UN report: World’s biggest cities merging into ‘mega-regions’John Vidal, environment editor
22 March, 2010
According to a major new UN report, the largest cities in the world, known as ‘mega-cities’, are merging to form huge ‘mega-regions’ which may stretch hundreds of kilometres across countries and be home to more than 100 million people. The phenomenon of the so-called ‘endless city’ could be one of the most significant developments – and problems – in the way people live and economies grow in the next 50 years, says the report.The largest of these mega-regions, says the report, is the Hong Kong-Shenhzen-Guangzhou region in China, which is home to about 120 million people. Other mega-regions have formed in Japan and Brazil and are developing in India, West Africa and elsewhere. The trend helped the world pass a tipping point in the last year, with more than half the world’s people now living in cities.The UN said that urbanization is now unstoppable. Anna Tibaijuka, outgoing director of UN-Habitat, said, “Just over half the world now lives in cities but by 2050, over 70 % of the world will live in cities. By then, only 14 % of people in rich countries will live outside cities, and 33 % in poor countries.”The development of mega-regions is regarded as generally positive, said the report’s co-author, Eduardo Lopez Moreno. “Mega-regions, rather than countries, are now creating wealth. Research shows that the world’s largest 40 mega-regions cover only a very small part of the habitable surface of our planet and are home to fewer than 18% of the world’s population but account for 66 % of all economic activity and about 85 % of technological and scientific innovation,” said Moreno. “The top 25 cities in the world account for more than half of the world’s wealth,” he added. “And the five largest cities in India and China now account for 50 % of those countries’ wealth. The migration to cities, while making economic sense, has an effect on the rural economy too. “Most of the wealth in rural areas already comes from people in urban areas sending money back,” Moreno said. The growth of mega-regions and cities is also leading to unprecedented urban sprawl, new slums, unbalanced development and income inequalities, as more and more people move to smaller towns or cities near bigger cities. “Cities like Los Angeles grew 45 % in numbers between 1975 and 1990, but tripled their surface area in the same time. This sprawl is now increasingly happening in developing countries as real estate developers promote the image of a ‘world-class lifestyle’ outside the traditional city,” say the authors. Urban sprawl, they say, is wasteful, it adds to transport costs, increases energy consumption, requires more resources and destroys farmland. “As cities become more unequal, there is a greater risk that economic differences will result in social and political tension. Urban unrest in unequal cities is likely. The cities that are the most successful are generally those that are reducing inequalities,” said Moreno. In a sample survey of world cities, the UN found the most unequal were in South Africa. Johannesburg was the least equal in the world, only a little ahead of East London, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Latin American, Asian and African cities were generally more equal, but mainly because they were uniformly poor, with a high level of slums and poor sanitation. Some of the most equal cities were found to be Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. The US is one of the most unequal societies with cities like New York, Chicago and Washington less equal than places like Brazzaville in Congo-Brazzaville, Managua in Nicaragua and Davao City in the Philippines. “The marginalization and segregation of specific groups in the US creates a city within a city. The richest 1 % of households now earn more than 72 times the average income of the poorest 20 % of the population. In the ‘other America’, poor black families live together in ghettos, lacking access to quality education, work and political power,” says the report.