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How Cities, Not Countries, Could Dominate the 21st Century

02/26/2014 09:05 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

The last few decades have been characterized by the proliferation of megacities all over the world. In 1970, there were only two megacities in the world, Tokyo and New York. By 2011, the world boasted 23 megacities. This is expected to reach 37 megacities by 2025. While their numbers grew, the cities have grown in terms of both economic and political clout. According to Parag Khanna, forty city-regions are responsible for more than two-thirds of the global economy and a significant share of its innovation. The growing importance of cities have made McKinsey state that cities and not countries may dominate the 21st century.

Since 1970, most megacities have arisen in developing countries. According to World Urbanization Reports: The 2011 Revision published by the United Nations, Asia had 13 megacities in 2011, followed by four in Latin America and two each in Africa, Europe and North America. Of the 23 megacities, 13 are the capitals of their respective countries. Between 1970 and 2011, the number of people living in megacities increased from 39.5 million to 359.4 million, an increase of almost ten times. In 2011, the population of megacities consisted of 5.2 percent of the world population. This is predicted to increase to 8 percent in 2025 when the number of megacities would increase to 37. Then, Asia would have gained another nine megacities and Latin America two megacities. Europe, North America and Africa would each gain one megacity by 2025. Megacities would account for 630 million people by 2025. According to the UN report, one in twenty people lived in megacities in 2011; by 2025, this ratio would be one in 13 people, an evidence of increased urbanization all over the world. The forecasted increase in megacities in the developing countries also indicates increased urbanization in the developing countries.

Tokyo is the most populous megacity in the world with a population of 37.2 million in 2011, according to the UN report. Its population surpasses that of Canada or Algeria. It is followed by the capital of India, Delhi, with a population of 23 million and Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. By 2025, Tokyo is expected to boast a population of 39 million people and still remain the most populous megacity in the world. However, it will be followed by cities that are expected to gain significant population. The UN report adds that Delhi is expected to have a population of 33 million people in 2025, Shanghai in China 28.4 million and Mumbai in India 27 million inhabitants. While the megacities in the developed countries and Latin American countries are predicted to experience low rates of population growth, the ones in the developing countries are predicted to grow faster. Dhaka in Bangladesh, Karachi in Pakistan and Lagos in Nigeria are each forecasted to grow at over two percent.

The megacities of the developed countries and the developing countries are significantly different. Cities like Tokyo and New York have very high per capita incomes and can provide basic services like law and order, health care, education and utility services to their residents. These cities have built the necessary infrastructure to cater to the needs of their residents. Inspite of the large populations, the residents of these cities enjoy very high standard of living. It is expected that the megacities in the developed countries would be able to accommodate their increased populations in the future. Again, these megacities create sufficient employment opportunities for their residents and have considerable economies. Both Tokyo and New York have trillion dollar economies while the other megacities in the developed countries also have substantial-sized economies.

On the other hand, the megacities in the developing countries are quite different. While a megacity like Tokyo is surrounded by smaller cities, the megacities in developing countries are sometimes surrounded by slums. The rapid pace of urbanization and city-centric growth has led to rapid influx of people from villages and smaller towns to these megacities. However, this has led to unplanned urbanization in many of the megacities of the developing countries. The massive influx of people has fuelled housing booms and steep increase in real estate prices in these megacities. The development of infrastructure could not keep pace with population growth; this has led to insufficient streets and highways. Again, there are more cars and buses than the roads can accommodate leading to increased traffic and congestion in these megacities.

The rapid increase in population has made it very difficult for city planners to accommodate the increasing population and the necessary utility services. Some of the megacities in the developing countries suffer from scarcity of gas, water and electricity generation. In certain cases, the utility providers in these megacities find it quite challenging to keep pace with population growth and the resultant increase in demand for necessary utility services. Again, some of these megacities have grappled with law and order condition, health care services and educational institutions. The supply of these services is sometimes outpaced by the increasing demand of their growing population. The residents of these cities have found it difficult to enrol their children in schools while the availability of doctors has become increasingly scarce.

The megacities in the developing countries often depict a stark contrast between the rich and poor. The severe income inequality that exists in these megacities has only increased over time. Income inequality has increased throughout the world but, it is more pronounced in the developing countries. While some residents of the megacities in the developing countries are extremely wealthy and live opulent lives, there are many people in these cities who are struggling. Slums are a common sight in some of these megacities; people live in overcrowded slums in abject poverty. Many of the residents of these megacities are part of the urban poor and have low standard of living.

The megacities of developed countries continue to provide high standards of living where the residents feel safe and enjoy modern services. The megacities of the developing countries are fraught with challenges like pollution and unplanned urbanization. One can only hope that these megacities would be able to improve and provide better quality of life in the future.

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