How The Growth Of New Cities Is Becoming A Global Economic Driver
Over 100 new cities are popping up all around Asia and Africa, amounting to trillions--yes, trillions--of dollars of investment. But what exactly is a new city?
If only half of the new cities that are currently being built today are actually completed we’re looking at a trillion dollars of investment—minimum. The likely reality is that over the next thirty years the new city building boom will kick into high gear and become one of the biggest economic drivers in the world, as hundreds of new dots are scattered across the maps of Asia and Africa.
When emerging markets step onto the global stage they are often clad in new cities. From China to India to the Middle East to North and Subsaharan Africa, markets are rebranding themselves as modern, international and investment-worthy by building shiny new metropolises in droves. [tweet_quote display="Indonesia has 28 new cities in the works, Morocco is building 9, Kuwait is at work constructing 12 new cities."]Indonesia has 28 new cities in the works, Morocco is building nine, while even little Kuwait is at work constructing 12 new cities of their own.[/tweet_quote] As I write this, Oman is building Duqm—a new urban colossus two and half times the size of Singapore—out in the middle of the desert, Palestine is throwing up the towers of Rawabi, and developers in South Korea’s Songdo are proverbially looking down from the windows of their skyscrapers upon the new city of 120,000 people they built successfully from scratch on reclaimed land.
History will look back on the early 21st century as the era of the new city builder, as humans have never before built so many new cities in so many places so rapidly. Right now, we are developing cities so fast that sand—yes, sand (used in construction)—is becoming a scarce natural resource in some places and some countries are outright banning its export.
But in this vast climate of new city building there is still a general lack of knowledge about what these new cities really are, what they are meant to do, and what they will eventually become.
What are new cities?
“New cities have a definition problem,” McGill University geography professor Sarah Moser admitted.
There is no formal definition of what a new city is, which makes identifying and tracking them seem like a subjective pursuit.
However, to the credit of the small band of new city chasers galavanting between the new dots on the world map, the term “city” itself is also not universally defined. On the one hand, a city is a description of a landscape: i.e. a “city-like” place that is full of big buildings, bright lights, wide boulevards, traffic and people. On the other hand, the word city is an administrative term that merely seeks to define the level of government that presides over a certain expanse of land.
Where one definition begins and the other ends is sometimes difficult to discern. For example, Hulunbuir in China’s Inner Mongolia is technically the largest municipality in the world by surface area, coming it at roughly the same size as the country of New Zealand. However, it is mostly grasslands and even the built-up parts don’t really appear similar to what most people would describe as metropolitan. On the other extreme, we have massive metropolitan areas—such as around New York City or Washington, D.C.—that are contiguous “city-like” expanses but, administratively, are technically different places.
This vagueness and international variations as to what defines a city has led to some glaring misinterpretations—such as Time Magazine mistakenly declaring Chongqing the most populated city in the world in 2005. Chongqing is a provincial-level city, which functions more like a state or province would in most countries, and is 99% mountains, farms and villages, with only around eight million people in its core built-up area.
Determining what is and what isn’t a “new city” is often equally vague and impacted by a country’s particular administrative framework.
However, new cities around the world do exhibit some patterns and there is a certain set of criteria that we can use to roughly define them. New cities are not suburbs; they are also different from sprawl or mere industrial or transport zones. New cities are their own thing, and we can identify them as follows:
1. New cites are developed from the ground up as part of holistic and large-scale masterplans. They are generally built in colossal bursts or phases of development over a period of decades and are meant to be a driver which significantly alters the economic and social layouts of the areas they're built in.
2. New cities offer the full gamut of urban offerings. They have their own industries, commercial districts, administrative buildings, public facilities, education centers and residential areas. As is often written in their promotional material, they are places where people “live, work and play,” and they must offer all three to be distinct from a suburb, a commuter town or an industrial or high-tech zone.
3. New cities have their own economic drivers. New cities are not suburbs, which often depend on the engines of a nearby metropolis for economic sustenance. Generally, a new city will be built around a special economic zone, a logistics hub, a port, a financial district, a conglomeration of universities, a free trade zone, a high-tech zone or some other large-scale industrial endeavor which fires the engines of their economies. Very often, new cities are built to support a given economic driver and are not only ways to provide housing and entertainment for workers/investors but also to maximize the profit potential of the development as a whole--i.e. rather than just building an industrial zone you build an industrial zone AND an entirely new city.
4. New cities are physically distinct from other urban areas. They are either separated from existing cities by sheer distance or by other natural geographic or manmade buffers. It is currently the trend to use new cities as catalysts for economic and social development in regions that are relatively under-developed (i.e. China's Horgos, Sri Lanka's Hambantota, Oman's Duqm), so they are often positioned way out in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" in deserts, mountains, on land reclaimed from the sea or in jungles, where they are meant to spark an entire array of new development rather than merely feeding off of an existing municipality.
5. New cities have their own identities. The word "new" in the term new city should not be taken lightly. New cities are usually not only literal new urban developments but are trophies for the countries which build them and indicators of the new future they are trying to usher in. They tend to have their own identities, brands and images, which more often than not revolve around the idea of being international, modern and high-tech. They people who move in and live in these places are likewise thought of (or think of themselves) as being the trend-setters--the new middle-class cosmopolitan sect that represent the future of their respective nations.
Examples of new cities being developed right now:
Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and Forest City in Malaysia; Nanhui, Ordos Kangbashi, Horgos, Lanzhou New Area and Meixi Lake in China; Songdo in South Korea; Nurkent (Khorgos) in Kazakhstan; Dompak in Indonesia; Rawabi in Palestine, Duqm in Oman; King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia; Terespol Municipality in Poland; Alyat in Azerbaijan; Colombo Port City and Hambantota in Sri Lanka; and Palava City in India.