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The Rise of the Asian Megalopolis

Updated: Dec 21, 2017

Contrary to what many may think, the Asian megalopolis has always been around

The first of October is World Habitat Day, a day designated by the United Nations as a opportunity to ‘reflect on the state of our towns and cities’. There is, indeed, much to reflect upon: for the first time in history, since 2008 more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, propelled by the growth of Asiatic mega-cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka and Karachi. Often, newcomers to these sprawling concrete hubs lack even basic amenities, such as water and sanitation, but their rise to prominence is seen as evidence of the coming Asian Century.

Taking a deeper historical perspective, however, what is striking is how the Asian megalopolis has always been around. Even in 1800, as European empires were consolidating their grip on the world, just three of the globe’s largest cities – London, Paris and Naples – were located in western Europe. All the rest, meanwhile, lay to the East.

Why this persistence of the eastern megalopolis? One factor is certainly demography: historically, most of the world has lived in Asia. But another, more subtle feature may be political. In Asiatic empires, from the Mongol Yoke, to the Mugal Raj, to the Abbasid Caliphate, the capital was not a simple place of administration, or commerce, but the showcase of imperial power: the product of a political system where vast surpluses could be extracted, brought to the imperial centre, and distributed to the court, bureaucracy, and its associated service class. In Europe, by contrast, cities such as Florence and Amsterdam existed largely as centres of trade and exchange, while royal towns were often minor offshoots. So since the times of Athens and Persepolis, and of Rome and Alexandria, the sprawling mega-city was something more associated with the East, than with Europe.

As purely political constructions, however, such imperial hubs often failed to outlive the empires which begat them. A city such as Vijayanagar in India, which had a population of 500,000 in 1500, had entirely ceased to exist three centuries later, while Xanadu, the Mongol “summer capital” visited and rhapsodised by Marco Polo, likewise faded away. The great exception, and survivor, is Beijing: for five hundred years, it has consistently been among the world’s greatest cities.

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