The Megacity is a growing reality of globalization and with populations that exceed 10 million, there is little doubt that the future will bring a variety of challenges and benefits for their residents. Paul Webster and Jason Burke wrote an article for The Observer early in 2012 that focused on the trend in rapid urbanization that has occurred in Asia in recent years, in particular China and India.
Chengdu, a major urban centre in China’s Sichuan province, is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia and has become a powerhouse of economic activity: it has been designated the western centre of science, transportation, technology, and finance, not to mention its importance in the areas of agriculture and manufacturing. With a population of over 14 million people, Chengdu has put itself forward as a globalized hub that seeks to draw in greater numbers of citizens, business, and investment.
Not only does the city seek to further development in the above mentioned areas, but it claims great advances have been made to curb issues that arise from megacity development. It’s common to see economic development take priority to social concerns in regions experiencing accelerated growth, but mayor Ge Honglin has put in place measures to prevent homelessness, extreme poverty, and city squalor. One way to do this is to encourage growth in outlying rural areas and provide for a workforce without placing considerable strain on the city proper:
Chengdu’s mayor, Ge Honglin, claims that the city has avoided some of the problems associated with migration into the cities by encouraging families to stay in the countryside. “The first thing I did was to improve the conditions – schools, shops, garbage collection, the sewage system. We had to cut the gap between rural and urban areas. If people could have a brighter future in the countryside, they’d stay there. So we’re not seeing people swarm into the city… Instead there are people in the city considering moving to the country.”
An interesting strategy that encourages commuting and public transportation to the economic centres of the city, while allowing people to live in a rural or suburban environment. Ge has also extended the city’s welfare system to include many homes the countryside, thus allow greater access to services from which these people traditionally would be excluded. Farmers and urban workers alike can now receive similar pension insurance benefits as long as they have paid in for at least 15 years, something denied to rural residents under the hukou household registration system in the past.
With growing cities comes growing squalor. Lack of proper sanitation, poor upkeep of urban infrastructure, and visible poverty have afflicted many growing centres and to suggest that Chengdu is free of this concern would be incorrect, but it’s far less a problem there than in other megacities. The reason for this is a specific and targeted response to the problem. Chengdu has a series of patrols whose job it is to identify minor issues (e.g.: tattered signage and missing manhole covers) and to correct them as soon as possible. There is a similar system for dealing with begging in the streets and homelessness:
“You can barely see a beggar in Chengdu,” Ge said. “We have a special system for monitoring them, and it works. Beggars are taken to the assistance centre, where they are given food and shelter and money to take them back to their home. If I say there are no more than 10 beggars on the street you will think there’s some sort of tyranny, but there isn’t. We’re trying to solve their problems.”
Another concern of urbanization in a globalized world is the loss of local traditions for dominant imported cultures. We’ve seen this all over the world in the case of fast food and the spread of consumerism in other product areas and it’s a concern for Chengdu as well. There has been an effort to create modern shopping districts where old ones were once located that bring the traditional aspects of Sichuan life into the visible everyday. Aged factories have been renovated and reused to house museums and display a mixture of classic and contemporary art. The goal is to preserve and expand upon the city’s identity, to create a regional flavour that is specific to Chengdu that will bolster local pride, while allowing the megacity to create a unique place for itself on the world stage.