The Mega-Sprawl Approaches

The only ones left in the city are street people, feeding off debris; immigrants, thrown out like shrapnel from the destruction of the Asian powers; young bohos; and the technomedia priesthood of Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong. Young smart people like Da5id and Hiro, who take the risk of living in the city because they like stimulation and they know they can handle it.

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash


One of the problems of increasing populations [Core: FEEDING THE BEAST] and increasing economic activity [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY] is that more and more people tend to flock to economic centers.  This sparks urbanization, which forces these areas to grow both vertically and horizontally. This is how towns become cities, and cities become behemoths. After all, people need places to stay, roads to travel on.

For some statisticians, urbanization is good.  There is an undeniable link between economic activity and urbanization; most of this urban growth will come from the fastest-developing economies in the APAC region. CitiBank’s analyses expect Mumbai, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur – all growing cities – to rise in their holistic competitiveness rankings by 2025, with Singapore retaining its global #3 spot just below New York and London. This gives rise to all sorts of ambitious ideal cities for the near future – vibrant city centers and downtown districts; green spaces; great restaurants, entertainment, and shopping; a future where walking, biking, and public transit will comprise the vast majority of all trips taken; decentralized energy structures.

Reality in the APAC, however, is not an architect’s dream. Managing growth in the Asia Pacific is a phenomenal challenge, touching everything from housing to business growth to transport networks. The root of the problem is the mass migration that begets urbanization: it leads to overcrowding, poverty and overwhelms a government’s ability to provide basic services. The management and control of this phenomenon lead to two things: either megacities – planned, controlled, effective – or sprawling megaslums with their own informal billion-dollar economies, such as in Mumbai. 



Figure 1: Share of the World’s population living in urban areas, 1950 vs. 2030 (Source: Our World in Data,

Megacities or Megaslums?

Today, the APAC region is home to 6 of the world’s 10 largest cities: Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai. Delhi, saddled with a population of over 27 million, sees more than 700,000 people joining them every year; to quote Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, in a Bloomberg investigation: Between now and 2030, we need to build something like 700 to 900 million square meters of urban space every year, which means one Chicago every year…can this be done? I don’t think that’s an appropriate question — you have no option but to do it. 

Another is Dhaka, an even greater example of unmanaged urbanization gone wrong. Dhaka pairs weak transport infrastructure with uneven service provision: As the World Bank notes, “only two-thirds of the city is covered with piped water, just 3%-4% of all wastewater generated is treated, and only 60% of municipal solid waste is collected; severe traffic congestion is endemic, a consequence of inadequate infrastructure and public transport relative to the high population and economic density; . . . [and the city has] air pollution levels eight times higher than WHO guidelines“. And Dhaka is not just vulnerable to infrastructure planning: it is highly affected by climate change and environmental disasters, all of which also exacerbate its disease problem. All of this in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Stories like these may become the defining narrative of cities in the APAC: two billion urbanites already live in the region – half the entire world’s population of urban dwellers. This number is expected to increase by another 700 million by 2030. By two out of every three people are expected to be in an urban area. While slum formation does not have to go hand in hand with this growth, the fact remains that in many developing countries, it has been a persistent trend. 

Figure 2: Urban growth in Binhai China between 1992 and 2012 captured by the Landsat Satellite (Retrieved from

Rapid urbanization also presents tremendous challenges for law enforcement and international security. Rapidly growing cities become hubs of violence, or inextricably linked to them. The World Economic Forum notes the drug trade, organized crime, and radicalization in cities like Karachi, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town; policing areas like these is going to be a costly affair, and require heavy use of information sharing and processing; but it is necessary, as the level of disruption and destruction that can be done to a concentrated population is devastating. The vertical Sprawl of William Gibson’s work, where a vast, mazelike, feral slum extends both upwards as well as horizontally, shows hints of what the future might be – and it’s a world where death lurks around every corner and nonstate actors take on the functions of the state.  Unmanaged, potential megacities, like stars burning themselves out, may collapse in on themselves and turn into such megaslums instead.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

As a secondary effect, this growth is expected to push more economic and political power to cities. This is not surprising; cities have traditionally been the engines of economic growth, and have reaped rewards accordingly. Historically, in South Asia, this rise in the importance of cities has also been met with political pushback from rural areas. As these cities gain more humans, more political power, and more economic investment, we expect this political tension to increase.


Governments across the region have recently created policies to attempt to maximize the benefits of urbanization whilst minimizing the costs. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal have each drafted policies attempting to transform their cities into effective drivers of progress and growth.

However, these soft responses are, given the status quo, less effective. The scope of urbanization problems is being met with even larger reactions. China, the juggernaut of change, is creating the Unborn Cities – newly built, almost empty cities standing with barely a fraction of the people they were supposed to host. A precedent for these cities may be seen in the annals of Shanghai’s history, from the mudflats on the other side of the Huangpu River, where a development project created “the skyscrapers [that] sat empty — the steel and glass husks of an unrequited dream of development.” Today, that area of Shanghai is the financial center and an unmistakable part of the skyline. Photographer Kai Caemmerer’s exploration of the Kangbashi District of Ordos, the Yujiapu Financial District in the Binhai New Area near Tainjin, and the Meixi Lake City near Changsha  show gleaming infrastructure waiting for people to come by and take up residence. However, not all is rosy in this narrative: China is left to deal with ghost towns – once-thriving settlements emptied of all people, leading us to question whether this wholesale construction of cities is the wisest path going forward.

India, the other driver of change, prefers to a Kali-like approach to the problem – both destruction and creation. Asher Ghertner, who heads the South Asia studies programme at Rutgers University, points out that since 1995, Delhi has seen increasing demolitions of slums under a form of class warfare. Middle-class citizens write petitions against nearby slums under India’s nuisance law –  “any act, omission, injury, damage, annoyance or offence to the sense of sight, smell, hearing or which is or may be dangerous to life or injurious to health or property“. Delhi’s also has a decades-old policy of demolishing slums wholesale whenever it is deemed of public interest, as per the Master Plan for Delhi 2021. At the same time, India began running a competitive Smart Cities initiative that redesigns spaces, offering better core infrastructure functionality – water and electricity supplies, efficient sanitation, solid waste management, public transport, healthcare and education facilities and affordable housing for a cited 99 million people – although only some 18% of the initiatives have actually been finished, highlighting a reality in India – Pratap Padode, founder-director, Smart Cities Council India, offers that “it’s almost impossible to undertake development across an entire city without bringing it to a grinding halt.”And Amaravati, the much-lauded smart city-slash-capital of Andra Pradesh, a project that once had significant World Bank backing, has gone from a utopic dream to an underfunded failure.

Singapore is often the envy of the world in matters such as this. Its public housing public housing took the city-state from slums to apartments in a generation, despite present rough patches. Urban planners have access to sophisticated modelling provided by Dassault – a virtual twin of Singapore that incorporates even such details as wind flow (an approach that the controversial Amaravati project seems to be attempting to replicate). But the magic there, some may point out, is long-term political commitment and very small population. 


  1. As the challenges involve steadily increase with the population, new approaches to city infrastructure, supporting new trade flows (airports, seaports),  education, health, security, and employment show up. With the availability of more complex types of signal collection and computing, urban planners can harness advanced types of data, possibly even in real-time, to engage in the eternal tug-of-war with a city’s growing needs – as shown in Singapore. Some solutions try to make cities more livable: others go further afield. Even not-so-recent reports on progress display great innovation: from Saudi Arabia’s evolution to handle 3 million pilgrims (including their garbage needs) to cable cars connecting fractured cities.

  2. The scale of engineering required to today’s urbanization requirements has led to megaprojects: The Hong Kong Zhuhai Macao Bridge, China’s ready-made ‘unborn cities’, and even Sri Lanka’s Colombo Port / Financial City, where an area larger than Colombo itself has been dredged up and is being built on. The megaprojects required to cater to looming megacities may increase in both quantity and expense – and may require countries in the APAC to forge large public-private partnerships or partnerships with foreign states. A key narrative here is China’s technological edge and heavy involvement in such projects, which may mean certain technologies being spread across favored geopolitical affiliations [Core: THE NEXT BIG ECONOMY].

  3. Some are also attempting to face climate change [Core: THE WRATH OF NATURE] with design. Biophilic city design is an emerging trend, both out of consideration to humans and to nature. Singapore consciously deploys green buildings and design in its state-controlled building efforts. Green buildings – oxygen-producing, energy-saving systems that integrate nature more closely – play a large part in the design of such cities, and have showed up in plans from China as well. The most ambitious project seen is a full-scale ‘Forest City’ north of Liuzhou in southern China [Satellite: FROM WASTELAND TO DREAMLAND]. This 175-hectare project, approved in the 2017 Liuzhou Forest City Masterplan, is set to host 30,000 people,  40,000 trees and a cited 1 million plants. Projections set it to absorb almost 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year and produce approximately 900 tons of oxygen.On more conservative levels, are Europe and the United States, which are trialing a range of efforts – from Climate Ready DC ‘s 77 plans, ranging from “increasing the number of green roofs (already incentivized), collecting stormwater, creating micro-grids for energy and water, incorporating resilience in building and zoning codes, and identifying “cooling centers” where those who may not have access to air conditioning could retreat during scorching summer heat” to apush to move city planning away from vehicle-oriented design and to use vehicular spaces for more people people-oriented neighborhoods. These in turn range from the LEED standard for design, which specifies facets of a sustainable pedestrian neighborhood – a clear center, groceries within walking distance, tree-lined street, accomodations for cyclists – to Oslo, London, Milan and Copenhagen’s efforts to ban cars. Even American cities such as Boston are rolling out initiatives to limit vehicle speeds in residential neighborhoods, and San Francisco has attempted to convert parking spots into public spaces (PARK(ing) Day).However, the long-running C40 ‘climate positive’ project, which pushes eighteen major cities to achieve net-negative emissions, has yet to meet major success.

  4. Data tools and AI technologies from the 4th Industrial Revolution [Core: THE 4TH INDUSTRIAL PROLETARIAT] bring about interesting possibilities for city design. A particularly important field is parametric architecture, which, combined with input data from smart cities, open up all sorts of ways in which city planners and architects can understand changing needs better and create, modify and react with systems that better cater to changing citiescapes. In this vein, smart cities have been proposed throughout India, though it’s unknown whether these will solve any of the above-mentioned issues or merely add security risks [Satellite: IOT AS A THREAT]. Some projects, such as South Korea’s Songdo, have seen success, albeit not with the level of technology that’s available today: these projects will also set the standards on the future of privacy and human rights in cities
    In the same vein, as powerful mega-cities continue to proliferate, the legitimacy of national defense and security forces may be challenged as power shifts to municipal/ local rather than the national government. Predictive policing technologies that utilize AI and technological innovations to “identify” potential future sources of crime (eg: PREDPOL or China’s debtor-tracking systems) are expected to become more in vogue. A clash is expected over the validity of these applications – PREDPOL, for instance, is being tested by the LAPD and is actually built on an earthquake aftershock prediction algorithm.

  5. A general observation is that urban lifestyles are a very recent development: for most of our history, humans lived in low-density, rural settings, only increasing significantly, past 1900. Popular cities that can be said to have successfully dealt with the infrastructure provisions appear to be those that caught the economic tiger by the tail in the early 1900s – London, New York, and Tokyo. Singapore, the late-blooming regional outlier, may have to be discarded due to its small size. But even these are not immune to becoming increasingly gentrified areas where even extremely high wages (compared to a regional average) will only yield bare minimum lodgings and lifestyles. A global rethink may be due as to whether cities are sustainable in the long run, or whether alternatives to the current approach to cities need to be brought up. 

This report has been written by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, Merl Chandana, Sriganesh Lokanathan and Shazna Zuhyle of LIRNEasia with commissioning by the UNDP Regional Innovation Centre (RIC) as an exploratory and intellectual analysis; the views and opinions published in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the official position or policy of the RIC, United Nations Development Programme or any United Nations agency or UN Member States.

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