megacity and some form of construction is likely to be going on somewhere. The pace of change and sheer rate of growth simply demands it. So it begs the question, what will happen if they continue to grow at the alarming rate we’re currently experiencing? It’s taken just 50 years for us to witness the birth, growth and dominance of the megacity.
What happens during the next 50 might not only reshape the way we live, but could also have a major influence on the well-being of the entire planet.