China Begins Construction of Megacity Four Times the Population of New York

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Imagine a city larger than all of Switzerland, twice the size of New Jersey, or with four times the population of New York City. Such a city is being built in southern China.

Construction began on a high speed rail system earlier this year in China’s Guangdong Province, marking the initial efforts to unite nine cities surrounding China’s Pearl River Delta and produce a metropolis unlike anything the world has ever seen. When the project–named “Turn the Pearl River Delta into One”–is completed some six years from now, the resulting megacity will cover 40,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) and, by today’s numbers, reach a population of at least 42 million. The metropolitan monstrosity will dwarf New York City, which spans 790 square kilometers (305 square miles) and has just over eight million people.

The nine cities to be merged include Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizou and Zhaoqing. One-hundred fifty major infrastructure projects will combine transportation, water, energy and telecommunications networks of the cities. A high-speed rail line will also be built to connect the megacity to nearby Hong Kong. The total cost is estimated at 2 trillion yuan ($304 billion).


Tokyo, the world's largest city, has a population greater than Australia and New Zealand combined. China's building a megacity that could overtake Tokyo in the coming decades.

The high-speed rail already under construction will have 10 routes and connect the cities on the west side of the Pearl River to the cities on its east side. It marks the first line of what will eventually be a 29 rail, 1,500 kilometer system (3,100 miles) interconnecting all of the cities. Authorities expect the new rail to cut down what is now a 2.5 hour commute to 30 minutes and the maximum travel time between any two cities–or city centers within the megacity–will not exceed one hour.

The nine cities of Guangdong Province are special, as together they constitute China’s manufacturing epicenter, accounting for 10% of China’s total economy. “Turn the Pearl River Delta into One” is meant to roll these manufacturing all-stars into a single economic juggernaut that can compete with up-and-coming manufacturing competitors Beijing and Shanghai. To this end, Guangdong’s planners note that the goal of the project is not only to interconnect the cities physically, by way of rail, but also logistically. After being brought into the fold the different city centers will coordinate their decision-making. The price of gasoline and electricity, for example would be determined by a central decision-making body rather than independently within each city center.

Nine cities in China's southern Guangdong Province are being interlinked. The resulting megacity will be the world's largest by far.

City center residents will have a new flexibility that will foster the synergistic growth of the megacity. Ma Xiangming, a senior consultant on the project, says residents will have access to health care and other facilities they couldn’t feasibly reach before. He also expects that the interconnectedness will spread industry and jobs more evenly across the region and public services will be distributed more fairly. Shared resources are expected to lower phone bills by 85% and improve schools and hospitals. State of the art telecommunications networks will make it a smart megacity. For example, residents will be able to check ahead of time which hospitals are the least busy.

The megacity won’t look anything like built-from-the-ground-up, futuristic Masdar City, and Guangdong planners are probably glad it doesn’t. Unlike Masdar City, the hard work of their megacity is already finished. The unfinished part is the untouched land stretching between the nine cities–a pristine canvas upon which the planners can create with a smart, customized approach. Maybe this is the way all cities of the future will be built. Rather than piling urban layers on something centuries old, consolidate with rapid transit and smart technology.

Interestingly, Chinese media has gone out of its way to disparage the use of the word “megacity” when describing their project. They argue that linking nine cities does not a megacity make. The spokesperson for the Guangdong Provincial Committee flat out denied that plans were in place to merge the cities into a super-sized metropolis, admitting only that the province was improving the integration of infrastructure, industries, urban-rural planning, environmental protection and basic public services.

Well, yeah.

Okay, maybe we’re mincing words here. I’ll agree that cities normally don’t have tens of miles of green hillsides with wild boar and spotted deer. Regardless, if you don’t call it a megacity today, you will twenty years from now. They’re laying down a phenomenal latticework over China’s manufacturing hotspot. I don’t see why the Pearl River Delta wouldn’t be “Turned into One.” Inconsistent with his country’s downplaying, Mr. Ma has mentioned the difficulty of coming up with a name for his don’t-call-it-a megacity. The lack of a single dominant city at its center, he argues, means you can’t take a “Greater London” or “Greater Tokyo” approach.

Strange, but my guess is that, given all the recent paranoia about a China that’s going to ‘take over the world,’ the country is afraid of being portrayed as overly ambitious. Well, they’re going to have to get over that if they’re going to be the new megacity on the block. Own it, I say! New Yorkers aren’t afraid of being called overly ambitious, and they’re just a wee little ‘ol city.

[image credit: The Telegraph, The Economist]
image 1: Tokyo
image 2: megacity map

Discussion — 13 Responses

  • Steve Ward May 16, 2011 on 1:16 pm

    im not sure what china is trying to prove? we are bigger than usa? now they will need a high speed rail, why you ask? because people dont want to spend 3 hours in traffic just to get to work. and 3 hours to get home.

    from the High Speed Rail to Connect Nine South China Cities:

    The total project is divided up into three sections; the East Bank, connecting Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen; the West Line, between Foshan and Zhaoqing; and the Northeast Provincial Line, linking Dongguan and Huizhou. The new link between Zhuhai and Guangzhou has reduced the travelling time from 2.5 hours to just 30 minutes, while fares have been halved in response to the demand.

    i think the 30mins is better than the 2.5 hours?

  • Joe Nickence May 17, 2011 on 1:00 am

    China has a good hing going in this project, in that each of their smaller cities has an equal standing. Chicago grew large just because it was the dominant center city, absorbing it’s neighboring cities as neighborhoods. As I think about it, I’m surprised that New York didn’t just call itself Manhattan because it was the dominate center city. oh, well. (I’m an ex-Chicagoan, BTW.)

  • Paul Friedman May 17, 2011 on 10:34 pm

    In an old Disney movie I once saw, Davy Crockett is standing on a hill overlooking a frontier town. A friend standing next to him remarks that the town is home to 5,000 people. Davy responds, “I don’t know about you, but I ain’t got no hankering to leave in no ant hill.”

  • Joachim May 18, 2011 on 1:55 am

    @Steve: I don’t think China is trying to prove anything here… (BTW, being European and having lived in both, the U.S. and Asia: they don’t have to prove anything, just wait two more decades…)

    What China is trying to do is to prepare their country for the future and to channel developments that will take place in any case. Cities will grow, mobility will increase, and environmental conditions must be improved.

    One way to tackle this is by improving public transportation systems. Another step China is taking is to decrease pollution from heating systems by improving building insulation. The next step then is to go away from fossil fuel toward heat pumps and solar energy.
    To achieve these points the Chinese are also building greenfield cities like Masdar City. With one difference: Masdar City is built for 50’000 people, Chinese equivalents like Dongtan are being built for 500’000 people.

    Again: If China would do this to prove anything, that would indicate that they envy others. Believe me, they don’t – especially not the U.S. – I mean: does the upper class in China drive Chevys or BMWs and Audis?
    The only country they want to prove anything to will be Japan – for historical reasons.

    We “Westerners” should change our attitude and start learning from China. Even if I do not like their political system, there are lessons to be learned from them.

  • martin0641 May 23, 2011 on 4:58 pm

    It strikes me as odd that when some group does something, other groups automatically try to figure out what the message is or what they are trying to prove. It seems very similar to people assigning intent to events in nature, as if a Tsunami came down on us with malice or a hurricane destroyed an area because of some political stance they decided upon.

    Maybe Chinese planners think it’s a lot easier to make roads wide and trains ready BEFORE it turns into Manhattan island and everything is integrated and set in stone. They see their growth rate, and can make educated bets on what might be needed if things expand to their likely end state before equilibrium is reached for a given area. Maybe they dont want the area to merge naturally, and have a rickshaw public transportation system or a hodge-podge like Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO.

    In my view, China and India are actually worse off than America is for the long run. People get all wowed that they are taking advantage of technology, industry, and manufacturing to accelerate from a basic agrarian state to somewhat modern status, but they don’t seem to appreciate that once they catch up with the western world, they have to deal with all the same problems we do, but magnified for the massive populations of those nations.

    Paying 20 people to move a board around is great in a labor economy, but once your culture advances, robotics moves forward, and automation becomes cheaper and more reliable than employing armies of people – capitalism will unemploy the unwashed masses to raise profits and we then move into an information and automation economy.

    In this dynamic, smaller is better. It’s a lot easier to catch up after someone else forges the way and then drives costs down than it is to fund initial conception and manufacturing.