McKinsey's Pitch for a More Compact Urban China

Anthony Townsend's picture

The McKinsey Global Institute has just published a major report outlining four potential scenarios for urbanization in China.

The main thrust of the report is that China needs to focus less on growing its cities and more on making them efficient and productive. Given the massive levels of capital investment Chinese cities have seen over the last 20 years, it makes sense that the country's urban planners need to find ways to squeeze more capacity out of these systems. After all, as McKinsey projects, another 350 million people will need to be accommodated, some 250 million of them as rootless rural migrants.

While McKinsey forecasts that the most likely trajectory, given no intervention, is a dispersal of urban population growth to a much larger array of mid-sized cities (which is China means settlements of 1.5-5 million people!). The report argues that while the central government can't directly control urban growth, it can utilize infrastructure spending and political muscle to concentrate growth in a handful of larger cities, reducing land and energy consumption and concentrating domestic talent and foreign investment in highly productive clusters.

Along with the full report is an interactive feature that lets you play out some of the projections. Watching the entire eastern seaboard of China turn into a more-or-less continuous sprawl of urbanization is fascinating. I wonder how Europeans might have felt in the 1960s watching the same thing for North America (they had to make do with the static maps of Jean Gottman's Megalopolis).

A summary of the report is available in the McKinsey Quarterly.

While we're on it, anyone wishing to understand the last 20 years of Chinese urbanization (and the deep historical context of the last 100 years) ought to be reading Tom Campanella's stupendous book Concrete Dragon (Amazon), published earlier this year.

Anthony Townsend is a research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California.
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