If you journey from Nanjing to Shanghai through Suzhou, a distance of nearly 200 miles, you will be struck by the fact that you pass through almost continuous urban development. The countryside seems to be turning into a new kind of city — “desakota,” a term the geographer Terry McGee once coined. This is a mixture of town and country, an urban sprawl, peppered by many high-rise blocks in what seem to be rural areas.
This is indigenous, perhaps, to China itself, but it is symptomatic of the fact that many cities all over the world are rapidly fusing into one another and making the traditional definition of cities as independent entities no longer appropriate. By the end of this century, the world will consist of nearly everyone living in one kind of city or another, and in many cases, we will not be able to distinguish one city from another.
I made this journey for the first time in 2002, and 15 years later, I retraced my steps, this time traveling from Suzhou to Shanghai. I remember Suzhou in 2002 as a town of perhaps 1 million, but still enough of a small town, built around canals in its core and reminiscent of the old China in the Yangtze delta region. In the intervening years, it seemed to me that Suzhou had reached 2 million to 3 million people — but I was told quite firmly that Suzhou is now 11 million and rising. Simply add that to the Shanghai municipality’s population of 23 million, and you already have more people living in the region than in any of the large city agglomerations that are officially ranked number one in the world, such as Mexico City or Tokyo (said to be about 25 million to 30 million).
In urban regions like Shanghai or Guangzhou, your journey will be through a remarkable sprawl, more a series of adjacent and linked clusters of high-rise development all running into one another, rather different from anything resembling Phoenix or Atlanta, the archetypical examples of sprawl in the United States.
In many senses, this is, of course, the Chinese city of the future, just as the sort of continuous urban development we have in western Europe, at much lower densities and with very few high-rises, is our future. London is no more 8 million people than Amsterdam is 1 million. The wider London region is at least 15 million, and probably nearer to 25 million — arguably, the city now extends to the south Midlands and even along the South Coast. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, it is simply impossible to draw city boundaries for a total population of nearly 17 million, which in any case spreads across the border into Belgium. Cities are still growing outward dramatically, as much through inward migration (some still from rural areas) as through cities growing into one another. At the same time, as China shows, the quest is also to grow upward, particularly in the cores of the largest cities.
What might it be like to live in such urban agglomerations? That will depend. Those who are poor and less mobile will have a much more restricted view of what their city is than those whose business takes them across such agglomerations on a daily basis. The poor are likely to have a very different sense of community than those who are richer. Moreover, as cities continue to grow, their structures become more complex and the sense of identity changes.
When everything becomes connected to everything else, cities will become more like nation-states.
To an extent, 21st-century urban development is much more fragmented than the industrial city of the 19th and 20th centuries, itself divisive in a very different way from cities of the past. Urban inequalities of a different nature than those of the industrial city will mark these new city regions, already evident in the Chinese cities where much of the development on their edges consists of “ghost towns” whose rationale is “investment” rather than building for housing and commerce. This focus on cities becoming “asset classes” is also a characteristic of increasing regeneration in our biggest Western cities, such as London, Paris, and New York. Cities are in general getting wealthier as they increasingly form the engines of growth, with the biggest cities growing more than proportionately to the rest of their nation with respect to their total income and GDP.
It is now widely expected that the world’s population growth will dramatically slow throughout the rest of this century, and almost everyone will be living in cities. Cities will be characterized largely by migration rather than natural growth, and this mixing will change their complexion quite radically.
As the world gets wealthier, populations will become more mobile. With new technologies of transportation, such as high-speed trains, and with increased wealth and falling transportation costs, the biggest cities will soon be peppered with new forms of transportation, as we see in the remarkable growth of high-speed trains between many large cities in China over the past 10 years. There will be a shift to limited autonomy in vehicles used for transportation, and it is entirely possible that there will be more concern for building walkable and high-quality environments. As the rate of change in technological development shows little sign of slowing, the job market will be in perpetual motion. All populations will probably live longer, and people of old age will be fitter, working longer and supporting the economy.
When London and New York wield a power greater than most nation-states, what remains behind? Isolated pockets of poverty in rural areas, ever shrinking and falling further and further away from the poles of urban prosperity.
Consider the idea of a megalopolis stretching along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, one continuous city covering territory from Boston to Washington, D.C. It may sound absurd, but it has long seemed a likely outcome. More than 100 years ago, H.G. Wells predicted, “The whole of Great Britain south of the Highlands seems destined to become such an urban region, laced all together not only by railway and telegraph, but by novel roads… Enough has been said to demonstrate that old ‘town’ and ‘city’ will be, in truth, terms as obsolete as ‘mail coach.’”
In another 100 years, we may add to that list: “suburb,” “city limits,” and perhaps even “border.”