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Planning China’s megacities

Sean C. S. ChiaoAECOM

Sean C. S. Chiao is executive vice president, China, for AECOM, a global engineering and design firm. He has overseen high-density master plans for new towns and the regeneration of existing urban landscapes, as well as the design and construction of major public open spaces in China and across Asia. Chiao holds a master of architecture degree in urban design from Harvard University and master of architecture degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Whether or not we support urbanization, it is happening at an increasing rate. As citizens, governments, developers, planners, designers, environmentalists, and climate and energy experts, we must learn how to manage rural-to-urban migration rather than wring our hands over this unstoppable trend. The fact is, urban agglomerations will provide the best models for efficiency—if we put in place the right planning, design, and development strategies to bring out the best in them. Indeed, nothing about megacities should be organic or left to chance; they must be planned and managed in a careful and innovative way.

Megacities will grow out of the most vibrant urban centers, making it imperative that we learn how to use resources as efficiently as possible. Here’s the good news: we already have workable and optimal approaches for planning, building, and managing megacities. By optimal, I mean that we have ways of creating, enhancing, and sustaining energy- and resource-efficient megacities. By definition, megacities lend themselves to efficiency; the bigger the city, the higher the concentration of people, resources, information, capital, and goods. This means that serving customers, supplying energy, and providing information—as well as the amenities most vital to urban residents, such as transportation, public health, and safety services—can be highly efficient and cost effective. The answer to the question of how big can cities get: as big as we want them to become, as long as we create and manage them correctly.

Not surprisingly, urbanization is happening fastest in developing countries such as China, where I lead a team of designers, architects, engineers, and management-service specialists. China already has seven cities with more than ten million people—Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Tianjin—and Wuhan is quickly hitting the ten million–resident mark. For China, with its high population density and its land and water scarcity, megacity development is probably the most efficient option. Chinese megacities will be hubs for jobs, culture, leisure, and education, a model that will be radically different from the manufacturing-center model that forms the basis of many Chinese cities today. Chinese megacities will also, very likely, be hubs for small and medium-sized satellite cities that will spring up around them.

As an architect and urban designer, I believe that the right approach to both retrofitting an existing megacity or building a new one from scratch is holistic planning, with commitment flowing from both the public and private sectors. For Chinese megacities to function properly, there must be clear state policies on how to build and run them, as well as strict audits to ensure that the laws are followed. Rules and guidelines on how to build a “green” infrastructure—from buildings, bridges, transport networks, and sanitation systems to power grids, incentives for consuming power efficiently, and disincentives for energy abuse and malpractice must be mandated and put into practice. Continuous investments are required from both the government and the private sector.

For this reason, the planning, design, and development of megacities should be multidisciplinary. The work should be left in the hands of planners and builders, energy specialists, architects, economists, environmentalists, transportation planners, and sustainability consultants, all working in concert. Neither the government nor the private sector by itself can enhance or create a megacity. Both sectors must work together for a project as complicated as this.

In China, not only are new megacities certain to spring up and expand, but legacy megacities (like Beijing and Guangzhou) will get even larger and more complex. They will need “retrofitting” to become more energy efficient for the future. Toward this end, my team and I are conducting a study with Beijing Planning and Design Institute in what we have dubbed the Global Cities Program (GCP) to help the capital expand sustainably. Our approach has been to evaluate the gaps between Beijing’s current planning situation and the performance of other “world cities” in four critical areas: transportation, municipal infrastructure, energy, and watershed development. We’re looking at both big-picture questions (for example, how do other world cities determine the correct level of investment in transportation) and at more granular issues (like how do other world cities provide infrastructure for bicycles, including lanes, parking facilities, and rental facilities). Based on our analysis, we will make recommendations for how Beijing can close these gaps.

In addition to solutions, we’ll be looking at how cities like Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, and Tokyo have managed the changes needed to make themselves more livable and more sustainable. We want to know how they decided when to upgrade systems or build new ones and how they implemented those decisions.

China will continue to grow exponentially, and bigger towns and cities will consume energy and resources in potentially terrifying amounts. This is why the Chinese government must ensure that the country’s cities don’t just grow at all costs but truly tap the potential urban agglomerations hold for the productive and efficient provision and use of resources. Efficient megacities need not only sound policies but also innovative management and operations, with collaboration among governments, the private sector, and civil groups.

Megacities will work, but only if we apply holistic and multidisciplinary approaches to planning and building to help them become truly sustainable.

  • Uriel Banks

    China offers great oppurtunities to city planners like me. I’m going to do my master in Beijing so I can start getting a feel for the Chinese culture. Here in the west it’s really hard to get to the top when you’re just starting out but in China (and the Middle-East as well) the opportunities are endless.

  • R.S.Gattani-Town Planner

    I fully endorse the intent of the article as it has focus on managing livable, sustainable pursuinng holistic, multidesciplinary approrach to ceating mega cities.
    Idea of treating mega city as hubs for jobs, culture,leisure,education, sspelized health care and at the sanme time acting as hubs for small and medium sized satellite( self contained)is a welcome proposition.
    Humane approach to creating urban system should not be overlooked at the same time environmental concern at local, regional and global level should prevail . We need to build megacities for people and not for cars alone.

  • Nathan Rogers

    I wholly agree with this piece. Recently there has been far too much Pollyanna-esque coverage of the benefits of “organic” urbanism. While I do think that individuals are capable of organizing themselves into some workable urban form—and, indeed, slums and other informal settlements do have things to teach us about how to build cities—my personal belief is that most of these pieces are apologetics for the fact that slums are a growing and seemingly ineluctable part of the urban landscape of much of the world, and thus, the authors are attempting to “look on the bright side” of this phenomenon.

    Anyway, the fact of the matter is that we won’t get a chance to remake the megacities that are forming today. Leaving such development to chance is tantamount to sanctioning haphazard urban development by an unrestrained private sector on one hand, and unrestrained informal development by the teeming masses of the urban poor on the other, resulting in a nightmarish collection of disjointed, in-cohesive urban forms. Jakarta provides a fine example of this type of development. And the inherent risk in following this path—precisely the fate Jakarta is fact facing as the government makes plans to move the city wholesale to an entirely different island—is the very real prospect of failed cities.

    When it comes down to it, no one in their right mind would choose to live in Jakarta, Lagos, or Dhaka over New York, Singapore, or Tokyo, if given the choice. But, the real challenge of course is integrating large numbers of urban poor—physically (in terms of housing), economically, and socially—into the fabric of a city: a challenge that the latter three have not had to deal with in any comparable degree to the former three.

  • I agree with your article.
    It might be instructive to look at Hong Kong’s system of renting land. By charging land rent, Hong Kong recaptures publicly-created land values that are generated when public infrastructure is created or improved.
    If rents are kept close to market, this can also discourage speculation which often hampers downtown development, thereby fostering sprawl. Charging market rent for land creates pressure for intense, high-value development on high-value urban land — which is where development should occur.

  • steve synakowski


    Please take a look at our website,

    The design ideas we present as architects and urbanists are along the same lines you discuss.

    Thank you very much for your article.

    Steve Synakowski, RA, NCARB
    Board Certified Architect, US

  • N.M.Deshmukh

    Hi, As most populus and rapidly developing countries India and China appriciate the economics of urban agglomoration.I conform the views with a suggestion that with a high rise high density city center and low rise low density peripherial devlopment,we may allow and push a better development of our cities,giving a better choise to residents, ease to central exchequre to provide engineering and other services within easy reach of the masses.

  • Swan

    I think the key is to strengthen the exchange rate for African currencies to level the economic playing field needs to be carefully considered and activated once and for all. No accident has occurred historically to make African currencies weaker financially than ALL Western and Asian currencies. Also, while China has invested $5B in a Kenyan railway system, what is the economic return for China? Where is the offer of business, agricultural, and scientific technology transfer in areas where mobile tech compliment but not dominate this shift in African GDP? Otherwise, as Mazrui mentions, we continue to imperialize, impoverish, exploit, and offer Western capitalistic profit unsuited for the African condition. Is this the economic future we wish to consistently offer Africa? Consumerism? Products purchased on inferior currency, consequential digital waste, and no technology manufacturing/ transfer for increases economic and social stability? More than about jobs and consumerism the discussion ought to be about ownership. Hmmm…

  • BillBasham

    What are the cost drivers for online education? I would think that there would be substantial upfront costs developing courseware and software and aquiring hardware, and the ongoing costs would be considerably less. Is it likely that the cost of a 4 year online degree will drop over time?

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