The Urban Future

Feb 17 2011

“For those (cities) which were great once are small today; and those that used to be small are great in my own time.  Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”  - Herodotus

The history of cities

We are all aware of the rapid urbanisation of Asia, most especially in China, and the rise of great new world cities.  Joel Kotkin writes about the rise and fall of great cities through time, noting that in Herodotus’s time (see the quote above), the cities of Ur and Nineveh had already faded into history, and those of Babylon, Athens and Syracuse were in their prime.  However, these cities themselves were ultimately replaced by newer and greater cities in Alexandria and Rome.

Rome itself is a great lesson in the changing fortunes of cities. Rome was once the world’s first truly mega-city, and the first to exceed a population of one million, at one time ruling over an area from Mesopotamia to Britain.  However, after the peak of it’s glory Rome declined to a population of around 35,000 in the early middle ages, only beginning it’s revival during the Renaissance period.

Rule Britannia

Around 300 years ago, London was the premier capital of the world, drawing on Britain’s wealth of resources and people (unlike the Netherlands which were superceded because of more limited space), and it’s geography, with London an important trading port situated between Europe and the new colonies.

The rise of Asian cities

The world’s urban population has grown from 750 million in 1960, to 3 billion in 2002, and expected to reach 5 billion in 2030!  A majority of this growth has come from Asia, but Asia has a long history of great world cities, particularly China.  Although the growth has been dramatic, for example Shanghai had a population of only 37,000 around 1900 (compared with Beijing’s one million at that time) and grew rapidly to 3.5 million by 1937, Asian cities have a glorious past history too.

Around 1000 BCE, the world’s largest city was Haoqing (Xi’an) in China, with a population estimated at 100,000. Since then, many Chinese cities have held the title of the world’s largest including Luoyi (Luoyang), Linzi, Xiadu all in ancient times, Nanjing (as Jiankang around 1,500 years ago and Jinling 600 years ago), Chang’an and Kaifeng.  Beijing was the largest city in the world many times from 1500 AD to 1800 AD (with competition from Istanbul and Ayutthaya in Thailand over that time).

In modern times, Tokyo has been the largest metropolitan area in the world for many years (although there are as many rankings of cities as there are mega-cities themselves).  I prefer the ranking of Demographia, which is based on the population captured within a contiguous urban area rather than administrative boundaries or catchment areas, more closely reflecting our real experience of a city.  Based on this ranking, Asia has seven out of the ten largest urban areas in the world:

  1. Tokyo-Yokohama 35,200,000
  2. Jakarta (Jabotedabek) 22,000,000
  3. Mumbai (Bombay) 21,255,000
  4. Delhi 20,995,000
  5. Metro Manila 20,705,000
  6. New York 20,610,000
  7. Sao Paulo 20,180,000
  8. Seoul-Incheon 19,910,000
  9. Mexico City (Valley of Mexico) 18,690,000
  10. Shanghai 18,400,000

However you calculate the ranking, Asia’s urban population is important and growing, and within the next 15 largest cities (numbers 11-25), Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, Kolkata (Calcutta), Shenzhen, Beijing, Guangzhou-Foshan, Karachi, Dongguan and Dhaka appear.  [For the record, based purely on city administrative boundaries without suburbs, Shanghai is the largest city in the world with a population of 13,831,900.]

The future of cities

In a recent series of articles on cities, McKinsey argue that economies of scale make large cities more productive (they are also generally more energy efficient than having populations spread across large rural areas).  At the same time, McKinsey argue that the size of some cities is beginning to make then ‘unmanageable’, negating the economic advantages of scale, with gridlock and poverty starting to overwhelm efficiency once cities grow beyond a certain size.  This is already happening in Latin American, where cities like Sao Paulo and Mexico City have started to run into constraints and problems with urban development, and this could potentially happen in Asia too.

There are currently 23 cities in the world with a population of more than ten million (‘megacities’) and China has seven of them!  This number is predicted to grow to 36 cities by 2025.  Along with this growth in population, has come a growth upwards in the height of buildings, seeking to make better use of the limited space available.

The latest city trends

In their latest trend report ‘Citysumers’,, talk about three key urbanisation trends:

  1. The rapid increase in the number of people living in cities
  2. The increasing wealth and power of cities (and many of those who live in them)
  3. The spread of urban culture and values

Bigger, more creative and more cultured?

The world is already more than 50% urban, although Africa and Asia (especially China and India) still have a long way to go in moving population to cities, with 180,000 people moving from countryside to cities every day.  The sheer size of the change, with a predicted 1 billion urban dwellers in China and almost 600 million in India by 2030.  This will mean that India would have 68 cities with more than one million people, and China 221.  Chinese authorities are even contemplating merging nine cities in the Pearl River Delta into one metropolitan area with a population of more than 40 million people and a surface area greater than Argentina (or 26 times London). claim that 100 cities account for 30% of the world’s economy and almost all it’s innovation. Although I am not convinced that all innovation happens in these cities, it is definitely true that cities are a magnet for talent, and their connectivity brings huge rewards for new ideas and ways of thinking.  One startling statistic is that Shanghai’s economy represents 13% of China’s total GDP with only 2% of it’s population (and by some estimates Mumbai and surrounding region represent more than a third of India’s GDP)!

Greater exposure to a wider range of ideas and people makes city dwellers more open and experimental, changing their attitudes and opinions as well as their habits and behaviour in sometimes profound ways.

What next? argue that these changes create a number of opportunities for brands and products:

  1. Leverage consumer pride in their home city or neigbourhood (for example, Starbucks have trialled limited edition coffee blends sold exclusively in specific locations)
  2. Use location based services to help consumers hook up with friends and places more easily, with city guides, event listings and apps focused around specific interests and enthusiasms.
  3. Use the urban environment to share more interesting brand and product experiences and create greater engagement and participation.
  4. Take advantage of the greater openness and maturity of urban audiencesto create more provocative communications.
  5. Leverage the greater density and efficiency of resources to promote more sustainable consumer solutions.
  6. Offer consumers opportunities to escape the urban sprawl for the calm and tranquility of the countryside.
  7. Bring the peace, quiet and greenery ofthe countryside to the city with fresh local produce and nature-inspired experiences.
  8. Use the scale of population to create more opportunities for shared or collaborative consumption of large consumer goods.

‘Living for the city’ has never been such fun, and we all need to get used to it.


The City: A Global History by Joel Kotkin (2005)

How big can cities get? in What matters by McKinsey, February 2011

Citysumers @, February 2011

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