Whether we like them or not, megacities will increasingly become the future of our planet, writes the World Economic Forum’s Carl Björkman.

For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, the world’s cities will absorb 3 billion people, at which point 70% of the planet will live in urban areas. This represents the biggest shift in human civilization since humankind moved from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement.

Yet, some cities are more than cities. Some are megacities. These giant sprawling urban conurbations pack people, communities and businesses across vast spaces. There are now over 20 megacities or metropolises (population centres with more than 10 million people) scattered around the world – from New York, which still captures our imagination with its skyscrapers crammed like dominos onto the finite Manhattan grid, to the bustling, colourful and crime-plagued Mexico City, and from the self-assured Beijing, the meticulously organized technological hive of Tokyo, the melting pot of Istanbul, the booming vibrant Seoul, to the grand old lady of cities, London.

More megacities are sprouting up, although few in the West may have heard of the new emerging metropolises that will play an increasingly dominant global role: Chengdu and Beihei on the north-eastern Chinese coast; Palembang in Indonesia; Ghaziabad, Surat and Faridabad in India; Chittagong in Bangladesh; and Toluca in Mexico. Their cumulative growth is set to usher in a new era of city living, changing the lives of those who move to them – and the face of the planet.

The haves and have-nots
There is something about these megalopolises that catches our imagination and propels us towards them. Lured by optimism and the hope for a better future, people flock to these cities for a chance to climb the ladder of opportunity and get a bit of what they have hoped for. These cities are not just being bolstered by the incessant influx of impoverished rural migrants who see the cities with their neon billboards and glossy skyscrapers as irresistible magnets, but also from worldly travellers, who flock to them every year for job opportunities, tourism, to capture a slice of magic and to be entertained by the amazing breadth of food, culture and shows on offer.

Cities are extraordinary places – full of optimism, energy and splendour – but go down to street level, and the tunnels and gutters that lie beneath them, and another reality starts to emerge: seething heat, suffocating pollution, relentless noise and for the less fortunate, squalor, disease, destitution and decay.

The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is stark. In Beijing alone there are over 9,000 yuan billionaires, and although it is notoriously difficult to get data on the number of households that live under the government poverty threshold of 2,300 Chinese yuan (US$ 365)or less per year, an estimated one million people live in a vast subterranean world of low-cost housing, attracting migrants known as “mice” who are driven underground by sky-high rents. These extremes are not limited to China or the developing world. Megacities, wherever they are, are the most unequal places on earth.

A trend towards monoculture
Megacities have spawned megatrends, which are being catered for by megachains. In some ways, the megacities have become disjointed from their surroundings and have started to lose their specific cultural identity – the cities amalgamate culture, concepts, religious practices, food and drink, and are creating a new urban “megacity culture” underpinned by global movements of commodities, people and ideas.

Megacities compete with one another to attract the biggest, brightest and richest, and in the process often seek to emulate one another. This has led to a style of development based on towers and malls that are ubiquitous. In part, this is due to fashion trends converging, but it is also a result of these cities wooing the megacorporations that bring investments and jobs to the cities. These corporate chains demand their familiar environment of malls and skyscrapers as that is where they feel at home.

In the midst of this rapid bewildering change and move towards a monoculture, it is the metropolis’ cultural identity and uniqueness that is at stake. Its ancient districts, traditions and customs – in short, the very soul of the city is what is at risk of being destroyed and forgotten.

Building resilience
The metropolis with its towers of confidence, teeming with steel and concrete, seems impervious, strong and resilient. But the world’s megacities are actually vulnerable, consisting of a delicate and fragile ecosystem.

If we use Peter Akroyd’s magisterial biography of London, in which he likens the city to a body, most at risk are the cities’ veins, viscera and guts. The veins (transportation or sewage networks) or the guts (the hidden tubes, wires and pipes) are critical to the lifeblood of the city. The ramification of disruptions, either inadvertent or by malice, would have an instant effect. At best, it would lead to temporary paralysis; at worst, it could wreak havoc of biblical proportions. The inherent inequalities in megacities also make the risks of civil strife more likely and the high density of people and buildings increase the ease with which disease – and panic – can spread.

Exacerbating this vulnerability is the fact that many of the world’s megacities are located along coastal areas or along geological fault lines that multiply the likelihood of them being subjected to flooding, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. Their placement is not a coincidence of course; these areas were chosen and grew due to their favourable locations – bays make excellent ports, and floodplains and areas with active geological activity have fertile soil and a climate conducive to agriculture.

In the metropolis of the future, some see a vast opportunity for the establishment of thriving resilient and creative communities where the urban density facilitates the delivery of public goods and services. These city-states, many of which are bigger than many small countries, are connected through powerful networks, which are able to raise living standards for billions. Others see the opposite: a dystopian urban future where the high urban density leads to anarchic dysfunctional communities ravaged by disease, overcrowding and violence.

Within the next decade, the world’s population will swell to 8 billion with an increasing majority living in cities. We had better get used to this trend – and be able to develop sustainable and equitable solutions that are scalable with hyper density. Whether we like them or not, the megacities will increasingly become the future of our planet.

As such, this future will be explored at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos, where there will be a number of discussions on the impact of massive population growth and urbanization around the world, including how to build better emergency response mechanisms in an urban context and how architects can develop works that express, or even create, our collective hopes for the future, engineer new ways to experience the city and foster civic engagement.

Author: Carl Björkman is Director and Head, International Organizations and Government Affairs, World Economic Forum.

 Image: Miniature cars move along the elevated freeway at Chris Burden’s large-scale kinetic sculpture, Metropolis II, in Los Angeles REUTERS/David McNew