China's Mega-City Problem
Image Credit: Photobucket / samort7

China's Mega-City Problem


In their article “How the rise of the megacity is changing the way we live,” the Guardian correspondents Paul Webster and Jason Burke profile Chengdu, a once lush and lethargic city of 500,000 back in 1950 that today is now a bustling and bursting metropolis of 14 million.  Chengdu is just one of many cities found throughout the developing word that are acquiring “mega-city” status.

The Guardian reporters mention the building of two monuments aimed at shining the global spotlight on Chengdu, a city most famous for its teahouses where the young and the old laugh the day away playing cards: 

The New Century Global Centre is a leisure complex that will house two 1,000-room five-star hotels, an ice rink, a luxury Imax cinema, vast shopping malls and a 20,000-capacity indoor swimming pool with 400 meters of “coastline” and a fake beach the size of 10 football pitches complete with its own seaside village. Alongside will be another massive and futuristic structure, a contemporary arts centerdesigned by the award-winning Iraqi-born architect, Zaha Hadid.”

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By definition, mega-cities are overwhelming – their problems more so than their potential. The center of Johannesburg, a recently minted mega-city, brims with slums of frustration and desperation, while its margins grow fat with financial centers and gated communities. The by-products of Beijing’s overcrowding are air pollution and traffic congestion, and its insatiable appetite for water and fuel deplete the surrounding provinces of their own potential.  What makes mega-cities particularly daunting is their unmanageability, only worsened by the constant influx of migrants, who with their cheap labor and political disenfranchisement permit the middle class to achieve a high standard of living, but whose need for healthcare and housing the middle class refuse to pay for.

The Guardian article quotes Chengdu’s mayor, Ge Honglin, who understands the inherent instability in planning a “mega-city” in Sichuan, one of China’s poorest provinces and a steady supplier of migrants to China’s booming coastal cities:     

“Chengdu's mayor, Ge Honglin, claims that the city has avoided some of the problems associated with migration into the cities by encouraging families to stay in the countryside. ‘The first thing I did was to improve the conditions – schools, shops, garbage collection, the sewage system. We had to cut the gap between rural and urban areas. If people could have a brighter future in the countryside, they'd stay there. So we’re not seeing people swarm into the city…Instead there are people in the city considering moving to the country.’”

If Ge can grow Chengdu on his timetable and schedule without unleashing vast environmental destruction and opening the gates to a flood of poor peasants, then he would be a finer technocrat than both Albert Speer and Robert Moses combined.  

The main problem with Chengdu’s growth, as well as that of all of China’s urban centers, is the mentality of growth for growth’s sake, which emphasizes buildings and statistics over people and ideas. What China’s city planners need to understand is that a city exists to unite and inspire its people to engage in creative endeavors that would better themselves and their city. 

Both Robert Moses’ arch-nemesis Jane Jacobs and the urban theorist Richard Florida believe that cities can and ought to be organic and dynamic, open and diverse communities that inspire their citizens. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class (a book heavily inspired by Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities), Florida argues that cities, if they are to thrive and prosper, must attract creative people, and “provide the integrated eco-system or habitat where all forms of creativity – artistic and cultural, technological and economic – can take root and flourish”:

“Creative people are not moving to [cities] for traditional reasons. The physical attractions that most cities focus on building – sports stadiums, freeways, urban malls and tourism-and-entertainment districts that resemble theme parks – are irrelevant, insufficient or actually unattractive to many Creative Class people.  What they look for in communities are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people.”

The irony of all this is that Chengdu, with its beautiful rural hills, its distinctive culture, its traditional openness and tolerance, and its artistic communities, could have become China’s top creative center if it built on its strengths.  

By choosing rapid and vapid urbanization, Chengdu is losing its identity and character, and becoming a lesser version of Beijing – a tense conflict between buildings and people, a conflict which has alienated everyone from each other and himself.  

Or much, much worse, it’ll become like Chongqing.   

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