Cities on the Move

By Ricky Burdett, 2015

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographical plexus, an economic organisation, an institutional process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity.

Lewis Mumford, ‘What is a city?’
Architectural Record, 1937

Cities of all shapes and sizes are on the move. Driven by increasing birth rates and rural-to-city shifts, most are moving faster and getting bigger. Some are shrinking, as people leave to chase jobs. Even those that numerically appear static, are experiencing internal upheavals of in-migration and out-migration. While half the world’s urban population lives in settlements with fewer than five hundred thousand inhabitants, it is in megacities that the increase is twice as fast as anywhere else.

Martin Roemers’ visual essay captures this epochal shift. His photographs document the scale, pace and immediacy of this new urban reality by focusing on twenty-two cities that have surpassed the ten million mark: the official UN threshold for a ‘megacity’. His eye – and his camera’s long exposure time – engage with the dynamics of cities on the move, forcing us to literally slow down and dwell on the meaning of inhabiting the cities of the 21st century. This visual process has an intrinsic social value that transcends the art of photography. It allows us to get beneath the skin of the vast scale and intense speed of the new urban context, which is so difficult to grasp ‘on the ground’. The static images freeze the complex processes of urban dynamism and become hyper-real.

Just over a century ago, only 13% of the world was urban, whereas the United Nations now predicts that 75% of the global population – close to six billion people – is expected to be concentrated in cities by 2050. Many will be living in megacities of several million people and in massively urbanised regions stretching across countries and continents. Today, one in eight urban residents lives in one of twenty-eight megacities. By 2030, the world is projected to have forty-one megacities with more than ten million inhabitants. While most urban migrants flock to cities in search of jobs and opportunities, the pace is also fuelled by the environmental impact of climate change, with more people – climate change refugees – abandoning exposed agricultural areas in favour of the relative protection and promise of the city.

Like so many other socio-demographic indicators – health, well-being, poverty, wealth, life expectancy and birth rate – the pattern of urbanisation is unevenly distributed across the globe.  If we were to see the entire planet from space at night, we would distinguish vast patches and cordons of light. If we think of these concentrations of electric lighting as proxies for urban settlements, then large-scale patterns of urban development begin to take shape before our very eyes.

Most of Europe is criss-crossed by urban settlements, with a dense band of development stretching across the Old Continent from southern Great Britain to Northern Italy. Here, Moscow, Istanbul, Paris and London stand out as extreme concentrations of human habitation.

In North America, vast parts of the United States are covered by an almost geometric grid, which also connects sections of Canada and Mexico; however, its central regions are noticeably sparse. Latin America has significant urban clusters along its coastal edges with São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires standing out on the Atlantic Coast, while Lima and Santiago dominate the Pacific. All these cities reflect both their colonial past as trading posts and their new-found economic vibrancy as global access points to valuable natural resources like copper, oil and lithium.

But a glance to the East reveals a more intense pattern of urbanisation. When viewed from the sky, the entire Japanese archipelago looks like an urbanised continuum.  Extensive city-regions are rapidly forming along coastal China and throughout the entire Asia Pacific, with Indonesia and the Philippines marked by a necklace of densely occupied islands stretching towards Australasia.

The dizzying velocity of this transformation may be nowhere as tangible as in leading Chinese cities. China’s urban population is expected to increase from 636 million in 2010 to 905 million in 2030, By 2050 the country will need to invest 800-900 billion RMB per year to improve its urban infrastructure, about one-tenth of China’s total GDP in 2001. As Shanghai grapples with the social challenges of integrating a ‘floating population’ of rural in-migrants – who possibly number five million people – it continues to grow at a breath-taking rate in both height and breadth, with nearly 3,000 buildings over ten storeys high in a city that had less than 300 such buildings only thirty years ago.

Fuelling this growth is not only in-migration but also the desire of existing residents to increase the amount of personal space they inhabit. The average amount of space per person has tripled in just over a decade from less than four metres per person to over twelve square metres. Yet this is still a modest figure when compared to the averages of most Western countries. Beyond Shanghai and Beijing, Shenzhen – which is just north of Hong Kong – is China’s first and most successful Special Economic Zone. It has grown from a small fishing village of roughly 30,000 people in 1979 to over twelve million today, a figure that has more than doubled over the last decade. 

But even in China urban growth is not seen as a benefit per se. For decades, China’s government has tried to limit the size of its capital Beijing – currently numbering just over twenty-one million people – through draconian residency permits. Now it has embarked on an ambitious plan to make Beijing the centre of a new super-city of 130 million people. The planned megalopolis, a metropolitan area that would be about six times the size of New York’s, is meant to revamp Northern China’s economy and to function as a laboratory for modern urban growth. The new region will link the research facilities and creative culture of Beijing with the economic muscle of the port city of Tianjin and the hinterlands of Hebei Province, thus forcing areas to work together that have never previously co-operated.

The Beijing city government has announced that it will move much of its bureaucracy, as well as factories and hospitals, to the hinterlands. This is in an effort to offset the city’s strict residency limits so as to ease congestion and spread good-paying jobs into less-developed areas. Jing-Jin-Ji, as the region is called – ‘Jing’ for Beijing, ‘Jin’ for Tianjin and ‘Ji’, the traditional name for Hebei Province – is intended to help the area catch up with China’s more prosperous economic belts: the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai and Nanjing in Central China, and the Pearl River Delta that surrounds Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Southern China. Unlike metropolitan areas that have grown up organically, Jing-Jin-Ji would be a very deliberate creation. Its centrepiece: a huge expansion of high-speed rail to bring the major cities within an hour’s commute of each other.


India stands out for its sheer concentration of human development. In the sub-continent, the urban population grew from 290 million in 2001 to 340 million in 2008 and is projected to reach 590 million by 2030. As a result, India will have to build 700-900 million square metres of residential and commercial space a year to accommodate this growth, which will also require an investment of US$ 1.2 trillion for 350-400 kilometres of subway and up to 25,000 kilometres of new roads per year. The population of Delhi, the world’s fourth-largest city, has expanded by 40% over the last ten years, and Mumbai – India’s dynamic powerhouse – is set to overtake Tokyo as the world’s largest city by 2050. If the proportion of people living in slums were to remain the same as today, Mumbai could end up with not only as many people as in London, New York and Paris having no access to basic services but also severe social and environmental problems that in turn will affect generations to come.

Europe, North America and Oceania became mostly urban before the 1950s. This was subsequently achieved in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, while Asia will hit that mark in around 2024 and Africa by 2030. Much of this urban growth is occurring in areas where poverty and deprivation are rife; where cities have the potential to either integrate or separate, as is illustrated and described by Roemers’ photographs. Here, extreme shoppers on Los Angeles’ Rodeo Drive and Jakarta’s flea market speak for themselves: The detail of human interaction brings this generic narrative to life.

According to Demographia’s 2015 rankings (which were based on UN data) eight of the most populous megacity regions are now in Asia. China has the most with a total of six megacities, yet its largest one, Shanghai, is only sixth on this list. The largest megacity remains Tokyo-Yokohama, which is home to thirty-seven million. It is followed by Jakarta, Delhi and Manila. Cairo, Lagos and Kinshasa signal the growing significance of Africa and the Middle East, and are ahead of the mature European megacity regions of London and Paris. They were still the only African megacities as of 2014; however, they are expected to be joined by Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Luanda by 2030. That same year, China and India are both predicted to have developed seven megacities each.

The world’s fastest growing cities are in Africa and Asia. These regions are projected to become 56% and 64% urban by 2050, as starting from the current, relatively low base of 37% and 32% respectively. By contrast, Europe is 72% urbanised while China has already reached a level of 54%. African and Asian growth rates will, by all accounts, be astronomic, as will the demands on their infrastructure. Each new urban dweller will require a home and a job, as well as access to clean water, sanitation, health and education.

But while India has the potential to invest substantially in its cities – and has recently announced an ambitious programme for one hundred ‘smart cities’ – African cities still need to grapple with a profound structural problem. According to Joan Clos, the Director of UN Habitat, African urban expansion is following a peculiar trajectory whereby urbanisation is not associated with the industrialisation that accompanied much of the last spurt of intense urban growth in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many African cities – from Kinshasa to Luanda and Kigali where over 50% of urban growth is informal – suffer from a lack of investment in infrastructure that partly results from an inability to tax informal development.

The UN has observed that a third of the global urban population (over 800 million people) lives in ‘slum-like conditions’ even though there is disagreement amongst experts as to whether such negative terms should be used to describe informal settlements which – to a lesser or greater degree – concentrate poverty but also act as repositories of human energy and ingenuity. In Planet of Slums, Mike Davies is forthright in his accusation of what he considers an unacceptable human condition, while Doug Saunders in Arrival City rejects the term ‘slum’ and its connotations of abjection, hopelessness and stagnation. Moreover, Saunders finds ‘even in these grimy and ill-serviced clearances a teeming populace with the rural skills and drive to get on and up: enduring adversity, mobilising entrepreneurship, working with others to form businesses, find work, make savings, build better homes, improve the fortunes of their children, send remittances home’. 

These complex social, economic and spatial narratives underpin Roemers’ visual essay, which brings into sharp focus the apparent paradox of co-dependency between the formal economy and informal development.  In many of these global cities, the homogeneous concentrations of ‘placeless’ capital often sit cheek-by-jowl with the vibrancy of informal neighbourhoods, which have assimilated over time and provide cheap labour close to centres of power and production. Roemers captures this dynamic in the streetscapes of Istanbul, Mexico City, Los Angeles, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Jakarta, where the traces of globalisation intermingle with everyday practices of local transactions.

Roemers’ images reflect human resilience and ingenuity in the face of urban everyday life. The watermelon street sellers of Karachi in Pakistan – a city which grew by 80% between 2000 and 2010, and is twenty times larger today than in 1950 – testify to Karachi’s economic vibrancy. The ordered market stalls and fresh fruit mats alongside the active railway lines in Dhaka (Bangladesh) – where every hour more than fifty people join the sixteen million inhabitants of one of the most crowded cities in the world – bear witness to the sheer determination of urban dwellers to survive despite the risks of operating close to fast-moving trains.  The ability to adapt and make-do in Lagos – with makeshift altars at prayer time beneath its crumbling motorways – reflects the dynamism of the inhabitants of Nigeria’s economic powerhouse, a city that has grown from 300,000 in 1950 to an estimated 21.5 million and where the population has doubled over the last decade.

In Roemers’ pictures of Cairo, one can detect traces of a rural life that still exists in this millennial city of trade and transactions. In Egypt, a child is born every twenty seconds and many people move to Cairo within the space of one generation. Here, over 60% of the population lives in informal settlements with buildings of up to fourteen storeys in a city with only one square metre of open space per person; by contrast, each Londoner has access to fifty times that amount. The symbiotic relationship between people and modes of travel in Kolkata and Mumbai reflects Suketu Mehta’s observation that the sheer density of human presence can feel like an ‘assault on one’s senses’. Yet the very density of daily transactions provides the opportunity for local people to get a job and to get ahead despite the congestion and apparent chaos. That is why Mumbaikars refer to their city as a ‘bird of gold’: a place where you can ‘take off and fly’.

Many cities of the global North have slowed down or their growth rate has gone into reverse. Ex-industrial centres of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and parts of the United States’ former manufacturing belt are actually shrinking – with Detroit providing a sad tale of decline and abandonment. By contrast – after a sustained period of decline – the Greater London area has surprised demographers by growing by 400,000 more than projected. However, it has ‘only’ increased by 12% and reached 8.2 million in 2011 as opposed to 7.3 million in 2001. Like other European cities that experienced their major expansion in the 19th century, London has only expanded by about 15% in the whole of the 20th century, whereas Mumbai grew by 2,000% and São Paulo by 8,000% over the same period of time. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, has expanded four-fold in the space of only four decades since 1980. 

So, what does this speed and vastness mean for both those who inhabit and those who build the city? By slowing the pace of cities on the move, Roemers allows us to see cities – even those of ten million souls or more – as they are: complex and fragile metabolisms that support and sustain all shades of human life.

Ricky Burdett is Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics and Director of LSE Cities. He was director of the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale on Cities, Society and Architecture and curated the Global Cities exhibition at Tate Modern in London.