We shape the world’s cities, then they shape us

UrbanisationThe story of the world’s cities is often told not in words but in numbers. This is especially the case with the megacities – those with a  population in excess of 10 million – which obtain enough critical mass not only to produce eye boggling statistics but also to distort the fabric of whole regions and change the way people live and behave. This is true for the established megacities of London, New York and Tokyo as well as the emerging global metropolises in Sao Paolo, Beijing, Mumbai, Shanghai, Cairo and Istanbul. It is also increasingly true for cities many people have never heard of.

A report from McKinsey has predicted that by 2025 100 of the World’s top 600 cities would be new cities from China. It goes on to say that over the next 15 years, 40 per cent of total global economic growth will be focussed on 400 currently moderate sized cities and most will be in Asia.  According to McKinsey the top five fastest growing cities in the world are unsurprisingly all in that continent. Their names may come as more of a surprise. They are  Beihai in China, Ghaziabad and Surat in India, Sana’a in Yemen and – most surprisingly all given the turbulent times it has endured, Kabul.

While this will transform the global economy, according to a report from Jones Lang LaSalle published in last year, the established megacities continue to dominate investment in commercial property.  It found that thirty cities currently account for half of all commercial real estate investment with  the top five cities – London, Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong and Paris – were responsible for  nearly a quarter.  The sign of the changing times is that Shanghai, Beijing, Moscow and Sao Paulo, have now joined the top ranks, the Top 30.

A new world is emerging with the urbanisation of new areas of the globe. And while the old megacities grew organically over hundreds and thousands of years, the new cities are being built to a vision. In places like China, these new megacities are not only attracting former agricultural workers to the urban bosom, they are creating new cultures, a new elite and a new bourgeoisie. To meet the demands of these new social structures, the cities are forming their own plans for developments and infrastructure. And they are doing in partnership with global architectural heavyweights.

In Guangzhou, the British architects Wilkinson Ayre have now completed the 440m International Finance Centre. It took a couple of years to build and transformed the area around it from farmland to shiny business district in a matter of a few years. To provide a cultural heart for the city, Guangzhou has invested in a opera house designed by Zaha Hadid along with a world class library designed by Nikken Sekkei and a museum by Rocco Design. It is building these things because it expects there to be a demand for the culture they offer. Nobody asked for them. It is SimCity for real.

Elsewhere in Asia, the blueprints for the new megacities also embrace a number familiar contemporary concerns. At Masdar City in Abu Dhabi there is a clear focus on the environment based on a masterplan by Foster and Partners and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The vision of an eco-city in the desert embraces every aspect of the city’s infrastructure in a way impossible to imagine in an established city.

Meanwhile the $40 billion investment in Songdo by the government of South Korea is based on the development of a technological infrastructure aimed at creating a high tech hub near to Seoul. The physical architecture of the city has been designed by the American architects KPF.

Little wonder given the scale of these developments and the ongoing investment in established megacities that there is so much speculation as to the nature of these vast metropolises, both in terms of how they will look physically but also how they will develop culturally and what effect they will have on the people who live in them.

This is manifesting itself in a number of ways, Academics at organisations such as the Royal Society of the Arts continue to debate what this will all mean at events such as this or in research projects such as the Senseable City Lab from MIT.  The subject has also piqued the interests of filmmakers including this remarkable documentary called Urbanized from the director Gary Hustwit.

Whatever form it takes will continue to inspire debate. It is essential that we understand how the growing urbanisation of the world and the resultant creation of hundreds of megacities will have on every aspect of our lives. Once we have shaped them, they will shape us.