I was thinking of home when I first learned about supercities. What feels like home to you? Do you feel a certain civic pride? In this nebulous landscape of ever-shifting political boundaries, is home a state or a nation, or is a racial or a religious pride, or a regional one, based not on the lines we draw but on a shared natural or cultural beauty? Imagine if a group had the power to take your home and redefine it, to give it a new name, assess its worth and potential, and redesign its map, structure, and systems. In the long dance of history, this has happened many, many times, and it's happening again, now, in China.
The Chinese government recently announced their intention to move forward with a long-term urban development strategy they've been considering for years. The plan will foster the rise of enormous economic regions called supercities, anchored around large central urban cores like Hong Kong; Shanghai; or Beijing, and encompassing a number of surrounding, smaller cities. Kind of like a county, but WAY bigger than any county you've ever seen or heard of. By the year 2030, China's nineteen planned supercities will be connected by 26 high-speed train routes. There's a possibility that governance models would shift to mirror the supercities. Many urban planners and economists predict supercities could transform China into the wealthiest, most productive country in the world.
Sounds innovative, right? Kind of. City-states have been around since ancient Greece. Rome, Athens, Carthage, and the Italian city-states of the Renaissance were all pretty comparable to China's planned supercities, but it’s the scale that’s unparalleled. In a way, it's thrilling, because we've never seen urban planning theory implemented at this scale before. The supercity that's planned for the Pearl Delta area will cover 16,000 square miles, that's as big as the Netherlands. Seoul and São Paulo each have ten million people; the Tokyo metro area has 40m; we're talking about supercities with 150m people each.
I admit, I'm a little jealous — the United States is drowning in inefficiency and bureaucracy. We could never pull off a project of this scale; we can barely agree on what to name a post office. The only thing we have that's slightly on par is the Silicon Valley, but that economic region developed relatively organically; China's approach is heavy handed. I love the sheer audacity of someone thinking they have the insight and discernment, not to mention the privilege and power, to sit there diving up the country based on extant and potential resources, giving regions new names, new jobs, and new purposes. It's deliciously grand, and you can see why Chinese millennials are excited, and proud! But it also feels a bit...evil, and the plan will likely result in massive overnight gentrification. Is it the function of government to make spatial planning decisions on behalf of one billion people? Is it ethical to draw an oval on a map and say, "You're the textile district. Everyone here is going to make textiles. You're the rubber district. All of you make rubber." If you read The Hunger Games, this might sound familiar. China's plan hasn't gone quite so far as to designate entire supercities as being responsible for one major industry each, not yet, but some economists have insinuated that degree of a top-down approach might be in the cards, and if it is, it'll be unprecedented. Coming in at the federal level, seizing property left and right by eminent domain, and telling everyone what to be and do? What could possibly go wrong?
To explore the context of a supercity, I interviewed Vivek Shandas, an urban studies and planning professor, fellow of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions; and founder of the Sustainable Urban Places Research Lab.
“If our intent though is to create identities, cultural identities of people who share a common vision and share a common interest in seeing a place thrive in their own way…a supercity may be difficult. What would it mean for a community to maximize for happiness? What would it mean to really authentically think about people's self-identified state of wellbeing? That would include health, how well your physical body is, how well your mental body is, how well your spiritual body is, your community or family or whatever you identify with as your group, your kin — how intact is that? What if we were to think about happiness indexes that were about our human health and wellbeing, in the broad sense, and maximize towards that?
Cities can take so many different forms, and yet, human humans have been roughly doing the same thing in all these places. We have a human capacity to negotiate these landscapes...in the US and the west, in western Europe, parts of Mexico and Latin America, we're trying to create an organized set of physical features on the landscape: a home, a sidewalk, the space between the sidewalk and the street called a median strip, your parking, the use of the street.
The systematic organization that the West has created through this discipline of urban planning is now in a real interesting conundrum of saying, 'Do we impose this upon places as a standard way of organizing space? Do we say your place is a mess and it's chaotic and it's no good? Can we bring our system of organizing spaces in this way to you and make it more 'ordered'?" There is a vocal, well-situated group of intellectuals as well as practitioners and decision makers in what we call the Global South that are really challenging these ideas and saying, 'Actually, you know, these informal settlements that are often referred to as slums or ghettos or favelas have an incredibly robust set of social interactions and social capital, the connection between and among individuals.' That is a very strong indicator of a well functioning society: bonds between and among individuals.
Favelas, informal settlements, slums are highly capable of withstanding some of the most intense shocks to urban systems, whether they're economic shocks, whether they're diseases that come through, whether they're floods, heat waves. These are communities that have organized responses to these intense shocks. They find a way to make it through."
You can hear our full conversation here.
Check out Vivek's work here.