Tue, Feb 17, 2015 - Page 9 News List

A tale of four world megacities

Tokyo, Delhi, London and Bogota — home to a total of more than 80 million people — have responded to economic, political and environmental shifts in radically different ways

By Ricky Burdett  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Yusha

Cities are not static. Like living organisms they change and adapt over time. Some grow and others shrink in response to economic, political and environmental shifts. However, they do this in radically different ways, reflecting local responses to regional, national and global changes.

Recently, the research center LSE Cities focused on the patterns of growth, governance, transport and density of the four national capitals of Japan, India, Colombia and the UK. Together, the metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Delhi, Bogota and London have over 80 million residents (equal to the population of Germany) and, according to the Brookings Institution, a combined GDP of US$2.2 trillion, the size of the Brazilian economy or three times that of Saudi Arabia.

Tokyo has become a highly efficient global megacity in the last four decades — but despite its enviable integrated public transport system and the forthcoming Olympics in 2020, the city is likely to lose 400,000 people over the next 15 years as a result of low-birth rates and a slowing national economy.

London, by contrast, has just come out of the demographic doldrums — overtaking its historical high of over 8.6 million (its size in 1939) and riding high on its global economic pulling power (it has just come top of the Mori Memorial Foundation index of city “magnetism”). Such levels of growth are fueled by a dynamic birth rate (twice that of Rome or Madrid) and strong in-migration attracted to London’s resilient economy, promoted aggressively by its proactive mayors.

The Colombian capital of Bogota, with a city population slightly smaller than London at 8 million, has built on the intelligent policies of successive mayors to cope with typical Latin American patterns of informality, violence and unregulated growth. Famous for introducing the Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit and an extensive system of cycleways (ciclovias, which predate London’s “Boris bikes” by a decade), Bogota is seen as a regional exemplar (alongside Medellin) on how to manage urban change.

Despite being, or perhaps because it is, the capital of the world’s largest democracy, Delhi is still struggling to find a political voice. After pioneering efforts by the former chief minister to build a metro system and introduce natural gas to its buses and rickshaws, the metropolitan area of more than 23 million people has witnessed a sharp increase in inequality even though it remains one of the safest megacities in the world, with 2.7 homicides per 100,000 people compared with Bogota’s 16.1.

Current debates about the efficiency of urban governance gravitate around the “fit” between the size of the administrative boundary controlled by a city mayor or governor, and the actual number of people who live in the “wider functional metropolitan” area. Many cities spill across multiple political jurisdictions as their populations and footprints have grown over time, leading to fragmented decision-making and lack of coordination even though they all “belong” to a continuous urban agglomeration.

For example, only seven million of Mexico City’s 22 million residents are actually controlled by the city mayor of the Distrito Federal while the majority lives (and pays taxes) in the neighboring political districts.


The inability of a metropolitan-wide entity to raise money and determine policy and investment strategies for the entire “functional” area, inevitably leads to dysfunctional transport, infrastructure, housing and environmental policies which cannot be solved within the confines of restricted political boundaries. Sustainable commuting patterns or water supply systems, for example, cannot be implemented without some level of control across broader geographical areas that extend well beyond the city limits of these, and other, global cities.

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