When you've got one Earth and an unending boom in population growth, the gravitational pull of the world's economic and population centers will continue to drag rural dwellers in.
Megacities are our future. It's simple math: When you've got one Earth and an unending boom in population growth, the gravitational pull of the world's economic and population centers will continue to drag rural dwellers in—if the Sprawl doesn't absorb them by default.
A United Nations report from July lays the issue bare: This year, some 54 percent of the world lived in urban centers, a number projected to grow to 66 percent by 2050. That growth "could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa."
The same report also notes that in 1990, there were ten megacities of 10 million people or more on Earth; now there are 28, 16 of which are located in Asia. Keeping a city of that size running is challenge enough, but what happens when they morph into sprawling regions with populations ten times larger?
The video above gives us a glimpse, even if it's based on an 11-year-old video game (but a pretty realistic one at that). Peter Richie spent eight months planning and building a megacity in vanilla SimCity 4, and the end result is mind-boggling (especially as a former mayor myself): 107.7 million people living in one massive, sprawling region. I'll let Richie's stats speak for themselves:
81 large city tiles to make one Mega-Region
26,542 km of paved road (16,492 miles)
8,626 km of subway lines (5,360 miles)
324 Hydrogen power plants (6,000,000 megawatts of energy)
486 Waste to Energy Plants
512 Large Water Pumps
Over 2,000 elementary and high schools
81 Universities, 162 Colleges
Richie told me that he initially came up with the goal for a 100 million person region "using no mods and no cheats" back in December, and spent a couple months planning things out before beginning construction in March.
The advantage of building a virtual city is the ability to start from scratch. Even so, life isn't easy.
"Traffic is a nightmare, both above ground and under," Richie said. "The massive amount of subway lines and subway stations are still congested during all times of the day in all neighborhoods of each and every mega-city in the region. The roadways are clogged at all times, but people still persist in trying to use them."
"Pollution is managed," he added. "Heavy polluting structures are clumped between groups of four mega-cities, as are airports, and energy infrastructure. This reduces the impact of the worst pollution to the residents."
Now imagine trying to keep up with the booming growth of real cities, whose mayors have far less dictatorial powers—and no pause button. Even if robot farmers end up feeding us all, the type of growth we can expect in the future presents staggering infrastructure demands.
Visit any megacity on Earth—Shanghai, São Paulo, Mumbai, New York City—and the problem is laid bare: Massive, growing populations put constant pressure on energy, sanitation, and transportation infrastructure. And when things go wrong, they go very wrong.
Planning for more people, along with environmental concerns like rising seas and extreme weather, is certainly possible, but enacting large-scale investments is another challenge. As one urban planning researcher put it to me early this year, even when problems are acknowledged and solutions found, "The big question in all of these things is who's going to pay for it?"
And all the while, more people will keep swelling urban ranks. The UN projects that Tokyo, currently the world's largest city with around 38 million people, will decline slightly by 2030, but continuing the boom will be cities in India and China.
Delhi's population, which is now at 25 million, is expected to grow by another 11 million in the next 16 years—a major concern when basic infrastructure is already a fundamental issue for many in the city, as well as residents of cities like it.
"Density is the major issue, as there is nearly no space for further development, the mega-cities built upwards instead of outwards," Richie said of his own virtual megalopolis. "While open spaces are often found around each of the tens of thousands of of subway stations there is still a desire for open green space."
Despite that, Richie, who said he's been playing SimCity 4 for a decade, said he's got a positive outlook on the cities of the future.
"Actually, I am very optimistic about our future cities," he said. "I think we are on the verge of building very large, but very sustainable cities, likely where the pollution of today will be nearly non-existent."
When cities are putting up odor domes to control air pollution, it's tough to have much faith. At the same time, we've seen time and again that efforts to improve our urban environments can have rapid effects. And if the world's slow march towards sustainability can continue to pick up steam, there's hope that we won't all end up living in a Kowloon Walled City reboot. Then again, hope might be the last thing we need.