It is predicted that we will see an additional 2.5 billion people seeking a place to call home within the cities of our world within the next 30 years, which poses the question – should we expand existing cities or start afresh? Buildingspecifier.com editor Joe Bradbury discusses:

The oldest city on Earth, Jericho dates back 11,000 years. But not all cities grow from ancient roots. Nur-Sultan, the now capital of Kazakhstan was merely an outpost in the early 1900’s. It did most of its transformation into the futuristic metropolis that it is today throughout the 1990’s.

From the ancient city of Jericho, over 11,000 years old to Nur-Sultan the capital of Kazakhstan, just 21 years young

For millennia, people have been constructing new cities from the ground up. Building new cities is a natural human activity.

Typically people establish new cities when countries develop and markets flourish. Today, however, we’re taking it to new heights. We’ve never spent so much money on so many new cities in so many areas as we are right now.

Since the late 1990s, new dots have appeared on the maps of countries such as China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria, and India at an unprecedented rate, and more than 120 new cities are currently under construction in 40 countries around the world.

We’re on the verge of a new city construction boom unlike anything we’ve ever seen historically. People and nations from East Asia to the Middle East to Africa have ambitions and aspirations in these gleaming new metropolises. Will they usher in a bright new urban future or a historic-scale debt-fuelled bubble? Only time will tell.

Why build anew?

Overcrowding, pollution, traffic congestion, housing shortages, lack of green space, and economic stagnation are just a few of the urban and economic difficulties that rising economies face around the world in 2021. Governments seek to move on from their current crowded and dysfunctional metropolitan centres by starting from scratch and developing new economic sectors that will help them leapfrog other nations. For some, city construction can be a tremendously profitable endeavour.

Many new cities appear to openly contradict economic realities at first glance. What are emerging markets, or “poor countries,” doing with some of the world’s most technologically advanced and expensive cities?

The main reason for new cities is that there is so much migration. People from all over the world are flocking to cities in search of work.

By 2050, the UN estimates that 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities. This translates to 2.5 billion more city people, with Asia and Africa accounting for 90% of the increase. Alarmingly, half of the required urban area has yet to be constructed.

…In order to meet burgeoning demand, the world might need a few more Delhis, Shanghais, and Lagoses!

We must change the way we build

In the next 100 years, we will generate more metropolitan space than there is now on Earth. If we keep doing things the same way, much of it will be disorganised and less functional than what we already have.

Cario – Designed to house 1 million, currently supporting 20 million

Many of Asia’s and Africa’s existing cities are simply not equipped to handle the influx of people experienced by the cities over recent years. Cairo was originally designed to house a million people, not the current population of 20 million. Subsequently, rings of informal developments (slums) encircle cities like Mumbai, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro. It’s more difficult and expensive to retrofit these cities with modern infrastructure and utilities than it is to remove a swath of ground and start afresh.

When you develop a new city, you don’t have to move or work around existing infrastructure, rivers, factories, or houses. You also don’t have to work around established political procedures, community groups, civic organisations, or even rules and regulations.

Building new cities is considered by many leaders as more profitable and effective than retrofitting old cities. Land sales contributed for nearly 74 percent of local governments’ revenue in 2011, when China’s new city building boom was at its peak, and parcels of urban construction land were selling at a 40-fold profit. The real estate and construction sectors tend to drive economies in emerging markets that are actively recreating themselves — both physically and in terms of their global image. Building a totally new metropolis is the pinnacle of their ambitions.

Acquiring large swaths of property and then using that area for whatever purpose, including urban and commercial, is easier now than in prior decades. Technology businesses, construction companies, and the real estate industry are using the various issues that cities in the global south face to persuade people that building new cities is a better option than mending old cities, which is less profitable.

The amount of money being thrown at new cities is incredible. The King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia costs $100 billion (£78 billion), whereas the country’s Neom megalopolis is expected to cost five times as much. Forest City in Malaysia was initially valued at $100 billion, whereas Ordos Kangbashi was valued at $161 billion.

Cities must be functional

It’s not enough to build a sparkling jewel of a city, they must have a deeper reason to exist. It’s a classic mistake that has been made time and time again for centuries, to build some structures and palaces and just see what happens. The new cities that are having difficulty are those that are defying market forces – the very economic impulses that give new cities their energy and reason for existence are built-in.

Some new cities could easily be classified as unnecessary, merely custom-built cities for the wealthy. Some of these developments are envisioned as privileged gated communities. Things like that are guaranteed to fail, once the bubble bursts. The streets of Dubai are lined with abandoned, dusty supercars.

They’re also an unsuitable reaction to the true demand, which is for people to obtain a first position on the kind of urban, modern escalator that can help propel them and their children to a better life, not for the rich to have a somewhere to retreat to.

Many of the new cities being planned in Asia and Africa are clearly intended for the emerging middle class. This well-educated, high-spending, and highly mobile segment of society can be a motivating force for almost any country if given the correct opportunity. If those possibilities are not supplied, people are more likely to flee, immigrating to the United States, Canada, and Western Europe in search of better jobs and lifestyles.

The new city construction boom is almost as much about retaining and attracting high-value talent as it is about making room for the hordes of rural migrants looking for their first footholds in a city.

Many new communities are scrambling to attract these global elites by building luxury houses, luxury shopping and restaurants, and infrastructure for their extravagant hobbies, particularly boat docking facilities.

The developer’s purpose is to maximise profits, which he achieves in part by developing luxury condos and villas. Developers aren’t interested since there isn’t much money to be earned in inexpensive family housing.

In summary

Overcrowding is a complicated issue, but statistics can be used to effectively estimate our needs as a society.

If overpopulation appears to be a possibility, efforts to relieve housing pressure can be implemented. Relaxing development restrictions by increasing the amount of multi-family units available for development, allowing single room occupancy through zoning law amendments, and boosting affordability by partnering with organisations to assemble land and write down prices are just a few examples. Cities can build housing policies that address problems before they occur by employing this data-driven preventative approach.

Cities must work smarter, not harder, to achieve their goals. Existing cities must carefully manage their housing supply in order to grow sustainably without risking unsafe occupancy levels that endanger lives. Residents are protected through joint efforts to collect housing data and innovative data analysis to enable proactive action and more effective resource allocation once an issue has been discovered.

And the cities of the future must be built on a bedrock of vision, to promote cultural change. The world doesn’t need more gaudy accessories, it must be treated with love and respect and everything we build should be suitable for purpose.

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