Century of the city

by Karyn Scherer / 14 January, 2013
By 2025, an extra billion people will crowd into the world’s cities, which will be unrecognisably different from the way they are now.
Century of the city
Rail passengers jostle for space in the Guangzhou Railway Station, photo Getty Images

There is no need for an alarm clock in Zhang Lifu’s life. His body has long got used to waking early and getting up in the dark. The 59-year-old cleaner starts work at 5.30am. He cleans until 10.00am, then has a four-hour break, then cleans again until at least 5.00pm. He does this seven days a week, 364 days a year.

“I get one day off, on January 1,” he explains through a translator, as he sits in the harsh fluorescent light of the Migrant Workers’ Documentation Centre, a ramshackle office halfway down an alley on the outskirts of China’s third-biggest city, Guangzhou.

Like many migrant workers in China, Zhang lives in a dormitory provided by his employer. Within the dormitory, he and his wife share a 70sq m apartment with two other couples.

His monthly salary is 1100 yuan (NZ$215), but of this he gets to keep only 800 yuan ($155). He is due to retire this year, but his employer has not been paying his social security taxes, so he will be unable to claim a pension.

Before moving to Guangzhou, Zhang was a peasant farmer in the nearby province of Hunan, 550km away. “I have been working hard for 16 or 17 years,” he sighs. “I don’t have any life, or any savings.”

Yet he doesn’t have any regrets. The money he and his wife have earned in the big city has helped ensure a tertiary education for their children. “I’m sure they will have a better life than me,” he says with a smile.

Zeng Feiyang, a lawyer and founder of the centre, has invited several other migrant workers along on this steamy evening to share their lives with Western journalists. They all have similar tales to tell.

Lin Kebin moved to Guangzhou from Yunnan four years ago. Just 24, he is now partly disabled as a result of a work accident. Xiao Jiaxiu, 50, also works as a cleaner, and is often required to work weekends without extra pay. Zhou Yufen, 23, is originally from Guizhou. He works 11 hours a day in an electronics factory, and gets just one day off every two weeks.

“This is exactly what is happening in China. They are working hard just for a better life,” explains Zeng.


Migrant workers are at the heart of China’s economic revolution. But they are also part of a global trend that affects almost every country on the planet: the drift of millions of people away from the countryside and towards big cities.

“It’s the largest economic force that has ever happened, and will ever happen,” says Richard Dobbs, a director of consultancy McKinsey Global Institute. “What we are seeing at the moment is the same as the Industrial Revolution, but happening 10 times as fast and on 100 times the scale. It’s larger than World War I, World War II, Lehman Brothers, the euro, and larger than the economic impact of the plough.”

Urbanisation is most obvious in China, but it has important ramifications for even small countries such as New Zealand. A diminishing interest in farming could threaten our main export income. Despite our low population density, our biggest cities are already facing major challenges in servicing everyone’s needs. And there are obvious implications for rural areas as their populations dwindle.

The ferocious growth of cities is forcing governments around the world to find creative solutions to such challenges as providing enough energy, transport, housing, food, water and waste disposal for their citizens, without destroying the environment in the process. There are natural hazards to deal with as well – many large cities are coastal and face serious threats from flooding.

It is regularly predicted that by 2025, over half the world’s population will live in cities – up from 42% today. In practical terms, that’s an extra billion or so people. Many of the mega-cities are already starting to max out; it is the second-tier cities, with populations of between 150,000 and 10 million, that are expected to drive global growth over the next few decades.

That economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and, according to Dobbs, has cut death rates more than the eradication of smallpox did. But although developing countries are growing rapidly, developed ones have reaped most of the economic benefits they will gain from urbanisation, he says.

Over the next few decades, many cities in the West will struggle, he believes. Continuing technological progress is also eliminating many low-skilled jobs. Dobbs’s message is that politicians should stop fretting about the demise of manufacturing and simply accept it as inevitable. “Manufacturing is going to go the same way as agriculture,” he predicts.

The key issue will be training people for the demands of the modern workplace, which will require much more sophisticated skills, he believes. “The social and political side of this I don’t think anyone has fully understood. How we cope with all that is going to be very challenging. The Arab Spring didn’t start in the rural areas. Cities are where social unrest happens.”


Guangzhou migrant workers
Guangzhou migrant workers, from left, Lin Kebin, Xiao Jiaxiu and Zhang Lifu at the Migrant Workers’ Documentation Centre, photo Karyn Scherer

It is a short ride by rapid rail from Guangzhou to the booming coastal city of Shenzhen – a sprawling metropolis that only a few decades ago was mostly rice paddies. These days it is the manufacturing centre of the world.

It is also the home of Chinese electric car manufacturer BYD. The initials stand for Build Your Dreams – an accurate summation of what the company represents for the Chinese. BYD hopes to become the BMW of China, but on the day we visited, it became strangely reluctant to show the media around. And it simply refused to fulfil a promise to let us see its workers’ dormitories and meet its staff.

The reason became clear the next day, when Western newspapers reported there had been a suicide at the Foxconn plant next door. Suicides have been a problem at Foxconn, where Apple’s products are made, for at least a couple of years, and riots have also broken out as frustrations about working conditions boiled over.

Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou are in Guangdong province, which overtook two other provinces to become China’s most populous in 2005. Its economy has grown so rapidly that it now rivals that of Indonesia.

Guangdong Mayor Chen Jianhua was appointed to the job only a year ago, but is fully aware of the enormous challenges the province faces. “The development of China, India and Indonesia will become the major developments of this century,” he agrees.

He also knows that the influx of migrant workers to the major cities is one of the province’s biggest problems. To help control this population flow, Chinese citizens are required to live in particular areas, but many flout these rules.

“Nearly half of our permanent population is not registered,” Chen says. “The migrant workers have made a great contribution to the construction and development of our cities, but this is an issue we need to improve and constantly solve.”

China’s central government is developing Western-style labour laws. Chen is also trying to develop more skilled jobs, and prevent social unrest in the cities by encouraging manufacturers to move further out.

Another solution is to build new cities from scratch, with the sole purpose of attracting what are known as “tertiary jobs”. Tay Hun Kiat is the head of a company planning to build one such city only a short distance from both Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

“Labour-intensive manufacturing is not sustainable in Guangzhou for many reasons,” he argues. “For the economy, the growth has probably reached diminishing marginal returns. And the economic transformation of Guangzhou carries some social cost.”

At present, Tay has little more than a showroom to show for his vision. But the plan is to house 500,000 people, including foreign workers who will have their own Norman Foster-designed apartments, in a model city dedicated to technological innovation. To be known as Guangzhou Knowledge City, it will be a fully wired, state-of-the-art hub with its own metro and a high-speed rail line to Guangzhou. It will also showcase Singaporean social engineering by adopting Singapore’s public housing principles, which means carefully controlling where its citizens live. It will even train in Singapore what are known as “grassroots leaders”. Depending on your point of view, these could either be described as neighbourhood watch on steroids, or Communist Party snitches.

The project is a Sino-Singaporean joint venture for which Tay claims four billion yuan has already been raised. Some of the world’s biggest companies, such as Siemens, Disney and Philips, have agreed to move in. New Zealand’s own Huhu Studios, an animation company that started out in Warkworth and has since struck it big in Asia, has also signed up.

This “smart city” will displace around 40,000 farmers, and Tay hopes that many of them will be retrained in manual jobs. This seems somewhat naive, but he is determined to press ahead. “There are 600 cities in China of between one million and two million people,” he notes. “Of those, 10 to 20 are aiming to be smart cities.”

You have to admire Tay’s optimism, but veteran Asia-watchers admit to some scepticism. Just down the road from the Knowledge City showroom is another flash headquarters of another big “innovation project” that was last year’s Big Thing. So far it has come to naught.


In Seoul, conservation has come into vogue, photo Karyn Scherer

Across the Yellow Sea in South Korea, a “smart city” is already taking shape. But one suspects it, too, is struggling with the harsh reality of the investment climate since the global financial crisis. Known as Songdo, it is the brainchild of American developer Stan Gale, a gregarious New Yorker with a big voice and an even bigger wallet.

Built on 600ha of reclaimed mudflats 65km from Seoul, Songdo is connected by a US$2.5 billion suspension bridge to Incheon International Airport, voted the world’s best for the past seven years. The city, being built at a cost of around US$35 billion, will eventually house 65,000 residents and employ 300,000 workers.

Meticulously designed by the man who originally planned the city of Singapore, Songdo naturally includes the latest eco-initiatives and some impressive modern architecture. US technology company Cisco is using it as a pilot to find out what a “smart city” really means.

As in Singapore, residents’ cars send radio signals that enable central management of traffic flow. Every apartment has teleconferencing facilities, touchscreen controls for heating and lighting, ultrafast broadband, and other ultra-modern conveniences such as a pneumatic waste collection system (meaning all rubbish is posted down a pneumatic chute directly to the city’s collection plant).

Over a sumptuous lunch at Songdo’s star attraction, the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club, Gale explains how in 2005 he got a call from the Koreans asking him to build the biggest private real estate project in history. “Seoul,” he drawls, “is pure concrete jungle. To attract high-paying jobs and also have quality of life – that was our assignment.”

As with all such projects, the aim was to attract as much foreign money as possible. But some foreigners seem unimpressed. An article in Architectural Record prompted one reader to write: “Yikes! This looks like every mistake from the 1960s rolled into one giant disaster.” Some locals also roll their eyes when it is mentioned.

Gale recalls the reaction of a senior Korean politician to the idea of eco-friendly bike lanes in Songdo: “Mr Gale,we spent 2000 years getting off the bicycle, and you want to put us back on!” she supposedly exclaimed.

“Koreans weren’t sure if it would be a Korean city,” he admits. “For a while it was called a foreign city. That’s going to be the question going forward: how comfortable are Koreans and expats living here?” The city is not yet complete, much less fully tenanted, although it is well on the way. However, it still feels slightly creepy, in a Truman Show kind of way. For residents who aren’t into golf, biking or hanging out in the park, the main leisure activity seems to be taking a barge down a short man-made canal and back again. The only noticeable feature of this trip is passing a fountain that consists of three Korean boys urinating into the canal. The double entendre is all too obvious.


That so many Asian cities are taking their cue from Singapore to plan their futures is hardly surprising. Known in the West as “Disneyland with the death penalty”, Singapore is revered throughout Asia for its extraordinary transformation from a collection of overcrowded slums to one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

Built on a group of islands covering an area only slightly larger than Lake Taupo, Singapore has doubled its population over the past 10 years to over five million, yet it remains remarkably green. Thanks to deliberate planting, the amount of vegetation has increased by a third over that time to cover roughly half the island. Buildings cannot be any taller than 280m, because of the clearance needed for the many aircraft that come and go. Yet it has been able to build more Olympic-sized swimming pools than the whole of Britain, has 30 golf courses, seven runways, and recently opened a 100ha park on reclaimed land that is already proving a huge tourist drawcard.

Car numbers are strictly limited, largely through what amounts to a 200% sales tax, and a quota system. It has had a primitive form of congestion charging since 1975, and has a 44% tax on fuel. It has a very efficient mass rapid transit system, but it is struggling to cope and plans to add a new line every year or so for the next decade.

The man who designed the modern version of the city back in the early 70s, Liu Thai-Ker, believes there are two key lessons for other cities: “If you have a good plan in the beginning, you don’t have to undo problems. And you need to stick to it.”

Nevertheless, he admits Singapore has grown much bigger than anyone originally dreamed. “Back in 1981, we predicted it would reach 2.6 million people. Now we are planning for 5.9 million by 2091. One minister ages ago said to me, ‘If you had the same population density as New Zealand, we could only accommodate 85,000 people.’”

Singaporeans realise, however, that they are running out of room, and are now looking to go underground – to store oil, for example. Waste management is also a serious issue. Until now, most rubbish has been dumped on an offshore island, but this is expected to reach its limit within the next 30 years. Four new incineration plants have been built, but they are expensive to run and remain controversial from an environmental perspective.

The city has always recycled much of its water; it now recycles its sewage, too. A new plant filters used water from “sewer to pure” in just over 12 hours. By 2060, it is expected to provide half the city’s “new” water.

Like many Asian cities, Singapore is also trying to position itself at the forefront of other environmentally friendly initiatives, using solar power in its public housing and aiming to have 80% of its buildings powered by sustainable energy by 2030. It is a test bed for electric vehicles and “smartgrid” electricity systems and bills itself as an ideal place for foreign companies to test such developments.

“Singapore’s small size, well-developed infrastructure and efficient government offer a unique advantage, by tackling large complex problems facing global cities,” says Francis Yeoh, who until recently headed the National Research Foundation, the organisation that has led R&D initiatives in Singapore.

Each year, the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, named for the founding father of modern Singapore, is awarded to the city that has made the biggest transformation over the past decade. Recent recipients have been Bilbao and New York. But Singapore’s paternalistic politics are not to everyone’s taste, and young people question both its devotion to American-style consumerism, and its relentless development.

“Singaporeans are sceptical about whether the changes are being done for them, or just to look good,” says a university academic, who wished to remain anonymous because criticising the Government is still seen as treason in Singapore.

An expatriate consultant, also reluctant to be named, adds that there has been a backlash against foreign workers, who now outnumber native Singaporeans. “The focus for the last 15 years has been as a services hub,” he says. “But that focus has been changing in last few years, to making Singapore a better place to live.”


Cheonggyecheon Stream, Seoul
Cheonggyecheon Stream replaced a former highway in central Seoul, photo Karyn Scherer

A similar reconsideration is taking place in Seoul, which has grown extraordinarily rapidly in the past few decades. Its population is now stagnant at best, and the city is asking itself exactly what it has achieved over that time.

Seoul’s new mayor, Park Won-soon, is a former human rights lawyer who was elected on a platform of restoring the community. “We are trying to revive the ‘good neighbourhood’ we lost in the process,” he says. “Separation is becoming the main social problem in our society.” Park notes that older people are often the most alienated by urbanisation, and has launched a programme that uses older people to mentor local children. “We want seniors to educate young children,” he says. “The [Korean household] has gone from six in the 1970s to less than two.”

Singaporeans have noticed a similar trend. “The elderly are starting to be placed in nursing homes. Thirty years ago, this didn’t happen,” says the Singaporean academic. In both Singapore and Seoul, conservation and restoration are coming into vogue. In Seoul, one of the most impressive urban renewal projects is Cheonggyecheon, an 8.4km man-made river that has replaced a former highway running through the city. “Our past policy was only demolishing buildings, because we thought it would help with city growth,” says Han Jei Hyuan, Seoul’s director of city planning. “Recently we have been facing a paradigm shift. By forcing the demolition of our old buildings, we have lost some of our cultural properties.”

In China, they are still several decades behind, and the demolition crews are busy. But as developing countries rapidly catch up to developed ones, the same questions are bound to be asked.

A home of one's own

Ownership is the cornerstone of the Singaporean housing model.

The Pinnacle, Singapore
The Pinnacle: 7000 people in 1800 units, photo Getty Images

Whether you’re in Singapore or Sandringham, the three most important features of a property’s value are much the same: location, location, location. Around the world, properties closest to the central business district tend to fetch the highest prices, so it was somewhat surprising that the Singaporean Government chose an extremely valuable piece of land near the central city for a landmark public housing project.

The Pinnacle, as it is known, is a 50-storey complex of seven separate blocks that together house about 7000 people in more than 1800 units. The complex includes a kindergarten, a food court, an outdoor gym and an 800m jogging track on its 26th level. The third level has an eco-deck (essentially an aerial garden), and there are various sky bridges, one of which is the longest in the world. Completed three years ago at a cost of S$280 million (the Singapore dollar is roughly equivalent to the New Zealand dollar), the complex has an exterior reminiscent of the “digital datastream” made famous in the movie The Matrix. But it is not its smart looks, or its facilities, that attracted many of its residents.

“I chose this place because it’s very near the CBD area,” says Quek Wei Cheng, a clerk at the Singapore central bank who moved to the Pinnacle three years ago with his wife and young daughter. “You can never buy another location that’s better than this.”

Quek, 33, previously lived with his family at his parents’ apartment a short distance away. The Pinnacle is particularly targeted at young couples who earn less than S$8000 a month and who have yet to buy their first home. Units initially sold for around S$400,000, but some are already worth nearly twice that. Quek and his wife, a nurse, used part of their pension fund to put a down payment on their 95sq m apartment, and have a 30-year loan from the Government, which they are paying off at S$1100 a month.

More than 80% of Singaporeans live in subsidised housing. The Government seeks to manage property prices by tightly controlling the supply, and tries to prevent racial enclaves through an ethnic integration policy, which dictates quotas for each block. Each complex is managed by a residents’ committee, whose job it is to keep a close eye on all its occupants and prevent the estates deteriorating into slums. It is a model that Chinese officials have been paying close attention to in their own strategic plans.

“Home ownership is the cornerstone of our model,” says Lawrence Pak, deputy director of the Singapore Housing and Development Board. “It’s so successful because you don’t have it all rental. You must have ownership of public housing.” But Pak admits the Government is unlikely to be spend similarly large sums on such developments in the future. “This is a one-off, because it’s such prime real estate.”

The bulging city

Auckland’s housing density could double by 2040, yet only 9% of commuters travel by bus and only 4% by train.

Britomart Railway Station: public transport is a fraught subject in Auckland, photo Steven McNicholl/NZH

A quarter of New Zealand’s population already lives in Auckland, and over the next two decades it is likely to rise to a third. With its population growing by 2% a year, it is the fastest-growing city in Australasia.

Although frequently cited in international polls as one of the world’s most liveable cities, Auckland still faces plenty of challenges. It is an example of what are known as “primate” cities – cities that are at least twice as large as others in their country, and therefore dominate social and economic considerations.

Given that it is squeezed between two harbours, the only way Auckland can physically expand is to creep further north and south – or up. Local government has attempted to limit sprawl by creating an urban boundary, and by encouraging higher-density housing. But Aucklanders who are wary of high-rise developments ain’t seen nothing yet. The city’s recently finalised 30-year plan expects housing density to almost double in that time – a goal that some urban planners consider ridiculous.

Retired Aucklanders have previously been among the world’s wealthiest senior citizens, because of universal superannuation and because many have not had to pay rent. But there are concerns that falling home ownership rates, driven by high prices, could eventually hit retirement incomes. A lack of smaller lower-maintenance homes could also be an issue as the population ages, and there are fears there could be a glut of large homes as baby-boomers downsize.

Although use of public transport has increased significantly in the past few years, only 9% of the city’s commuters travel by bus and only 4% on its outdated diesel trains. Meanwhile, Auckland Council appears unsure what to do with its largest single asset – its port.

Neil Peirce, a Washington Post journalist who has devoted much of his career to documenting the impact of urbanisation, notes many cities are growing increasingly frustrated with central governments because of their inability to deal with such dilemmas. “Cities are getting impatient with nation states, because city states challenge political boundaries,” he says. It’s an issue that would seem to have resonance in Auckland, where public transport is a particularly fraught subject.

Although rail is slowly improving, and bus rapid-transit systems have proved popular, the National Government has balked at the $2.86 billion price tag for an inner-city rail loop.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown refuses to admit defeat. And he points out that the previous Labour Government was no easier to deal with on the issue.

“What they say to me is, ‘we agree with the overarching vision, we just have differing priorities over time frames.’ The rail tunnel will be the biggest public transport project in New Zealand ever, so it takes a while to get that stuff together. I remain supremely confident that this project, which is critical to Auckland, will get done.”

Although Brown has visited many of Asia’s major cities, the city he admires most for getting its planning right is Melbourne.

“In my view, Auckland has lost its mojo, and so had Melbourne. Twenty-five years ago, they set a plan up with four or five key focuses and they’ve followed it through and, boy, they have got a city that is exciting, energetic, that’s growing like hell, that is a brilliant city to visit, and has a high focus on alternative transport. Their roads are nowhere near as clogged as ours. They clearly followed a formula. Melbourne is the most liveable city in the world and that’s what I want us to be.”

Over the next 20 years:

  • The GDP of the world’s 600 fastest-growing cities will increase by over US$30 trillion

  • A n extra US$10 trillion a year will need to be invested in cities

  • By 2025, there will be an extra one billion consumers

  • Residential and office space will need to increase by 85% (including redevelopment)

  • Water demand in cities will increase by 40%

  • Port infrastructure will need to increase by 250%

Source: McKinsey Global Institute

Karyn Scherer travelled to Asia with the assistance of the Asia NZ Foundation, and the East-West Center in Honolulu.
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