Guangdong grows a Godzilla city: why it’s a good thing

Guangdong Municipal Merger of 8 cities

Malcolm Moore reports in the Telegraph that Guangdong provincial officials are merging 9 municipalities into a megalopolis of startling proportions:

The new mega-city will cover a large part of China’s manufacturing heartland, stretching from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and including Foshan, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Jiangmen, Huizhou and Zhaoqing. Together, they account for nearly a tenth of the Chinese economy.

The city would also be roughly 42 million people, surpassing the Greater Tokyo area for the most populous metropolitan area in the world, and Chongqing / Shanghai as the largest city in China (depending on how you count it).

Guangdong Godzilla

50 years ago, many of these cities were a day’s travel from each other.  The whole Pearl River Delta area became a Special Economic Zone in 1985, and these cities grew amazingly quickly, though the Municipal & Provincial structures did not.  These days, a bus trip from Shenzhen to Zhuhai, for example, never actually passes through anything all that rural for the whole ~150km journey.  The gaps and confusion between Provincial and Municipal governments often create issues in land management, transportation, infrastructure and human services.  This isn’t at all a Chinese problem — consider greater Phoenix Arizona, Houston Texas, or Moscow Russia — but the scale of the challenge is larger in China.

What’s so startling about this story, especially for those unfamiliar with China, is that number: 42 million people.   We all understand, at some level, that there are over 1.3 billion people in China, but the geographic distribution is rapidly concentrating in urban areas.  Take a look at McKinsey’s population growth and movement forecasts for the next 20 years in China.  We are watching an intensive urbanization the density, size & speed of which may be unprecedented in human history.  China, as my boss Peggy Liu likes to remind people, builds the equivalent of 2 New York Cities every year.

Pertinent Planning

I know the numbers are staggering, but I believe this plan is an exceedingly practical and forward thinking move from the Guangdong & Central governments.  Guangdong has often led China in progressive economic and development policies and this merger seems expressly planned to address the central difficulties of life in urban China and create the massive infrastructure the area needs to sustain its growth.

“The idea is that when the cities are integrated, the residents can travel around freely and use the health care and other facilities in the different areas,” said Ma Xiangming, the chief planner at the Guangdong Rural and Urban Planning Institute and a senior consultant on the project.

This comment is directed at one of the larger problems in modern Urban China, the HuKou system, which ties a citizen to the services of their ‘legal residency’. The new area will also receive 29 rail lines covering 3100KM, according to Moore’s story.  I recommend Jonathan Woetzel’s solid piece (from the McKinsey blog) that summarizes his hopes and fears about about these growing mega-cities.  If you compare his concerns and the Guangdong plan, they address the same issues.  This is the kind of plan McKinsey must be thrilled to see.

Luckily, this is not an unfunded mandate.  The authorities are budgeting a number that seems in the ballpark: 2 trillion RMB (according to the Telegraph) to get the job done.  That 2 trillion RMB does not appear to include the Hong Kong / Zhuhai / Macau bridge project, which crosses the Pearl River Delta and will drastically reshape the transportation efficiency and capacity of the region.   Guangdong is clearly taking the lead in preparing themselves to be a well-run megacity, and I hope they will be the model for future mergers in China.

Regional Racing

Let’s return to the startling number: 42 million people.  Consider that if the other major urban centers of China merged in a similar fashion, the Guangdong Godzilla would be just the third largest mega-city in China.   Greater Beijing/Tianjin and Shanghai/Suzhou/Hangzhou/Nanjing would dwarf this new Guangdong merger in size and population.  Greater Chongqing would be fourth.  Isn’t that a bit crazy?  It might be, but as long as the Chinese economy keeps growing, these mega-cities will grow, whether the governments plan for them or not.  The danger is that one or more of these mega-cities will not undertake a similar plan to effectively manage their swelling populations.

If they do not plan for the future, we could watch these mega-cities face huge shortages of vital resources and services, and in the worst case, outbreaks of urban diseases.   We could see massive environmental degradation and human misery.  I believe that city mergers like the Guangdong plan are one of the best available ways for China to prepare for the coming urban billion.

  • http://hsu.me Angel Hsu

    Good post, Mark! Certainly city clusters and agglomerations will also bring to light increasing environmental strains. Actually, there is a post-doc in my group who is working on this question. One of the professors on my committee, Karen Seto, has also spent about 20 years looking at urbanization in the PRD.

  • http://hsu.me Angel Hsu

    Also, what do you make of this? http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2011/01/urban-myths-about-chinas-megacities/ Guangdong gov’t officials are denying plans for this megacity.

    • http://www.markenglehartevans.com/ Mark Englehart Evans

      Hi angel

      The CDT link/site is totally down as far as I can tell, so I cant address or argue specific points. I trust that Malcolm Moore and the Telegraph wouldn’t manufacture quotes from the planners.

      However, its not at all hard to believe there is provoncial and municipal politics & infighting: in a plan like this a giant group of people stand to lose power and authority the Party is strong, but not that strong.

      We shall see, I suppose. If some news breaks, someone tell me-I’m on vacation.

    • http://www.markenglehartevans.com/ Mark Englehart Evans

      now that I’ve read the CDT article: A Chinese official denies something, but it happens. I’ve heard that story before. I still trust Mr. Moore. Nonetheless, lets think about this post as ‘re-organizing Greater Guangzhou & shenzhen is a good idea’.

      The 2nd part of that story was sort of unrelated — yes, chongqing has claimed a lot of undevelped land in its municipal boundaries. So has Atlanta. If they’re all uppity about which cities are actually ‘biggest’, that’s trivial, really.