Endless Cities
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942, The Art Institute of Chicago

Endless Cities

The Irresistible Rise of Mass Urbanization
Paulina Wilk
time 22 minutes

By the time we reach the halfway point in our current century, half of the world’s population will be living in slums. And this is a rather good piece of news. 

The slim stalk of the Burj Khalifa vanishes in the bright sunlight. Its surface glistens, the reflected rays forcing people looking up to lower their gaze. The world’s tallest building is best viewed in the evening, when it becomes illuminated with artificial light, surrounded by a show of fountains shooting plumes of water, arranged to a set of romantic tunes. Families crowd along the balustrades, trying to get a picture of the tower, but it won’t fit in the shot, sticking way out past the artificially-imagined metropolitan landscape. Reality is not what the Burj is about – it is improbable; too big to fit our imaginations. Like all of Dubai. The Burj Khalifa is most of all a statement. Its presence announces: borders existed yesterday, the future is all about moving or removing them completely.

The famous skyscraper makes no sense at all. Certainly not in an economic sense. Two-thirds of the way up, the building is too narrow to serve any practical purpose. In order for it to remain vertical, it is necessary for it to be cooled, using huge amounts of water. And money. After the crisis in 2008, the rulers of Dubai had to dip into the wealth of their families from Abu Dhabi. Today it is the neighbouring emirate that owns the colossal building. Financial fireworks, all paid for with loans.

The Burj Khalifa also makes no ecological sense, and more than any other building in the modern world shows that our civilization does not exist in harmony with the natural world, but evidently prefers to compete with it. We wish to beat nature at creating forms that take the breath away. We want to dominate, and yet in order to do so we have to make use of – oh, the irony – natural resources. The Dubai skyscraper is made of sand. In order to erect it, it was necessary to put in place special foundations, narrow ‘wells’ many metres deep, filled with pressurized concrete. Concrete is made of sand, but not the precious, soft variety that we find in desert dunes. Larger grains are needed – less regular in shape – and the sheiks had to import them from places as far afield as Australia. The whole glass surface which covers the 829-metre tall building was made from sand that was brought in and then melted down.


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It therefore cost $1.5 billion for our species to build, in the middle of a scorching desert, a totemic monument that represents our passion for expansion and growth. Celebrating the start of the 21st century, we’ve said to ourselves: here we are, nothing will stop us now.

Swelling giants

This power to increase and enlarge is something we now equate with development and progress. We have selected growth as our central economic idea, or rather ideology, and we keep on following it like a religion. Maybe not all of us, maybe not individually, but we do it as a collective, in a swelling human mass residing on and transforming our planet. As a biological community, with 7.5 billion individuals in place, we can measure our own success above all else with sheer numbers (when compared to members of other species) and the influence we wield over many ecosystems. The Burj Khalifa is, up till now, our highest achievement. Yet the mind boggles when we think about how cocky, how stripped of authentic narrative it is. The city of Dubai that frames it, and the other capital cities in the region, all climbing towards the sky, are both phenomenal achievements in terms of urban development and a popular affront to the surrounding landscapes. This is easier to see from a plane or helicopter – more and more of the desert (previously decorated solely with flowing dunes) is now covered with cities. Not pretty, if we’re being honest. Dubai suddenly leaps for the skies from a flat monotony of land. It is a shocking, curious alien in this context. And barely started, considering the extensive plans for its further expansion. It works like an alien arrival programmed to achieve a single aim: unchecked growth that relentlessly consumes space. This, and other maniacally expanding cities, are reminiscent of the symptoms of lifestyle diseases – elegant, fascinating tumours.

Buildings such as the Burj Khalifa and cities such as Dubai are today described as ‘unsustainable’. The phrase ‘sustainable growth’ comes from the Latin sustineō, which means ‘to hold’ and also ‘to resist’. It is this original meaning that best describes what is meant by the philosophy of balance, attainable only when we hold back or resist. It refers to cities growing in size so quickly that they become the physical embodiments of the ideas of excess and greed that our civilization seems to have become accustomed to. Sustainability is an economic idea and, put simply, postulates that we ought not to pursue excessive, rapid growth here and now, because we will use up all available resources, thereby making things harder – impossible even – for generations to come. The pursuit of sustainability has become a warning for global markets all heading for some sort of final exhaustion; those shady, foggy entities, which supposedly not only seek to generate profit, but also some idea of being self-regulating. I stress ‘supposedly’, because the most recent economic crisis a decade back was caused by a mixture of greed and computer calculations that were not subject to any sort of control or supervision.

It is worth noting this simple truth before we make any further moves. Cities are spreading outwards and filling up with new people at a tempo and intensity related directly to global economic phenomena. If in this maddeningly intense and rapid process we can still agree on some causes, some logic (let us hope), some good emerging from this mass of changes, then we should look for them at the macro-scale. Great cities are entities way beyond the individual experiences of their residents; organisms much more potent and more independent than the individual states to which they still formally belong. They are swelling because they want to swell and know how to make it happen. And tomorrow, or thereabouts, they will rule the world.

Cities instead of countries

The map of our planet is changing rapidly. If this is something we are still not fully aware of, it is only because we are looking at things in the wrong way. Let’s try, therefore, to do it differently, as suggested by Parag Khanna, an American-Indian researcher of international relations and globalization, connected with, among others, the University of Singapore. Let’s forget about nation states, and instead focus on urban creations. We will then see not only cities and megacities, but also the fact that, right before our eyes, huge civilizational archipelagos are forming, the kind that we do not have names for… yet.

Physical appearances can be misleading. Urban territories still represent only 3-4% of the world’s surface, but they are already home to 54% of the world’s population. In the year 1800, only one in 30 of us lived in cities. Today, it is one in two. In the year 2030, only one in four will not be a city dweller. Let’s start getting used to the idea that a day is both possible and indeed approaching when the last person will pick up their suitcase and leave behind their rural abode.

The presence of cities on the world’s maps will increase visibly in the coming decades. 80% of this increase will take place in the Southern Hemisphere – mainly in Africa and Asia, with some also in South America. They are all home to youthful, rapidly multiplying populations. Up to 90% of the whole of global population growth up till the year 2050 will happen in urban areas. The populations of India, Indonesia and Bangladesh, as well as many African and Latin American states, are massively dominated by people under the age of 25. The high rate of population growth means that there is a burning and immediate need to make room for them.

This is why we are seeing such intense levels of urban investment, leading to people living increasingly closer together. In cities, the available space is shared, along with food, electricity and water, plus knowledge, technology and capital. Cities are not only ravenous, they are also thrifty, sensible things.

Yes, this accumulation of potential has given birth to megacities with a minimum of 10 million residents. The first such cities were Tokyo and New York, back in the mid-20th century. Both needed over a century of growth to reach this size, but now cities are becoming megacities within a dozen or so years. There are 37 such structures in the world today  and in the next decade they will be joined by 10 more. Not only that, but they will be joining together.

Already, the area extending from Tokyo to Yokohama is an indivisible stretch of connections and lights, home to 38 million people. New York has 21 million residents, but is being rapidly left behind by the likes of Jakarta (30 million), Delhi (26 million), Manila (24 million) and Seoul (23 million). Such cities have populations that exceed those of many countries. In the next decade, the world will be rife with multi-million urbanized clusters replacing current cities of 100,000 to 200,000 residents, with names few have heard of. Metropolises with their own legends, historical architectures and cultural centres will be joined by dozens of megastructures, haphazardly built, lacking roots and their own cultural identities. Glorious Rome, old Beijing or Tehran can sneer at these nouveau riche upstarts – the unknown likes of Faridabad, Surat, Palembang, Beihai, Toluca or Chittagong.

Every week, three million new residents make cities their new homes. This change has an instant effect. New cities have no time to create their own character – be it in architectural or social terms – no time to teach new arrivals the customs and manners. They find themselves under siege, trying to cope with these changes, all the time trying to keep the promises made by other, older types of metropolises. This great migration is, after all, the result of the magnetic might of urban myths. Cities such as Paris, New York or Tokyo exist in people’s imaginations as places where the sky is the limit. They are the symbolic lands of opportunity and possibility, rocket-ships to social promotion, and a route towards a better sort of life. When it comes to such aspirations, cities are absolute gods. They are also doing their best to make good on this vision, growing at a rate that suggests they really believe anything is possible. Literally limitless.

A landscape under control

The growth of cities is not new – we have been used to it since the times of the industrial revolution. In the modern era, two closely related aspects are key: the super-fast rate of growth, and the new urban forms that are emerging.

The city is no longer enough in and of itself. In trying to overcome limits, it has even succeeded in triumphing over its own definitions. The notion of megacities turns out to be inadequate for monsters that are, as in the case of Seoul, half of the country’s population and generating up to 75% of its GDP. But this is not all. Seoul, though it is hard for us to fathom, is merely the start of something even greater. Some 60 kilometres west of its centre, on an artificially dried and strengthened section of land, the Incheon Free Economic Zone is being constructed. What could this be? Not a city, nor a country; it is an attempt to construct a new geophysical entity, to rewrite Korea’s geopolitical reality. Incheon, born on a few neighbouring islands, is an urbanized economy that wants to be the belly button of Northern Asia, embracing Japan, both Koreas and a bit of China (in geography, this phrase has hardly been used before). Incheon advertises itself as a well-situated centre for services, trade and business, with several billion people only a three-hour flight away. Apart from air and sea ports, it entices with its manufacturing infrastructure and the ‘intelligent city’ of Songdo, which appears to be a mix of all sorts of futuristic ideas – Ebenezer Howard’s city-garden crossed with Le Corbusier’s radiating city structure, and a carbon copy of Manhattan’s Central Park. Songdo doesn’t seem to be a convincing setting for a happy life, though it is a comfortable space for doing business. High-rise hotels and conference centres are wrapped with a thick network of connections. The Incheon Free Economic Zone was set up in 2003 and was supposed to grow quicker than it has to date, but (as often happens with investments planned from above) the global economic climate is not helping. It is now picking up and Incheon may yet turn into the North Asian Dubai; that great meeting place for multinationals and overseas investments, a super-port and hyper-bank, jokingly referred to as a giant airfield with an emirate attached. This is how the future is born, one in which countries will only be the peripheries of cities.

Incheon is not alone. And it won’t be the biggest either. China’s Pearl River Delta – the most heavily urbanized area on our planet – is made up of nine cities, including: Shenzhen (which 30 years ago was a small fishing village, and is today a 12-million strong industrial metropolis with its own prestigious tennis tournament), Dongguan, Foshan and Zhuhai. The population of this megalopolis (a chain of roughly adjacent metropolitan areas) is estimated at roughly 130 million people. This vast organism is still growing and will soon be connected with a 50-kilometre bridge (or rather a complex system of bridges, overpasses and turnouts, due to open in 2018) to another monster: the Hong Kong and Macau region (eight million residents). 

A journey across the Pearl River Delta is a trip across a completely artificial landscape, one which knows no empty space. Every inch of it is occupied. Wherever you look, people and their creations.

Another example of total urbanization is Singapore, which is growing in spite of being founded on an island. By piling up sand and rocks, it has extended its landmass by almost a quarter. The surface of this 6-million strong city-state has been meticulously designed. Even its green spaces are the effect of scrupulous planning and landscape control. Singapore represents a laboratory test tube full of fantasy, in which the world that exists is converted and managed by human intent, to its very limit. But it is also a rather atypical example, because Singapore – due to its physical and political isolation – can control its own future.

A city without a city

Things are very different where matters are decided by chaotic human thrust; where life gathers round and condenses, in spite of an absence of any sort of reasonable conditions. Africa is still a continent lacking in airports and cities that have any significant global influence. Throughout the most recent century, it might have seemed as if there really was nothing but desert between Cairo and Johannesburg. It was the Chinese who began to set this to rights. They are interested not only in draining Africa of natural resources, but also in creating infrastructure: roads, train lines, air and sea ports, which can then be used to transport these supplies. This process has awakened the local desire to urbanize. It is taking a specific kind of form, because it is happening without the initial industrialization that gave birth to so many European cities, as well as those in Asia and America.

This means that African cities lack places of work, along with basic infrastructure: roads, sewage systems, electricity lines and homes. Yet there are people. A whole lot of people. There are huts, sometimes rising several storeys high, cobbled together from literally anything and set anywhere. There are monstrous traffic jams on roads that are too narrow and short of lighting or surface, leading to irregular city islands – government offices, roundabouts and squares from the 1950s and 1960s, when the newly-liberated African states built symbols of their own futures. Squares are spontaneously transformed into markets, concrete structures become things resembling shopping malls, and mud structures serve as makeshift bus stations. This is what the likes of Kampala, along with some parts of Nairobi and Kinshasa, look like. Giant villages striving to be city-like. Or maybe gestating cities overrun by waves of village dwellers. And the largest of them all – the most glorious and most tragic – is Lagos. No city in Africa and, according to some research, no city in the world, is growing as quickly.

In the second half of the 20th century, it was home to 1.4 million residents. At the start of the 21st, it was 12 million. Today, it is over 20 million. Lagos is mostly a city without a city, without government or authorities, a giant that doesn’t count on any official assistance and doesn’t look for permissions. It attracts not only folk from Nigeria, but also from distant parts of Africa. Its future shape is not marked by any sort of strategy; nothing that could stop this process, nothing that could harness and shape it. Chinese companies, working with the government, want to clear a section of the shoreline occupied by the poor, and erect their ‘African Manhattan’ there.

Long-term projections forecast further growth of Lagos and its connection with other spreading urban sprawls, in effect forming a giant, urbanized region along the Gulf of Guinea. It would include the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. And be home to up to 200 million people.

Every day, Lagos swells and pulses with life, in all its inspiring and terrifying manifestations. Take trash, for a start. Every 24 hours, some 12,000 tonnes of rubbish are created by the city. Official rubbish dumps are not enough. Besides, huge swathes of the city are essentially not legal and so not maintained by any municipal services. They have no garbage collection, no official electricity networks, no postal service, no medical provision, no schools. But the inventive residents created WeCycle – an organization of cycling rubbish men, now known around the world. They collect trash from homes and assign it points, which can be exchanged for things such as phone credit or food. And just like that, a problem becomes profit. The residents of Lagos also like phone apps that help them to avoid traffic congestion. Innovative ideas are popping up all over town (though few of its people have smartphones) and public transport is performed by boys on motorbikes.

Regions of poverty, not hopelessness

Young men in megacities are a specific breed of being: populous, but also very much endangered. They die in motorcycle accidents, violent crimes and acts of revenge. Robert Muggah, an American expert in issues of migration, development and security based at the Igarapé Institute, spent 20 years analysing the lives of huge, fast-growing metropolises in South America. The average forecast for the lifespan of men is much shorter than that of women. Every year, violence kills over 500,000 people on Planet Earth. Shockingly, only 10% of these deaths are in areas of military conflict. Far more die in megacities. And yet, Muggah stresses that urban areas represent the most effective antidote to radicalization and nationalism. This is illustrated in developed regions, where urbanization has led to less dangerous living conditions. We have never lived in a world that is this safe. According to Muggah, this is also because it is not cities that declare wars on each other. Quite the opposite. They are areas where people tend to practise a peaceful form of co-existence. In a city, you buy, travel, work and pray every day alongside someone who really is an Other. Together, without open conflicts, we co-create centres of peace and wellbeing.

Things are different in more precarious districts. Favelas and slums are the kinds of places that swell with new arrivals – people so fresh and so diverse that battles over resources are inevitable – and where influence is governed by violence, gangs and mafias. This is a double-edged sword. Large cities have the opportunity to stabilize the whole globe, but because they are growing at such a rate, they are frail and can become the number one threat to our civilization.

How can we avert this? By acknowledging and respecting new arrivals, thereby creating connections – this is the answer given by city experts from Rio de Janeiro to Mumbai. The uncomfortable truth about cities is that their ugliest, wildest districts can boast the most impressive indicators of entrepreneurial spirit, economic income, thriving neighbourly culture and active citizenship. In favelas and slums, councils spring up from grassroots movements, unemployment simply does not exist, while kids with the freedom to play and think are creating innovative solutions, watched closely and supported by digital giants.

Regions of poverty are not regions of hopelessness. They are occupied by desperate, but also determined, hard-working and independent people. In places where city authorities are most keen to send in the bulldozers, the most optimistic plans for the future of humanity are formed.

Muggah shows how to make use of this potential. One shining example is the Columbian city of Medellin, which 20 years ago was considered extremely dangerous. Its hillsides were covered in impoverished and condemned favelas. That was, until a fantastic public library was built in one such favela, along with a cable car where no bus had been able to reach. The effects have been numerous. The district is now safe, its residents can commute to work in other parts of town, and kids go to workshops in a prestigious public building. What really counts is the feeling of connection and dignity that the library has given to thousands of excluded people. Today, the area is visited by researchers and experts, now that the locals feel like equal citizens of our urbanized world.

Ignoring new arrivals and denying them the right to settle in cities is, simply put, stupid. This is how dangerous districts grow and illicit activities thrive. In 30 years’ time, every other person living in a built-up area will be the resident of a slum.

A network of connectivities

Connectivity. This is the word that Parag Khanna uses to describe the only significant cartographic value. He thinks that the idea of of sovereignty should be consigned to history, along with the formula ‘geography is destiny’. He has instead coined the term ‘connectography’. According to Khanna, large countries have the advantage of access to seas or resources. In the age of communication, natural barriers and limitations are fading. In one of his lectures, Khanna calculated that humans have already constructed some 65 million kilometres of roads, four million kilometres of railways, two million kilometres of pipelines, and over a million kilometres of internet cabling. Meanwhile, the borders of country states – lines that divide – extend to a mere 500,000 kilometres. In the next four decades, humanity will build more roads, airports and lines of connectivity than we have over the past four millenia.

In spite of the current politics focused on the differences between us, the world is not in a state of imbalance or collapse. There are immense efforts being made simultaneously all over the globe to create a worldwide communication network. Cities are becoming key economic connectors, because they are growing through increasing the number of connections. Khanna has analysed the changes affecting some 600 million people who live in the south-west regions of Asia. He has given these shared, transnational investments – a new order of sorts – a name: Pax Asiana.

There are now over 200 international organizations cooperating between cities, setting up meetings between representatives such as mayors. As countries fail to agree on how to tackle climate change, many metropolises have already started to limit emissions. Benjamin Barber’s notion of a “global parliament of mayors” seemed like a dream only a decade ago, but there are more and more economists, sociologists and politicians who are convinced that the heads of cities also deserve a say in how the future of our world is shaped. If in the near future, instead of G20 (the summit meeting of the world’s most influential countries) a meeting took place for the leaders of the world’s most dynamic city-based economies, there might not be room at the table for the likes of the United Kingdom, the United States, or Germany.

Reading the map of the world through an urban prism has an additional advantage. It allows us to see mobility. Lines of movement flow between cities, decided by us: people on the move. Over a billion people board planes every year and in a few years’ time this number will double. Almost all movement takes place between urban areas. We are once again beginning to resemble nomads. The only difference is that we travel within an inherently reconstructed environment.

The foundations of change

Is there a realistic limit to the scale of urban development? Will this construction ever stop? China is using as much concrete every two years as the US did in the whole of the 20th century. The world’s river beds are already dredged clean of sand; diggers have stripped numerous Caribbean and Asian beaches. Indians and Ugandans are diving with buckets, digging up this construction material with their bare hands as its price increases – the opposite of crude oil. It is being cleared from the seafloor using ever more costly techniques. Perhaps it is this ordinary raw material and its shortage that will hinder our progress. Or maybe we will create new technologies, learn how to save sand and reclaim it, in order for the turbines of evolution to continue spinning. Could the people of tomorrow exist without building onwards and upwards?

The residents of slums and favelas are crafting new identities out of nothing. Bits of recovered foil, tin, wood, plastics – this is how city life begins. According to psychologists, in order to imagine the future and invest our efforts wisely, all we need is the certainty that neither police officer nor bulldozer will chase us off a given scrap of land. Under these conditions, those huts would quickly turn into brick homes; more floors and solid roofs would be added as time went by. Recycled materials can be used to erect vast constructions, whole districts. The real fuel and raw material of megacities is the desire for change and faith in a better tomorrow. This is the most valuable, limitless resource at our disposal.

Half a century ago, the Greek urbanist Constantinos Doxiadis crated the notion of ‘ecumenopolis’. He imagined the world as a city; a planet covered with megacity conglomerations. The number of humans living in such spaces could easily reach 50 billion, yet interestingly enough, this is in no way a negative vision. By clustering so closely together, we would leave more room for each other to thrive in. Free from our land-hungry interference, it could actually make a real recovery.


Translated from the Polish by Marek Kazmierski

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Seeing Green
illustration by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.), public domain

Seeing Green

Klaudia Khan

Olivia Vandergriff, a protagonist of Richard Powers’s The Overstory, spends a semester living in a house in front of which grows a tree—“a living fossil, one of the oldest, strangest things that ever learned the secret of wood.” Yet Olivia doesn’t even know that the tree is there. Though she passes by it every day, she fails to notice its existence. The tree—unnamed in the novel—is the gingko biloba. And Olivia’s condition—undiagnosed in the chapter—is plant awareness disparity. 

The ginkgo biloba, a sole survivor of an ancient group of trees that used to cover the earth, is now an endangered species. Meanwhile, plant awareness disparity (PAD)—which was previously known as plant blindness but renamed to avoid ableism—contributes largely to the widespread indifference to the threat of botanical extinction and a limited interest in plant conservation. PAD on a global scale is dangerous, but on a personal level, it is detrimental as it impoverishes our experience of the surrounding world. So much beauty, so much drama, so much wisdom we miss out on if we fail to connect with plants.  

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