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City of cities

An ambitious urban development plan takes shape in China.

By Ling Xin

China has urbanized with unprecedented speed. About 20 years ago, only 30% of the Chinese population lived in cities; today it’s 60%. That translates to roughly 400 million people—more than the entire US population—moving into China’s cities in the past two decades (the same proportional transition took 90 years to happen in Europe, and 60 years in the US). And this migration isn’t over; 70% of China’s population is expected to be urban by 2035.

To accommodate the influx, China’s national urban development policy has shifted from expanding individual cities to systematically building out massive city clusters, each of which will be home to as many as a hundred million people. Cities in a cluster will collaborate economically, ecologically, and politically, the thinking goes, in turn boosting each region’s competitiveness.

In the four stories that follow, we explore the origins of China’s new strategy and highlight three areas where the foundations for these city clusters are being laid—in the nation’s high-speed rail network, in the growth of its digital public services, and through regional environmental management.


The rise of the megalopolis

Some city clusters have formed organically over time.

In the 1950s, the French geographer Jean Gottmann noticed a new urban paradigm emerging on the northeast coast of the United States. The 1,000-kilometer-long region from Boston to Washington, DC, with its 30 million inhabitants, was, he found, increasingly functioning as one large city. Gottmann used the Greek word “megalopolis” to name this novel economic and political entity.

With its high population density, ease of transport, economic dominance, and cultural influence, the Boston-Washington megalopolis became home to the richest, best-educated, and best-serviced population in the country. “A megalopolis for a nation is what Main Street is for most communities,” wrote Gottmann’s colleague Wolf Von Eckardt. “It is the laboratory of a new urban way of life which is sweeping the civilized world.”

Other megalopolises soon appeared in different parts of the world. Among the most successful to date is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt. Stretching nearly 1,200 kilometers from Tokyo through Nagoya to Osaka, the Taiheiyo Belt contains two-thirds of the Japanese population and accounts for 70% of national economic output.

Building such megalopolises in China—where they’re referred to as city clusters—seems to be the country’s best option for expanding access to urban opportunities without overwhelming cities, says Zhu Dajian, an economist who studies sustainable development at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Neighboring cities have, for example, been known to spend vast sums building redundant industries and then competing for primacy. Shanghai, for one, has tried to position itself as a hub for biotech and chip manufacturing by offering companies incentives to open plants there—but several nearby cities have launched nearly identical efforts. China is betting that more regional coordination will lead to more efficient investments nationwide. Such cooperation could also help alleviate overpopulation and pollution, which have plagued some of the country’s biggest urban centers.

While some cities established informal geographic and economic ties long ago, China only recently wrote the building of city clusters into its national policy in a systematic way. In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for a regional approach to developing Beijing as the leader of the capital region, known as Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei (Jing-Jin-Ji). Xi’s stance inspired immense interest in regional governance, and “city cluster” became an official term in government documents.

By 2035, five major city clusters are expected to be established in China: the Jing-Jin-Ji cluster in the north, the Yangtze River Delta cluster (east), the Pearl River Delta cluster (south), the Cheng-Yu cluster (west), and the Yangtze River Middle Reaches cluster in central China. Some of these have already started to take shape, while others are still on the drawing board. Combined, these areas could one day generate about half the nation’s GDP and house half its urban population. To connect the clusters, China aims to complete a grid of 16 new high-speed railway lines.

If all goes according to plan, the clusters will prove to be sustainable not only economically but also ecologically. By promoting public transportation, curbing repetitive production, and coordinating environmental management, says Liu Daizong of the World Resources Institute’s China office in Beijing, city clusters should “help China deliver its latest commitment to reaching carbon emission peak around 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060.” ■