The Pearl River Delta: A City of Cities

Earlier this year the British Telegraph Newspaper published a story about the creation of a new megacity in the Chinese Pearl River delta region. “China is planning to create the world’s biggest mega city by merging nine cities to create a metropolis twice the size of Wales with a population of 42 million”, the opener of their story stated. The region mentioned here is an area covering the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Donggaun, Foshan, Huizhou, Zhaoqing, Jiangmen, Zhongshan and Zhuhai (as described in the China Urban Development Blog). The story was quickly picked up by many news sources back then, while Chinese officials were quick to deny the reports. Stories like this show, how urbanisation and megacities have become a buzz word, and are used especially in relation to the emerging economies in Asia in order to picture these – for western-centric eyes unbelievably – large and still growing populations in the most urbanised regions on the planet. A few thoughts on the relevance of megacities in their global context have been published on this website before (related to the map of the world’s megacities).
With special regard to the Telegraph story I have drawn another map showing the population distribution of China (based on 2010 Data from the Chinese Census and from estimates of SEDAC’s GPW database) and highlighted the Pearl River Delta region in this map. The equal-population map shows a gridded population cartogram in which every grid cell is resized according to the total number of people living there. This map makes the plans of a more integrated Pearl River Delta region more understandable, and perhaps slightly less exciting for those who interpreted the news as the creation of a new megacity, rather than the logical step in connecting an already populous region.

Map / Gridded Population Cartogram of China and the Pearl River Delta
(click for larger map)

The Pearl River Delta megacity will certainly never be one large megacity, but more a city of cities, which is so populated that further planning measures for such a huge urban space is inevitable if this region wants to continue to be successful economically. As written in the Economist, “what the Chinese effort actually seems to entail is a significant improvement in transportation around the region, harmonised local policies, and a rationalised metropolitan system of governance“.
While China is also planning and building whole new cities, some of which are much larger than many cities in Europe (and some of which turn into giant ghost towns), the Pearl River Delta is less an example for these developments, but, as Matthew Yglesias points out, can even serve as a good example for urban and regional planning in other parts of the world. Once again, a lesson from China to the USA, where megaurban regions such as the LA metropolitan region and the Bay Area on the west coast, or the urban corridor along the east coast could perhaps be much more efficient and sustainable if they were to implement a more coherent infrastructure. Other similarly polycentric metropolitan regions have realised this while they were faced with the decline of old industries, such as the Germany’s Rhine-Ruhr region.
Urbanisation has many faces, and the economic prospects may be decided by administrative decisions over the urban development. Large cities are not needed for prosperity, but where there are such agglomerations, it may be a wise step to actively support their functionality by planning sustainable infrastructures. But we should all calm down a little – not every buzz makes a sensible story, and many of the realities making headlines are not so new at all, as the above map shows.
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