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Five Themes Shaping the Future of Urbanism

Megacities such as Hong Kong are defining the future of urbanism. GaudiLab/Shutterstock


Across the world, governments are planning new cities they hope will ease crowding, attract investment, and showcase the latest in sustainable innovation. The plans sound impressive, but the reality is that the construction of new cities is much easier said than done. Many nations have failed at one time or another to create new cities. As such, the new cities trend is complex and multifaceted, spanning everything from urban planning, international investment, and informal economies. Here are five themes that define the debate about new cities in our rapidly urbanizing world.


1. More new cities are being built than you ever imagined


While centrally planned cities are not a new phenomenon, more than 1bn people have migrated from rural areas to cities since 2000 in a wave of urbanization unmatched in modern history. As urbanization continues at a breakneck pace, new cities are a necessity.


This year, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build a major new city. The Saudi megaproject, known as Neom, will span a little more than 25,000 sq km and connect to Egypt and Jordan as part of the country’s push to modernize, diversify, and raise non-oil investment.


In Egypt, the construction of a new capital city adjacent to Cairo is back under way after a contract dispute in February with Chinese state companies building the city. At least six new cities are planned across Africa from Kenya to Ghana, while India is planning at least 12 significant new cities. China announced in April that it plans to build a new city named Xiongang New Area, slated to be at least twice the size of New York City, and claims to have another 285 “eco-cities” in various stages of planning and building.


2. New cities don’t ease crowding and congestion if no one lives there


The global population is booming and authorities are looking to new city projects to ease crowding, lack of housing, and vehicular traffic. But what happens when people don’t want to move to new cities? The ghost cities in China are a striking example of this modern urban dilemma. Close to 50 completed or nearly completed cities sit practically empty, with a few thousand residents instead of the several million the cities were built for.


Part of the problem in attracting new residents is often the high cost of housing. Take Kilamba, a planned city outside the capital of Angola that was largely built by Chinese construction companies. The area is mostly empty due to prohibitively expensive housing. It is not just high rent; some analysts say the lack of economic activity in new cities also harms their development. Urban planner David Sims points out that Cairo’s satellite towns have failed to attract significant numbers of new residents because they didn’t reproduce the informal economic activity that drives a large part of Egypt’s economy.


3. Many new cities are dirty, grey, and dumb


New cities are typically described by government officials as clean, green, smart, innovative, and sustainable. However, many self-described clean and green cities are neither, especially in China. One organization named EasyPark ranks existing cities by what we would generally consider to be standard expectations for a green or smart city, and the results are surprising. For example, Dubai comes in at #37 on their list, suggesting, if nothing else, a disconnect between expectations and reality. If existing cities struggle to meet the expectations of groups like EasyPark, new cities face an even more daunting task.


4. Countries use urbanism to buy influence


Attracting investment is cited as a key reason for building new cities, and China is particularly eager to oblige. Across Africa, China had planned 50 special economic zones in the style of Shenzhen, though only six have been built to date. In 2016, Beijing announced a $10bn new city project in Morocco, and it is essentially building ‘new Cairo’ for the Egyptian government. Not to be outdone, Russia, along with Japan’s SoftBank, intends to invest in Saudi Arabia’s Neom. Jordan is also hoping to use its plans for a new capital city to attract investment. Investing nations are in many ways buying influence, which may forever influence the landscape of these nascent cities.


5. China is using urbanism to expand its global footprint


China is on a completely different level when it comes to urban development. Its new city program – 285 cities – is part of an ambitious government plan to move 250m people from rural to urban life in less than 10 years. The country is even planning to connect its megacities to become megaregions such as Jing-Jin-Ji, which is designed to hold upwards of 100m people. The Chinese government is approaching this goal with a “build, build, build” mentality that, like its Belt and Road Initiative and investments in Africa, is so grandiose that one has to wonder if it knows something the rest of the world doesn’t. What is even more fascinating about this program is that China’s population growth is expected to taper off over the next several decades, with India projected to overtake China as the most populous country by 2024.


These projects are ambitious and the countries building them have invested significant resources. Will their efforts pay off? Only time will tell. They say true cities – New York, Paris, Beijing, Damascus – have a soul. If these new cities hope to not only prosper but also withstand the test of time, this may be the final litmus test. More than just a mix of innovative infrastructure and manicured gardens, a new city becomes a real city when it takes on a life of its own.


Nina Rhoades is a freelance research consultant who monitors the Middle East for emerge85. She previously worked at the Brookings Institution and as a foreign and defense policy analyst.