TOPIC GUIDE: DM Israel: Megacities

"Megacities are bad for the developing world"

PUBLISHED: 11 Apr 2015

AUTHOR: Craig Fairnington & Joel Cohen

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A ‘megacity’ is typically defined as an urban area with over 10 million inhabitants. In 1950, the New York metropolitan area was the only city to meet this criterion. Today, an estimated 1 in 5 people live in one of 27 megacities around the globe – the largest being Tokyo with a population of 36 million [Ref: Slate]. The UN expects this number to have reached 37 by 2025 with the majority of growth coming from an ascendant developing world, particularly Asia [Ref: United Nations]. The general move towards urban living – with a projected 60% of the world’s population living in cities by 2030 [Ref: Forbes] – has led some commentators to worry that the future’s megacities will look vastly different to New York, Tokyo or London, resembling Mumbai or Sāo Paulo with their vast slums and associated social, health and environmental problems [Ref: Moscow Times]. Others however suggest that the challenges presented by megacities can be overcome with architectural and technical ingenuity, the economic dynamism of city life and the promise of a better standard of living for all. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is developing the hundred billion dollar King Abdullah Economic City, which although not a mega city in terms of size of population, is an indicator of the trend towards larger urban developments [Ref: BBC News]. In essence, megacities are either dynamic hotbeds of productivity or corrupt and frightening expanses of urban blight.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Cities of slums
In 1971, around 1 in 6 Mumbai residents lived in slums. Today, the slum population stands at around 1 in 2 (8.7 million slum-dwellers in a population of 18.5 million) [Ref: Times of India]. This is not unique to Mumbai; many megacities in Asia, Africa and South America have vast populations living in slums with little or no government provision for essential infrastructure like sanitation, electricity, safe transport links and education.  In the eyes of some researchers, the widespread belief in “gigantism for its own sake” [Ref: Forbes] is unnecessarily forcing millions to live in unpleasant conditions that cause and exacerbate common health problems like high rates of disease, lower than average life expectancies, epidemics and even pandemics of communicable diseases [Ref: NEJM]. Why, they ask, should emerging megacities tragically repeat the worst mistakes of mass urbanisation that once occurred in the West? While even the most ardent of advocates for megacities recognise that sprawling, unplanned developments may look chaotic to a planner’s eye, hopeful observers argue that the challenge of large, concentrated urban populations will not lead to poverty, but to innovative solutions. These commentators often celebrate the ‘DIY spirit’ of slums that are “improved steadily and gradually by their residents” [Ref: Prospect]. They suggest that complex and constantly changing megacities demonstrate daily how improvements to the living conditions of slum-dwellers are not only possible but inevitable. Many look to China where the number of urban slum-dwellers fell by 25% from 2000-2008 [Ref: spiked] and where planning and investment is allowing the country to build the world’s largest megacity in the Pearl River Delta – not as a single sprawl, but as a cluster of separate, inter-connected urban hubs [Ref: Atlantic]. Some research has also raised doubts over the evidence that living in a smaller city will necessarily improve one’s quality of life [Ref: Vox].

Lure of the city
For these advocates poverty in the developing world’s megacities is not the fault of geographical factors like size and scale but are the result of endemic political corruption and decades of poor planning. While conditions in the slums may admittedly be terrible they are often better than the areas migrant workers left behind offering a first step in the climb out of poverty [Ref: Economic Times]. As American economist, Edward Glaeser, suggests, there are both social and economic advantages to city life: “slums don’t make people poor, they attract poor people who want to be rich”, he says [Ref: Forbes]. The economic sense of megacities – offering the prospect of more jobs, better wages, cheap access to labour-saving ‘mod-cons’ that once were the preserve of the rich – has further contributed to their appeal. Accordingly, the United Nations are clear on the developmental benefits of city living finding that education, healthcare and other services can be easily distributed amongst those in dense areas [Ref: United Nations]. For these reasons recent protests in Turkey, Brazil, Africa and across the Middle East have been described as particularly urban movements reflecting the aspirations of a new, well educated and growing middle class [Ref: Financial Times]. However, as critics of megacities point out, political representation in the developing world often struggles to keep up with the size, transformation and population growth of modern metropolises [Ref: Business Daily] producing more potentially explosive inter-city tensions than solidarities [Ref: Foreign Policy]. Megacities in the developing world are undoubtedly more unstable and certainly more unpredictable that their counterparts in the Western world. In return for the promise of a better life, can the concentration of power in sprawling cities do anything but politically exclude and economically impoverish the countryside that surrounds them [Ref: Global Asia]? Research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that bloated urban behemoths may become a drag on emerging economies [Ref: Economist] while investment flows towards more secure and manageable medium-sized cities [Ref: Daily Nation]. If they are right, the future of megacities might look more like a poverty trap absorbing the aspirations of the poor while mostly benefitting the rich [Ref: New Statesman].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

The Rise of the Megacity

David Pilling Slate 5 November 2011


Megacities face Mega Problems

Moscow Times 26 June 2012

City Limits

Economist 13 August 2011

The problem with megacities

Joel Kotkin Forbes 4 April 2011

Urbanization – An emerging humanitarian disaster

Ronak B. Patel and Thomas F. Burke New England Journal of Medicine 20 August 2009


The century of the city will change the way we do politics

John Rossant Financial Times 24 June 2013

Slums are hubs of hope, progress and dignity

Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar Economic Times 31 March 2013

Liberated from the “idiocy of rural life”

Patrick Hayes spiked 31 January 2012

New Land Of Opportunity

Edward Glaeser Forbes 20 April 2011


How the rise of the megacity is changing the way we live

Paul Webster and Jason Burke Guardian 21 January 2012

Behold the countryside: the urban/rural divide

Tay Kheng Soon Global Asia 2008


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Failed city? Karachi’s violent spiral

Foreign Policy 9 April 2013

‘Africa Is a Great Country’

Jens Assur Foreign Policy April 2013

Megacities: soulless sprawl or shining future?

Carl Björkman World Economic Forum 23 January 2013

‘One Mega-City, Many Systems’: The Evolution of Hong Kong

Parag Khanna & Thomas Sevcik Atlantic 21 June 2012

Slumlands — filthy secret of the modern mega-city

Paul Mason New Statesman 8 August 2011

Are the world’s megacities too big?

Klaus Desmet & Esteban Rossi-Hansber Vox 12 March 2011

How Slums Can Save the Planet

Stewart Brand Prospect 27 January 2010


National Geographic Channel

India’s pop-up mega city

Financial Times

‘Cities on the Edge: Megacities’

Andrew Marr BBC (via YouTube)


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Saudi Arabia’s new desert megacity

BBC News 20 March 2015

The whole of Eastern Africa is in a flux

Daily Nation 9 August 2013

Model for megacities? Mexico City cleans up its air

Christian Science Monitor 22 April 2013

Plastic waste time bomb ticking for India

Times of India 4 April 2013

Amnesty: 3 out of every 4 people live in a slum

SW Radio Africa December 2012

Megacity Singapore under spotlight

BBC News 21 June 2011



National Geographic Channel

‘Cities on the Edge: Megacities’

Andrew Marr BBC (via YouTube)

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