The megacity – The tenuous balance between opportunity and despair

By 2030, for the first time in history, 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities. And not just ordinary cities, but huge urban agglomerations called megacities. While these super-sized cities are often considered fundamental to economic development – offering inhabitants tremendous opportunities – they can also be hotbeds of misery and poverty.

How do we solve this paradox – building megacities which maximise the opportunities but minimise the threats? And why do people want to live in megacities?

Big city life has always held a dazzling allure for those wishing to escape a life of poverty – stories of roads paved with gold have proved irresistible for billions of people around the world. Both pull factors and push factors prompt people to move to cities from rural areas.

The problem with megacities

Pull factors include the prospect of:

  • more and better paying jobs;
  • a better standard of living;
  • better educational and healthcare facilities;
  • a more vibrant social and cultural life; and
  • conditions more conducive to entrepreneurial activities (including more people to buy one’s wares and greater access to financial centres).

Push factors include:

  • lowered income due to increasingly poor quality farmlands
  • the decreasing availability of raw materials used  to eek out a living (for example, a lack of wood due to deforestation or a lack of water from drought).

Despite the many opportunities they present, however, there is a flipside to life in a megacity. Whilst some punt megacities as a means to end poverty and create wealth, others point out that the opposite occurs – poverty and despair on a grand scale.

Megacities versus megaslums

In an article for Forbes Magazine, Joel Kotkin describes how many of the world’s most lauded new spaces of economic growth and development in the developing world – Kolkata (India), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Cairo (Egypt), to cite just a few examples – are more megaslums than megacities.

The sorts of challenges facing the inhabitants of these vast and sprawling spaces include:

  • Communicable diseases
  • An unsafe built environment
  • Lack of infrastructure and amenities
  • Psychosocial ills brought about by high population density and a lack of green spaces
  • Vulnerability to eco-disaster and natural hazards, a result of building in inappropriate places and environmental degradation
  • Urban violence and crime
  • Ethnic conflict, where groups of different cultural backgrounds converge under difficult socioeconomic conditions
  • Lack of financial resources
  • An unhealthy and unsanitary environment, with poor air quality and inadequate amenities
  • Malnourishment
  • Injury and death from road traffic accidents caused by traffic congestion and a lack of regulations.

The history and future of megacities

Whilst many of the challenges facing megacities in the developing world today seem insurmountable, none of them are, in fact, new. When faced with rapid mass urbanisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, big cities in the developed world were faced with familiar issues.

Dickens’ London or Hugo’s Paris don’t look all that different to today’s Lagos (Nigeria) or Mumbai (India) – overcrowding, crime, corruption, dirt and disease, and economic exploitation all characterised these now world-class cities in times gone by. Looking back at how these cities overcame such issues can provide the megacities of the developing world with a source of inspiration and ideas to successfully resolve their own.

Where does this leave the megacity? Cities may be about the economy, but they’re about people and, for that matter, the environment, too. That’s why it’s crucial that, as the trend towards urbanisation intensifies, those tasked with planning and developing megacities strike the right balance between maximising economic development and making good on the promises – by providing inhabitants with true quality of life.

What do you see as the challenges and opportunities that local megacities face?

David Okwara

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