China’s cities in the sky
China’s urbanization is unavoidable. Over a billion people will live in China’s cities by 2030, requiring construction on a scale never before seen. This gives China a unique opportunity to create and develop its cities in a way that supports economic growth, preserves the environment, delivers the highest possible quality of life for its citizens, and results in a stream of valuable new technologies. If handled correctly, these developments will not just benefit China but will also have profound implications for the rest of the 21st century world.
Growing up, not out
The question is not how big, but how tall can China’s cities get. China’s urbanization is already well-advanced with over 600 million people living in 800 cities spread across the country in a relatively dispersed pattern. Looking forward, a tidal wave of urban migration on the order of 15 to 20 million long-term residents a year will continue to surge into Chinese cities as a result of increasing perceptions of urban opportunity, as well as the slow and steady move towards larger-scale, more capital-intensive farming. At this rate, China will continue to build out its cities over the next 20 years and the country as a whole will achieve a 70% urbanization rate by 2030. China could continue to add an annual 1,500-plus buildings that are more than 30 floors tall, equivalent to a new Chicago every year, resulting in more than 950 cities by 2030.1
The costs in the current dispersed growth model, however, are unacceptably high. Arable land resources will shrink rapidly. The finances of smaller cities will be stressed, potentially to the breaking point as land and labor costs rise and expectations of environmental performance and social benefits for residents—including migrants—increase. The model is also wasteful, as much of the new investment is of low quality. The average lifespan of a building in China is closer to 20 years than to the norm of 40 or more in OECD nations. Planning is done in a cookie-cutter approach with local authorities copying one another in a lemming-like fashion, reflecting the shortage of planning skills and the pressure on cities to cope with migration as well as the state’s easy access to capital. This results in overcapacity and, often, inappropriate design that is essentially wasted. Industrial capacity in particular is added stochastically, sometimes with little reference to actual demand. Socially, cities are becoming incubators of unrest as slowing urban job creation and dependence on heavy industry for economic growth threaten to create a two-tier society.
There is a spatial alternative, given China’s capital surplus and the government’s ability to implement policy. If China were to encourage the growth of hub-and-spoke clusters, or even megacities with denser populations and more concentrated urban footprints, the average height of buildings could double but the burden on China’s resources would diminish as cities built up, not out. Vertical development would take pressure off the land, ensure that investments were closer to the market, and be significantly more resource-efficient. In the megacity scenario, by 2025 40% of China’s urban population could live in megacities with over 20 million residents. Nationally, China would construct over 4000 high-rises a year, creating a unique and vertical society. And the concentration of resources around centers of excellence in urbanization would lead to a higher quality of investment. This, combined with policies aimed at moving resources away from heavy industry and towards the services sector, would drive a healthier, more consumption-oriented and employment-friendly economy and society.
Implementing such a policy could be easier than it might seem as the current model approaches its limits. In fact, the Chinese national leadership recognizes and implicitly supports a sharp and significant course change to a new urban model; it calls for an industrial and economic rebalancing to achieve a more harmonious society in the 12th Five Year Plan.
Postcards from the vertical city
Here’s how it would look. Each of these megacity clusters would have an economic scale equivalent to a moderately sized European country. Greater Shanghai could be as big as Germany today, while the central Yangzi cluster around Wuhan might be France. Mayors of hub cities in this context would be closer to presidents in a European model of continental development, with all the authority and ambition that implies. They would be fully capable of developing their own policies, from industry priorities to health and education reform to governance, within the context of a national political framework.
While dense, these cities would not be crowded since they could each span upwards of 800 square kilometers of territory. Park environments would predominate outside dense and highly livable urban cores. Technology would enable a sustainable lifestyle for megacity residents. As the cost of delivering goods and services to a dense urban core continued to decline, vertical development would enhance the livability of the city, with residents eating, working, playing, and sleeping all in the same community. Neighborhoods of a million residents would be standard and enabled by public transit with large high-rise housing estates as core residential complexes, with 50,000 residents per estate. Passive design, sustainable building materials and renewable and smart energy management systems would revolutionize buildings. Even agriculture would be part of the megacity as urban farming takes off on the roofs and sides of buildings.
Outside the urban core of the megacity, satellite “villages” linked by mass transit would house up to another 25 percent of the population, forming clusters, each with more than 40 million people, and, in total, accounting for more than 70 percent of the economic activity of the country. Satellite towns may struggle to define their own economic proposition; the most successful ones having made investments in productive infrastructure, universities, and marketing to the urban core—their largest likely market. Meanwhile, industrial complexes would move outside both the urban core and the satellites, the land they previously occupied repurposed for commercial and social uses
Megacities and their surrounding clusters will not depend on China’s traditional investment-driven growth model. Rather, they will be driven by and dependent upon the growth and consumption of services. Just as New York, with its scale and talent, made Wall Street possible, China’s megacities will create unprecedented opportunities to develop service industries by enhancing the scale and frequency of interactions. Cities in China will become models for the rest of the world, achieving a large scale of industry and financial-market depth. Spending on culture, recreation, health care, and education will grow by orders of magnitude from their current languishing state.
As it builds these cities, China’s quest for resources will have global implications. While mechanization of farming done on the shrinking amounts of arable land may be sufficient to provide food for the cities, China’s demand for energy will double over the next two decades even as energy efficiency also doubles. The sheer amount of incremental activity that urbanization creates makes it impossible to envision a scenario in which energy demand declines in China. Rather, both existing and new sources of energy will be required. China will become a major coal importer even as it turns away from fossil fuels to become the world’s largest nuclear and renewable energy producer. This demand in turn will transform global communities as resource basins are pushed to double in size, whole new terrains are dug up, and massive investments in rail and ports are made. Africa will see the development of its resources as a way to feed China’s demand. Agricultural equipment manufacturers in Peoria will see a boom in sales to Brazil as China’s soybean imports take off.
Reinventing City Systems
China’s cities will encourage a high level of environmental investment, with waste and water recycling becoming a way of life for both industry and consumers. Water will become a more valuable commodity and encourage investment in water efficiency as well as the world’s largest water treatment projects. Large, integrated recycling projects will minimize the impact of industrial and energy production.
Transport will be another key area for redesign. Electric vehicles will dominate the fleet in the megacities, reflecting government’s will to support the technology by building charging infrastructure. But mass transit and transit-oriented development will be even more powerful levers to minimize the requirements for long distance commuting. China will build over 170 mass transit systems in the next 20 years, compared to 50 in all of Europe. Across cities, the advent of national high-speed rail will link together the megacities even more, resulting in the development of a uniquely Chinese megacity culture and the rapid dissemination of best practices in urban development and management.
These innovations will also have global implications. The solutions that China develops in its megacities will have scale, and ultimately, global rollouts. Chinese solar water heaters already dot the rooftops of Johannesburg townships. Chinese high-voltage grid technology could transmit electricity across the Midwestern plains in the United States. In China and abroad, global corporations, some of them Chinese, will partner with local governments to develop and deploy the new urban solutions of tomorrow.
Urbanization will also drive a massive investment in and renaissance of Chinese education and health care. Almost 40 percent of China’s urban populations will be migrants by 2030, as people from rural areas pour in looking for greater opportunity. School and hospital systems set up to meet the needs of local residents will have to cope with a bigger population demanding higher-quality services. Investment in teachers, community clinics, and hospitals will require new ways of doing things. More practical and innovative approaches will, in turn, challenge today’s educational and health care bureaucracies to be more responsive and to invest more in the quality and capability of teachers and medical staff.
Megacities will require alternative governance given their greater complexity and heterogeneity of demand. Robust debate will continue, especially over quality-of-life-issues, as urban governance grows more complex and multi-faceted. And while it is unlikely that a country with regions that are over a hundred years apart in their level of economic development could have a uniform system of local governance, the advent of megacities will make questions of transparency and accountability much more immediate and relevant. The good news is that China’s political system devolves accountability to localities, making it more likely that, over time, locally appropriate solutions will be found.
China now has a historic chance to reinvent not only its cities but the very idea of a city. The choices that its city leaders make will shape not only its buildings but also its society, and indeed the world.
1“Preparing for China’s Urban Billion,” McKinsey Global Institute, Februrary 2009.