The Future of Cities: What Role for the Mega-City?

Authors: Greg Clark of the JLL Cities Research Center with Emily Moir

In the last post, we discussed what the urban world might look like by 2050. This blog probes that theme further, and considers the future of the world’s largest cities, in conjunction with our Business of Cities essay.

The mega-city is the glamorous face of the future of cities. Technically defined as a city with more than 10 million people, it is often the mega-city which springs to mind and grabs our interest when we think of cities of the future. Futuristic megalopolises feature in films like Blade Runner or Metropolis; in literature, including science fiction by authors like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson, and even in comic books like Judge Dredd and Superman. But will mega-cities play a role in our urban future that is as significant as the films and books imagine?

Of course mega-cities already exist, even at the almost unimaginable scale of 20, 30 or 40 million people. In 2014 there were 28 megacities worldwide, and the metropolitan area of the largest – Tokyo – was home to 38 million people. In the future, we can certainly expect to see growth in the number of mega-cities. Another 13 cities will become ‘mega’ by 2030. And whilst several decades ago most of the world’s largest cities were found in upper income nations, by 2030 the UN predicts that only four of the 30 largest cities will be in these regions. Only seven cities in upper income nations will reach the scale of mega-cities. 

By way of contrast, India and China will have seven mega-cities each – and there are expected to be at least 34 mega-cities in total spread across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most mega-cities will also grow in size. Some African mega-cities such as Lagos and Nairobi are expected to experience explosive growth of around 4% every five years between now and 2025. In contrast, the established mega-cities of upper income nations will only grow slowly, if at all. Tokyo’s total population will be smaller in 2030 than it is today. Nonetheless, it will remain the world’s largest city – although its largest Asian rivals will have crept closer.

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Another anticipated trend is the continued growth of the mega-city region. Mega-city regions often result from the unplanned growth which can be a corollary of rapid urbanisation, and are characteristic of the developed world.[i] But large city-regions are also growing, albeit at a slower pace, in some mega-cities in upper income nations, such as London and Los Angeles. In some cases, mega-city regions may form when one particularly large city sprawls to such an extent that it envelops a smaller city or town. This has already been witnessed in Bangalore, Mexico City and Cairo, and the UN’s State of the World’s Cities report predicts that this phenomena, and the creation of what it calls ‘Endless Cities’, could be a significant development in urban areas over the next 50 years.  Eventually, the UN suggests, some Endless Cities could become home to more than 100 million people.

As well as becoming even larger centres of population, mega-cities of the global South and East are also expected to become more important economic centres. The pendulum of economic power is likely to swing particularly towards Chinese cities. Oxford Economics predict that eight European cities will drop out of the global top 50 cities by GDP by 2030, while nine new Chinese cities will join that group, taking the Chinese total to 17 – more than North America and four times more than Europe.[ii]

But although it is the mega-city which often springs to mind when we think of the future of cities, it is actually smaller cities, in particular those with less than 500,000 people, which are home to most of the world’s population – and this will continue to be the case. At present, almost two thirds of Europeans and more than half of Africa’s urban dwellers live in these small cities. Medium sized cities are also growing in importance.

Urban agglomerations with between 500,000 and 1 million inhabitants – and particularly those in Africa and Asia – are amongst the fastest growing in the world. Small and medium sized cities are distinctive places, different both from each other and from the megacity. Each city typology faces its own challenges and the next blog in this series will consider the futures that await them.


[i]Although some mega-regions do result from government planning, as in China for example.
[ii] Oxford Economics: Future trends and market opportunities in the world’s largest 750 cities


About the Author

Greg Clark has spent more than two decades putting his passion for cities to good use, by advising and mentoring global cities, firms and institutions. He has worked with over 100 cities around the world and holds senior advisory roles at international bodies including the OECD, Brookings Institution, ULI, and the Future Cities Catapult. A prolific author, Greg has published ten books to date on cities and investment practices, with three more in the pipeline for 2016-17. And as Chairman of The Business of Cities research and intelligence group, Greg leads a small high calibre team that advises and reports on global trends and changes in cities. In his academic life Greg is Hon Prof of City Leadership at UCL and co-chairman of the UCL City Leadership initiative, Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University, and Global Fellow at LSE Cities. He has received international awards for his work from cities as far afield as Barcelona, Brisbane, London, and Toronto and in 2016, Greg was honoured by HM Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE for his services to city and regional economic development. Meanwhile, outside of the day jobs, Greg is an avid tennis player, wine enthusiast, and lifelong follower of Arsenal FC.

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