Mon, Jul 15, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Should we build cities from scratch?

As well as being less complicated and cheaper than retrofitting old cities, building new cities is seen by many global leaders as more profitable — and sexier

By Wade Shepard  /  The Guardian

A view of a building under construction in February at Forest City in Johor, Malaysia. Shiny new cities hold the dreams and aspirations of people and nations from east Asia to the Middle East to Africa.

Photo: Reuters

People have been building new cities from scratch for millennia. From the foundation myths surrounding Athens and Rome, to the clearance of virgin forests in western New York state to create the “garden city” of Buffalo, to scores of purpose-built capitals — Brasilia, Canberra, Astana, Washington DC — building new cities is just something that humans do.

When countries rise up, when markets emerge, people build new cities.

Today, though, we are taking it to unheard-of levels. We have never before built so many new cities in so many places at such great expense as we are right now.

New dots have been popping up on the maps of countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and India with unprecedented frequency since the late 1990s, and more than 120 new cities are currently being built in 40 nations around the world.

Avant-garde developments like Shenzhen and Pudong blazed new economic trails until they eventually widened into the boulevards of a new status quo for the emerging markets of the world.

We are standing on the precipice of a new city building boom unlike anything we’ve seen before. These shiny new metropolises hold the dreams and aspirations of people and nations from east Asia to the Middle East to Africa. Will they deliver a bright new urban future or a debt-fuelled bubble of historic proportions?


The new city has been sold as a one-stop cure-all for an array of urban and economic issues facing emerging markets around the world: overcrowding, pollution, traffic congestion, housing shortages, lack of green space and economic stagnation, to name a few. By starting from scratch, governments hope to move on from their current clogged and dysfunctional urban centers and develop new economic sectors to help them leapfrog other nations. City building itself can also be a highly profitable endeavour for some.

At first glance, many new cities appear to openly defy economic fundamentals. What are emerging markets — “poor countries” — doing building some of the most technologically advanced, expensive cities on earth? Why is the dusty, remote Kazakh border town of Khorgos turning into what is claimed will become a “new Dubai”? How come oil-dependent Oman is erecting Duqm — a metropolis twice the size of Singapore — in the middle of the desert ?

“The major reason for new cities is that there is so much migration,” says John Macomber, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who has studied new city development in depth. “People are moving to cities all over the world to seek opportunity.”

According to the UN, 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. This means 2.5 billion more city dwellers, with 90 percent of the uptake happening in Asia and Africa. Half of the urban area that will be needed hasn’t been built yet. We would need scores more Delhis, Shanghais and Lagoses.

“The sad thing is that we’re going to develop more urban area in the next 100 years than currently exists on Earth,” says the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer of New York University. “If we stick to business as usual most of it is going to be disorderly and less functional than the stuff we already have.”

It doesn’t take a Nobel winner to see that many of the existing cities of Asia and Africa are simply not able to handle this onslaught of urbanization. Cairo was built to house 1 million people, not the 20 million who live there today. Cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata, Lagos, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro are crowded by rings of informal developments. Retrofitting these cities with modern infrastructure and utilities is more complicated and expensive than clearing out a swathe of land and starting all over again.

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