Mythbusting the Chinese Megacity

Note: I recently wrote this a version of this article for my department’s blog at work.  I hope it effectively shows how English-language media frustratingly can accept China’s statist gigantism at face value.  If nothing else, I was delighted that a reference (and link!) to Star Wars made it past the normally staid JLL editors. 

China’s government recently announced plans to link the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin with surrounding Hebei Province into a grand integrated region called Jing-Jin-Ji. The Western press responded with a flurry of hyperbole about Chinese state planners’ latest ‘megacity.’  Jing-Jin-Ji’s 212,379 square kilometres would envelop six New York metropolitan areas, and the supercity’s 130 million inhabitants would make it more populous than all of Japan.  Most articles are paired with images of China’s high-rise urban sprawl, leaving readers with the impression that the government intends to pave over the land area of a medium-sized country with unbroken development. “Jing-Jin-Ji,” one publication breathlessly describes, “offers a vastness you only expect to contemplate in science fiction.”

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Do they mean China is going to lead the world into building this?

The only problem with this Star Wars-esque vision is that it simply isn’t true. Jing-Jin-Ji’s vast land area and 130 million people are impressive statistics by themselves, but divide one by the other and you get only 612 people per sq km.  Even generous definitions of urban population density make Jing-Jin-Ji seem sparse. Hong Kong is ten times as dense at 6,690 people per sq km. Los Angeles – poster child of low-density urbanity – weighs in at 2,500 – 3,500 people per sq km. Density in Jing-Jin-Ji is more in line with that of a populous country – such as South Korea (514 per sq km) – or a region, like England (413 per sq km). Ah, yes. The sci-fi futurescape of the English countryside.

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A megacity this dense.

Rather than a single super-sized megacity, Jing-Jin-Ji might be more accurately described as a  ‘megacity region,’in which the existing megacities of Beijing and Tianjin will form the centrepiece of an ecosystem of smaller cities – with considerable open space remaining in between. Initial efforts will focus on improving transport links with highways and high speed rail, as well as redistributing parts of Beijing’s economy to Hebei to help diversify its cities’ economies beyond polluting heavy industries such as steel.

The ultimate goal is to stimulate development that will reduce inequality between Hebei and the two prosperous metropolises, forming a synergistic system of cities akin to those seen in the Yangtze River Delta (centred on Shanghai) and Pearl River Delta (anchored by Guangzhou and Shenzhen). The governments of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei have their work cut out for them in this regard – the proposed Jing-Jin-Ji city region is more reliant on state-driven investment than either of the southern river deltas, whose development has been lubricated by the growth of dynamic private firms.

Jing-Jin-Ji is not unique in this regard – other provinces and regions of China are seeking to foster similar regional developments focused on integrating large provincial capitals with their hinterlands.  In attempting to remake swathes of the country in the image of its most successful coastal city clusters, China’s emerging mega-city regions indeed represent some of the most audacious regional planning ever seen – though as is often the case with China, the reality is more complex than sensationalist headlines about country-sized cities would have you believe.

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