Welcome to the era of the megacity. The world has more big cities than at any time in history, and those cities are larger than they have ever been. There are now more than 30 urban centers with populations in excess of ten million. The biggest megalopolis of all is Tokyo, which clocks in at over 35 million souls, but more than 75—75!—cities boast populations of more than five million. For the first time, the global population is more than 50 percent urban; a century ago that figure stood at only 10 percent. In another 40 years, if demographers are correct, it will jump to a staggering 75 percent. In the words of Rem Koolhaas, the bard of urban bigness, “more than ever, the city is all we have.”
The rise of the megalopolis has hardly been hailed with the triumphant trills of trumpets, even by the city’s greatest advocates. Half a century ago, Lewis Mumford, the dean of urban historians, theorized that the arrival of the mega-city signaled “the last stage in the classic cycle of civilization” and would lead to “complete disruption and downfall.” More recently, optimistic experts informed us that in our newly wired world, cities would become obsolete, technology would promote decentralization, and we could look forward to another flight from our urban cores.
Clearly, that hasn’t happened. Take a peek in your local Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shop and you’ll notice that even as we’re connected digitally, we still demand at least the pretext of physical human contact. But that’s the least of it. Cities are growing not so much because they draw the culturally conscious “creative classes” as the proselytizing guru Richard Florida might have you believe, but because they are, as they have always been, economic engines. Moreover, as the economist Dr. Rakesh Mohan has stated, cities have now become “the fulcrum of world development.”
It seems the next step is simply to embrace the hugeness. Cities may face challenges that seem insurmountable, but around the world, and in the United States in particular, progressive planners are working to make even the biggest cities more livable. But isn’t a little discomfort just part of the romance, what binds the inhabitants of a place together and gives it that certain anarchic energy? Arriving at a metropolis is like stepping onto a moving sidewalk at an airport. Your legs are going at the same pace, but the world around you is moving a bit faster. The speed is addictive. Get used to it.