It seems Chinese urban planners have read this year’s BI Consulting report our annual assessment of business risk for the year ahead and beyond.
Our article on the growth of Megacities in December heralded the announcement last week that nine cities in Southern China – including Guangzhou and Shenzhen – are to be merged to form one enormous metropolis. The new city will house 42 million people and encompass one tenth of China’s economic output.
Hong Kong – the new giant’s now rather diminutive neighbour – was once held up as an example of high-density urban living. It now looks like a semi-rural suburb in comparison. The logistical challenges confronting a project this ambitious will be immense and it will only be successful with the kind of robust approach to central planning that is possible in China. It would be hard to see such a project coming to fruition in India.
The Business Intelligence Map article highlights how poorly planned urbanisation can – as in Cairo – be a catalyst for political unrest. And sprawling, chronically impoverished slums adopt their own alternative systems of governance making them hard to control, however coercive the state may be in theory. But no doubt China will make this plan work and with a budget of a staggering £190 billion, the pressure will be on to succeed.
I can think of few things I would like less than living in such a vast city. I’m with Plato. He suggested a city should have no more than 5040 inhabitants (excluding slaves) so I suspect he would prefer modern Copenhagen to traffic-filled Athens. Aristotle meanwhile thought that ideally everybody in the city should know everybody else which is almost as unappealing as living cheek by jowl with millions of strangers.
Some people take enormous comfort from the close proximity of their fellow human beings. Others, me included, feel that we are – at the core of our DNA – essentially still semi-nomadic hunter gatherers. Urban living is, in the grand sweep of human history, a very recent innovation and one we are still struggling to adapt to psychologically.
That, I guess, is why many of us feel more at home in the country. For me there is a deep atavistic joy to be felt when walking across the side of a hill, stick in hand, dog at my feet looking at the curves of the landscape and sniffing the air for rain. It may just be my body reconnecting with an ancestral way of life. But the sensation can be deeply spiritual and certainly the romantic poets were quick to make the connection between this almost euphoric connection to the natural world and religion.
The likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge never made it to Japan. If they had, they would have no doubt found much to interest them in Japan’s native religion, Shinto, and the notion of natural beauty as a gateway to religious harmony. But in a country like Japan with its tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes it is no doubt a good idea to make one’s peace with mother nature as soon as possible, particularly before the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. Nevertheless, it is ironic that nature worshipping Japan should along its eastern – seismic – seaboard have some of the largest and most urban cities in the world – at least until the Chinese got in on the act.
So perhaps, it is just my western mindset that struggles to reconcile personal liberty and spiritual freedom with the built environment. And as I pull on my boots to head out across the countryside, I need to remind myself that I lived very happily for three years with 34 million others in greater metropolitan Tokyo.