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

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.