Understanding How Cities Grow


Having grown up in a small town on Maui, I vividly recall my first time visiting a city – Honolulu. I was amazed by so many things: the skyscrapers, the freeways, the people, the dynamism and the sense of opportunity that came with being in Hawaii’s largest city. My notions of what a “real” city changed on family trips throughout the U.S. West Coast and British Columbia, and were rocked again when, as a high schooler, I had the opportunity to live for three months in the world’s largest metropolis: Tokyo.

All of this is to say that, I find the structure and design of cities incredibly fascinating. How cities grow, how they function, even how they look, in my opinion, says a lot about the vitality of the region, government policies, and many more. Los Angeles epitomizes sprawl, New York (Manhattan in particular) and Hong Kong exemplify vertical growth, and cities like Vancouver seem to be a combination of both. After finishing up Edward Glaeser’s excellent book on urban development in “Triumph of the City”, I thought about which cities in the developing world could fall into these three categories.

I’ve only been to a handful of cities in China and Malaysia, so my awareness of the composition and structure of cities in the developing world is pretty limited. Shanghai seemed to be a combination of Los Angeles and New York: skyscrapers were everywhere, not just concentrated in one core area; sprawl as far as the eye could see; cars were common, but the busses and metro were always packed. Living in Shanghai was an eye opening experience for me, because I could literally see the rapidity with which cities in the developing world are growing. The pace, though arguably not as high as in years past, is still remarkable when compared to growth rates of cities in the developed world. Back to Glaeser. One of the central points Glaeser advocates is that cities in the developing world will have a huge effect on the world’s ability to manage climate change. In his book, he writes,

“Over the next forty years, India and China will continue to urbanize rapidly. Their decisions about land use will have a huge impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. If they live at high densities and use public transit, then the whole world will benefit. If they sprawl, then we will all suffer from higher energy costs and higher carbon emissions.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. Urbanization trends in the developing world, particularly in China and India, will have a significant impact on the environment not just in those two countries, but also worldwide. Even if policies that clamp down on carbon emissions are passed in the EU (as they are) or on a case by case basis in North America (as is the case with California’s stringent auto standards), these arguably have only a small impact on carbon reduction than the potential negative effects mass urbanization in the developing world will have on the environment. Development is certainly good, but can it be done in a way that is environmentally friendly, yet still meets the aspirations of millions of rural migrants to cities in the developing world who want their very own home?

As a researcher, I’m curious to see if there has been any research done that looks at examining in depth the question of “building up” versus “building out” on a city-by-city basis in the developing world. I’d imagine that conducting such a comprehensive study would be a pretty extensive, time consuming endeavor; however, the insights gained from such research, in my opinion, would be incredibly useful and worthwhile to know.