A Journal of the Plague Year Day 54

Monday 11th May 2020

I’ve been checking out some Internet. All fucking day. Still armchair travelling, still in China.

Anyhoo, a welcome getaway from the bickering and racism online, the looks on the street recently, as always. Hot on the trail of yesterday’s rabbit hole into Chinese design I’ve been delving into photography fora from the glorious motherland. And ohmigaaahd there’s so much.

I look at the pics of the Chinese cities, so different from the way the West surmises them, as poor, polluted and cowed, and feel it- pride. Nationalistic, state-posturing pride as an underdog against a more belligerent power. This is worrying.

First off, the journey: the usual big three most people have seen. Shanghai (the world’s most built-up city), population 30m:

And it’s not just skyscrapers, Shanghai’s old buildings (mostly the shikumen housing and longtang lanes that it spent decades bulldozing but is now restoring) cover an area almost the City of Paris. SH also has a millennium aged Old City, one of three, plus two colonial districts:



Next on the list, to the capital Beijing (pop 22 million), the world’s largest ceremonial centre, and world’s largest pre-industrial city back in the 19th. A terrible place to lump a capital -freezing in winter, boiling in summer, courting sand storms in Spring and smog year round. Another mistake early on: choosing the American freeway-style system to move its inhabitants around -now ridden with 6 giant ringroads and endless traffic, unlike say Shanghai or Guangzhou.

Nowadays it’s cleaned up, planting its Great Green Wall against the Gobi (and Hebei’s factories), banning 5 million cars, growing the world’s biggest, busiest metro system, with Shanghai hot on its tails. Today powered by tourism, the world’s largest bureaucratic sector, and China’s silicon valley. Plus the world’s premier creative industries, notably Beijing’s shock art that has ruled the roost for two decades, and the highest amount of start-ups anywhere. World, world, worlds.



And finally, Hong Kong, the world’s most skyscrapered, and densest city. The ‘mouth of the dragon’, or as Shanghaier’s who are the ‘head’ prefer: the arse end. HK stands out from the Mainland in its older, decaying buildings among the glitzy skyscrapers -here people own the land and prove it harder to revamp and rebuild. Also there’s hardly anything old left despite, due to the lack of space. But what a space.

HK is also China’s most economically divided, unequal city -the world’s freest place to do business where only 20% pay minimal tax, in a social experiment that both UK and China would never have dared back home. The populace enjoys some of the world’s highest ‘average’ wages yet 75 percent are working class (for urban China that’s the opposite, 70% being middle class), and 1/5 being desperately poor where a good chunk struggle to even feed themselves. This is in short the world’s most capitalist spot, and contrasting with the socialism next door.

But still a jaw-dropping hive of activity, hustle and bustle, and prone to giving the finger to the regime.

The scope best appreciated from afar, it’s all about the lookout points.



Then there are the megacities, larger than NYC that most peeps haven’t even heard of.

Shenzhen, the world’s most highrise nexus currently adding on the equivalent of NYC in the next few years. This is the planet’s hardware capital, now vying with Beijing and California to become the software one too. Over one third of Silicon Valley tech is already sourcing from here.

In the ’80s a fishing village of 30,000 before becoming Communist China’s first Special Economic Zone and a byword for sweatshop labour -now ballooned to 12 million and reinvented as a sparkling arriviste with some of the highest standards of living in the country, though still part of a greater whole…

Plans for the 60m needle top spire added to the 599m/ 1,965ft Ping’An tower, once slated to be the 2nd tallest in the world (now 4th), were shelved in a big spat with the airport, due to the possibility of planes whacking into it. By adhering to local law it misses out on becoming a 600m ‘megatall’ by 90cm. Tis twice the height of the Eiffel Tower.



Guangzhou -centre of the world’s new largest city as of 2015, with 41 million people -Shenzhen anchors the other end. An ancient city of 2,200 years and colonial metropolis but with very little to show for it. Long a cheap parody of HK it’s pretending that part of its history never happened, notably swankier and more eco-conscious these days than her eidolon with endless new green projects, including the 3rd largest metro system, soon to be the first.

It’s plush new centre has a vast ceremonial axis of parkland, under which all the public and private transport is buried, and sided with supertalls (buildings over 300m/1000ft), which in turn lines up with a ceremonial tomb-temple complex on one of the city’s hills. At either end sit 2,000ft tall towers and some stadia, one of them floating. I mean, she had a lot to prove but gaaaahd…



Then the second tier cities. Chongqing, a city of 17m on one of the most tortured urban sites – a confluence of two major rivers and three mountain ranges, riddled with bridges, tunnels, cable cars, zip lines, monorails and caverns. Trains going in and out of clifftop buildings, some of the world’s largest, tallest bridges, that kinda thing. This is China’s most dramatic city: ugly, beautiful, epic, and often the visitor’s favourite.

She debuted on the world stage as the world’s largest city about a decade ago, before they worked out her 35 million inhabitants were in several cities in a catchment the size of Austria. Anyhoo, for the high drama, this is what many people think of when envisaging modern China, grandiose, tawdry, sultry, Bladerunner-y.



Chengdu, China’s hipster centrum, and the country’s coolest cat of urban tribes, start-ups, 200,000 teahouses, street style, laid back vibes, a UNESCO protected Culinary site and home to an entertainment and leisure complex that’s the world’s largest building. Oh and panda’s, it’s big on touting the fuckers everywhere you look, from crawling up the sides of skyscrapers to airplane livery -the place you’ll have to fly into if you wanna see any in their natural habitat.

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Nanjing, the historic former capital, riddled with history. It’s surrounded by the world’s largest city walls, imperial tombs, former palaces and endless temples among the skyscrapers. It lost out to nearby Shanghai in the city stakes, and whatever you do, don’t just don’t mention the war.

Ancient city walls and temples in Nanjing, China

 

Qingdao, the seaside resort and attached German colonial old town. Site of the water events during the 2008 Olympics it operates a colonial building code, as well as several marinas and a whole load of beer related branding to lure the nation’s drunks. Breweries (notably Tsingtao, the national favourite), festivals, biergartens, all thanks to the mitteleuropan legacy. Coastal walks and beaches complete the picture, that periodically have to organise mass clean-ups -one such PR disaster the algal bloom just before the Olympics.

However, the authorities worked out an ingenious way to fight back millions of tonnes of nature: by putting a price on the collections for bio fuel, food supplements and fertiliser. An army of ‘do-gooders’ picked it clean within days.

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Hangzhou, the country’s richest, most livable city long touted as the most beautiful but destroyed in the 1800s, having been the worlds largest too (along with 600 cities it was wrecked in history’s nastiest civil war, and second bloodiest conflict, taking out 30m lives and sending China into decline). Still its heart remains a classical landscape of water, hills and pagodas, and China’s biggest tourist attraction; for decades it banned all highrises. It’s high standards run completely with its reputation.

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Suzhou, China’s most beautiful city (note the massive Old City behind), famed for its classical gardens, Venetian canals, sweet food and a white-walled, blue-roofed vernacular. Again one of the country’s richest, and merging into Shanghai with booming growth. The spantastic, supertall gateway btw, soon to be lined with an avenue of skyscrapers, was fast-dubbed the ‘Big Trousers’.

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Changsha, birthplace of Mao. Kind of left out in the economic rise (still staunchly hardliner and sulking), and one of the dowdiest places to avoid, its recent economic debut has meant it missed out on a legion of scabby highrises and illegal slum-building from the 90s and noughties. It’s now one of the shiniest of the cities, and seems to operate on a flat-roofed vernacular. Now has several supertalls and one monster taller than the Petronas towers. They say Mao would be turning in his grave.

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And even the smaller, third tier cities.

Harbin, a cold northern metropolis famed for the world’s largest ice festival, and once belonging to Russia now one of the capitals of Chinas northeastern rustbelt. Having seen a fast decline in heavy industry, it’s tranformed into tourism (Chinese seeing Russia, Russians seeing China) carmaking, trade and gargantuan museum construction.

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Jinan – as above, suffering a crash in light industry to take on a bit of everything else, notably hi tech and servicing an industry of 200,000 students. Trying desperately to shrug off its lower tiered status with swanky new projects and worrying debt, and the shadow that it is and always will be, a wallflower.

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Guiyang, long the capital of China’s poorest province this multicultural, minority-heavy city appears to have leapfrogged the decades of manufacturing and trade straight into hi-tech. It’s now home to most of China’s Fortune 500 and centre of a tech boom that’s won it accolades as the city most likely to watch and invest in. It’s also infamous for its copycat twin towers- from the World Trade Center to an unlikely pair of Empire State buildings, plus some IFC’s from Hong Kong, why not. For all its classy gloss, there’s always that louche, nouveau riche uncle still elbowing in on every grand plan.

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Shaoxing, a reputation once preceded this place as an elegant footnote in history for its timeless poetry, writing, tea, wine, bridges, ducks and the arts -just the reality was an obnoxious centre of decay, pollution and manufacturing. Nowadays it’s shirked off that rep to become more in keeping with its tradition, but still overshadowed by Hangzhou who it lost the regional capital to, and Chaozhou with its preserved buildings and Old Town. Instead it’s become a halfway house of livability and historic restoration, and an examplar to healthy competition, even as the underling.

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I could go on, with over 100 cities over 1 million (by some counts 160 – by comparison US has 20), and each of them ploughing the taxes into making them livable, eco-friendly and not just highrise or bombastic. Where even the poor areas have an epic urban scale and ‘Bladerunner’ aesthetic (founded on Ridley’s Scott experience of Tokyo/ HK nightlife), though heavily threatened. The urban cacophony is fast disappearing, before a sanitised revision. The lair of the famous Chinese street life, where your days were traditionally lived out in public.

Chongqing

Shanghai, catch em while you can.

https://www.designboom.com/architecture/shanghai-streets-cody-ellingham-captures-intricate-lane-houses-05-27-2019/

Hong Kong

Beijing

Shenzhen, and it’s last remaining ‘urban village’- illegally built neighbourhoods put up in the 80s and 90s, and now seeking heritage protection.

Oh and one last thing THIS CITY that has recently been in the news. Home to 11-19 million, a confluence of three seperate cities on different banks of the river, and now home to several of the world’s largest bridges (plus the biggest lightshow every night). Do click:

Wuhan

The metropolis is adversely now featuring highly as the place most Chinese want to visit post-lockdown, intrigued by the constant news and its hardy citizens. However, highly unlikely for foreign visitors, should they ever even return to China, once the world’s fastest growing market for inbound tourists (4th in the world behind the US). It now looks remote that many outsiders will ever see or experience these cities (let alone its multitudinous landscapes) other than through some clickbaiting media lens.

 

Well, after all that, how buoyant. A breath of fresh air from my lockdown barrage of US films, talk shows, TikToks, vids, reality TV and news news news, all becoming redolent of a Western society I’m excluded from no matter how I identify.

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I think a part of me is falling into the nationalism trap. It’s all so comforting when facing a world that’s otherwise against you, redlining you as forever an outsider and rechalking these past few months. You fall into the welcoming arms of a culture that looks like you.

And this is precisely the same trap as anyone else. All those toads, all those hawks, all those okay-boomers, all those Karens, you’ll likely find their equivalent anywhere else, China included. If I filled this thread with the greatest hits of the West (read: White): London, Rome, Paris, NYC, Sydney, Vienna and started celebrating how perfect Westernism all was, even their imperfections, it would surely strike a different tone.

And should it?

I think nationalism and patriotism share a fine line between them, and that dallies with inculcating prejudice. Perhaps one needs to have a sense of victimhood to feel it, and defend it. Question is, who has the upper hand?

I think universality should override both sides. We can fully appreciate the beauty of one place without that meaning you have to shirk the rest, or put it in competition. It doesn’t have to be the clash of civilisations, they long pointed at the Islamic world, but now increasingly looking further.

I’ll finish on an in-betweener from both spheres of influence. Where east meets west.

(Bulent Kilic/Getty Images)

Yesterday

Tomorrow

The World’s Most Highrise City

Lets look at the raw stats. According to Emporis, a website that employs data from skyline fanatics the world over, Hong Kong has traditionally been the worlds most highrise city. Not only did it have the most highrise buildings (anything 35m-100m tall, or anything 12 floors or higher) with 7,971  – 1,700 more than NYC – it also has the most skyscrapers (150m or over) with 390 monoliths compared to New York’s 282.

Let’s stop there for a minute. 8,000 highrises, incuding 390 skyscrapers. Imagine what this looks like. Imagine yourself on a Hong Kong style street. Highrises block out the sky along the whole thoroughfare, not completely unremarkable, but not completely remarkable either to a city dweller – from your angle midrises and highrises present the same bulk. You can’t see either end, or past that wall to see how many other highrises there are. Even going up in a chopper you’d get the awesome scale, but not completely due to perspective.

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www.shootingfilm.net

Now lets imagine some atomic cloud comes over all fluffy and transmogrifies you into a traffic stopping, stampede inducing giant 300 ft tall. Bummer. Your lower arm would be bigger than a Blue Whale or the largest museum dino; you could sit King Kong in the palm of your hand, or a tiny car between your thumb and forefinger if you weren’t particularly nice. In reality you’d be so big you’d catastrophically collapse/ implode, anything bigger than your lower arm would start melting down to gravity, and lifting a finger so weighty would likely break it.

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www.greengiantcanada.ca

Now lets imagine you’re breaking the laws of physics and can now see the top of many of the heads of these highrises, also transmogrifying into human like shapes. You are now in a crowd of 8,000, spiked by hundreds of people twice as tall as you, and a handful of goons three times bigger who REALLY look like freaks even to the giant you. Imagine your middle or high school assembly of similarly gargantuan people standing to attention, but the crowd 10 to 20x bigger. Then look at that tiny toy car balanced on your fingertip, and the tiny worried looking people inside, in comparison to that giant milling mass of flesh. That huge auditorium full of building shaped giants would be Hong Kong. And the fly on the floor of that arena would be you.

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www.pond5.com

As for supertalls (those freaks of 300m or over, scooping up ships and walking into bridges)  Hong Kong’s well pipped by Dubai, which has 22 to New York’s 20 or Hong Kong’s measly 6 (Shenzhen is 3rd place though with 14, and Kuala Lumpur with 13). Dubai and KL though have far fewer highrises overall, despite their impressive forests of skyscrapers, so are out of the running.

However in 2015 a new top-spot came into light, when Moscow shouldered in with 12,092 documented highrises (the majority just making the threshold) to Hong Kong’s 7,931, thanks to some very devoted online fans.

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imgur.com

However Hong Kong still leads if you stacked all the tall buildings together it comes to a teetering 333,836m, with NYC a third of the combined total – at 109,720m. So thus it’s official: chattering, blazing, odiferous Hong Kong is three times more ‘built up’ than a ripped NYC. It’s urban areas cover almost the exact size of 59 km² Manhattan, but have triple the built density.

However, bear in mind although no stats exist on Shanghai, at its lowest possibe measurement of 35m x 16,952 highrises comes out nearly double HK, at 593,320m, and Seoul almost double even that.

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https://500px.com/alfredkhc

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/coolbiere

But criticism of Emporis shows it is not the authority in any way. The website rather imperiously only accepts data in English and German (where it is based), and refuses nominations from places like China, where Shanghai’s occasional contributions surmount to less than gentrified old London’s, or Kiev’s for that matter.

Most notably some bright spark noticed on the Shanghai Council’s dizzyingly complex open data website that number of floors had been included on an annual survey of housing and class, which contradicted Emporis’ presentations of factuality a tad:

shanghai council 2013

Basically the column on the left is the number of floors, the one on far right is the amount of buildings. Shanghai had an eye-popping total 14,479 buildings over 16 storeys in 2013, almost ten times more than Emporis claimed.

This compares with buildings over 12 storeys (note the lower threshold despite):

Moscow (2015) 12, 092

HK (2014) 7,971

Sao Paulo (2015) 6,332

NYC (2015) 6,250

Further back-up comes from aerial photos at the same scale.

Hong Kong:

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Shanghai:

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But for all these inconsistencies, Sao Paulo may hint at a potential unrecognised rival, like a vast, unnamed termite colony of Brazilianess teeming in the south, being all sultry and knifey and sexy:

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Sao Paulo however has only 7 skyscrapers, and 0 supertalls thanks to the relatively close proximity of the airport.

Also there’s the large question mark over other Chinese cities, notably Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which are actually contiguous now. If there’s anywhere in the world that’s building up at the moment, it’s Shenzhen, currently going through a construction boom that makes pre-Crisis Dubai look like it was making a few sand castles on holiday. It currently has 157 buildings over 200m, and a whopping 125 under construction, which is almost tripling New York’s strutting skyline. An additional 50 supertalls are under construction or approved, and all that is not even considering Guangzhou, the even larger beast in competition at the other end of the city.

Shenzhen 1986, an unremarkable border town of 30,000:

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2016, and its 15 million hawking, squawking inhabitants have conjoined with Guangzhou, totalling 41 million:

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But let’s for now, consider Shanghai, Pearl of the Orient / Whore of the East, a current reigning champ (*cough* Seoul). We’ll end on more urban porn from that city:

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https://blackstation.tuchong.com

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In 2003 the city began sinking from the weight of so many buildings, with a moratorium declared on highrises for a whole year.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The city council now dictates that x amount of people must live within y vicinity of z amount of green space (yep, good luck with that). To overcome the ruling the newer areas such as Pudong, enact a Courbousien tower-in-the-park idea, though much more lush and grandly utilised than the dystopian bleakscapes in postwar Europe.

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

The Puxi side of the river is far denser, where the traditional fabric of the city is still extant, and people actually socialise:

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07

But take a telescope between the highrises and you’ll spot the city’s Sino-Anglo terraces and courtyard homes  known as shikumen or longtang lane housing.

shap8

https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

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https://www.flickr.com/people/8281403@N07/

Large tracts of this historic housing remain, though highly endangered after years of fatheaded destruction. The old stock (most of which is 80-160 years old) covered an area almost equivalent to the City of Paris, saved from WWII destruction by a ground war (that incidentally took out 300,000 lives in ‘China’s Stalingrad’) rather than an aerial one. Then kept in aspic during the postwar years by a Communist govt intent on keeping a lid on the notoriously renegade, soul-selling city (this is where China was at its  most shockingly Capitalist, and where its Communism was born as a result).

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shik

Despite the countless losses, and the much more visible skylines, from satellite it’s more obvious that the russet coloured roofs are still about – even dominant. After 30 years of dancing with a wrecking ball they’re finally being saved after the bigwigs realised they were quite profitable, with gentrification into chichi shopping or entertainment districts. Although this often rendered the residents just as homeless (though compensated), with some ‘misguided’ opportunity areas involving bulldozing the history and rebuilding it with mod cons for millionaires. A more favourable wave of protection has finally arrived as culturally restorative -beautifying the buildings but sodding the lattes, and keeping the damn residents, finally.

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It is poetic to end on a city that is in short the world’s largest skyline grafted on onto one of the world’s largest old cities. Both coexist, both are hidden to a large extent, at ground level, in global profile, and psychologically. It seems the most obvious of contenders appears to be also one of the least.

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The World’s Biggest City

One thing that does seem to pervade insidiously in terms of ‘greatness’ is size. Whether on its merit alone or backing up any other spurious claim, a good bolstering on size – especially if it’s First World to boot (and thus filled with plenty of money, the arts and opportunistic fads) – tends to silence most hecklers. It is if you like, the vast, hinted-at base to the argument. The penis measuring contest behind the thumbpot war. For all London’s claims to fame (conveniently ignoring that Paris is richer or LA more powerful, or Seoul more highrise), the New York camp like to point out it has many aspects we enjoy, just that it’s bigger. And that does piss on our parade a bit.

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-Or is it bigger?

Size as relating to city population is the most accepted measure by geographers. A city’s ‘size’ judged purely on the area it covers can easily mislead due to different densities of buildings and inhabitants. For example New York City may cover the largest area, but most of that is made up of lowrise sprawl with generous plots, at population densities lower than most rural areas. And multiple times larger than Manhattan or the 5 boroughs that people normally envision the city in scale. The reality is NYC may have a famously dense centre but the majority of it is actually lowrise and low density, where the majority live. More obvious examples see places such as San Juan, Puerto Rico (pop 2.2 million) covering areas almost 50% larger than Greater London (pop 9.2 million), yet no one would accord San Juan – great that it is – the bigger moniker over London (or Seoul, at 25 million a pop for that matter).

san juanfoundtheworld.com

So back to population, and by golly, does it get complicated once more. Where does one stop counting? That is the biggest source of bickering as only nerdy online geographers can know, as multiple institutions use multiple ways to measure. By the official city boundaries (aka City Proper) places like Los Angeles shrink to 4 million, and lose a good 10 million urbanites . Almost all cities lose inhabitants that way if they go by the official – but outdated – city boundaries. Paris shrinks to 2.2 million, The City of London to, my goodness, only 14,000 rather lonely, albeit gilded, individuals due to these boundaries having been dreamt up when herding cows were the traffic jam of choice. Though not all cities. Some would actually gain. ‘Difficult’ places such as the eponymously named er, Ningbo, that we do not speak about among geographer circles, and the rumoured status of Shanghai to boot. All in all, urban legislation at its best.

Another spanner in the works is the adoption of Statistical Areas (Municipal or Consolidated depending on the fine print) in the US that takes in vast swathes of countryside, any adjacent towns, villages and entire counties, cows and all, based on commuting habits. The idea is that those who work in the city but live in ‘dormitory suburbs’ are still part of the city’s functioning contributors, never mind they equally contribute, if not more, to their hometown where they actually live, shop, school, wifeswap, pay taxes and make babies.

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Also on closer inspection, the threshold for inclusion gets increasingly lax each year, with as few as 10% of people in one county (that commutes into the next rural county along- not even to the general city) still getting the rest of the 90% of their neighbours suddenly counted as citydwellers. One area of Pike County even gets included due to ‘receiving the New York TV signal’ (thank you small print).

In the end this sees central nodes like LA, NYC, Boston or Atlanta commanding mostly rural, low density areas the size of small countries, such as NYC covering more than Wales & Northern Ireland combined. It’s population density becomes so low, that much of Europe could be included just from their similar commute habits, for example 88% of England live in densities higher than 98% of the NYC metro (CSA), in other words nearly 50 million people in the size of Maine.  Confusingly in the US they are dubbed ‘metropolitan areas’, despite the rest of the world considering that term merely of the city and its conjoined suburbs, and will often show their differently measured figures in the self same league.

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nyc2www.fhwa.dot.gov

The rest of the world is cottoning on though – China now operates a similar stratagem, with Chongqing, at 32 million, claimed as the world’s biggest city for a short time before someone pointed out it was a municipality involving several cities in an area the size of Austria, plus a few million farmers, ducks and geese. But China’s municipal boundaries also often miss out large chunks of the city in most cases. In 2015 independent OECD studies that ignored the boundaries and followed the transport infrastructure found 260 million people live in only 15 Chinese cities, and that the country had 15 megacities (cities over 10 million) not 10. Shanghai’s true count ignoring its boundaries went from 25 million to 34 million, for one of the first times acknowledging the fact it’s merged into a 2.5 million strong arm of Suzhou. Wuhan climbed most spectacularly from 10.6 million to 19 million, and Chongqing fell more realistically to 17 million, though now usurped by its long held rival, Chengdu, at 18 million, who’d spent the last two decades squealing in indignation it was no longer the de facto capital of 127 million southwesterners.

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Okay, so far so complicated. Let’s just try and count the number of people in the continuous urban sprawl without large breaks of countryside. But given the differing ways governments have urbanised this is also contentious. London – thanks to its protected Green Belt – sees its natural old growth suburbia confined into myriad high density dormitories surrounded by countryside, rather than the usual blanketing sprawl. In other words its suburbs are broken up into thousands, by law. It’s a surprise to learn from satellite views that there is no real ‘belt’ or expanse of greenery, merely a dense peppering of thousands of commuter towns and new villages, connected by a dense web of roads and train tracks. The jury’s out on whether they created a protected environment, or merely upped the scale on a monstrous semi-urban, semi-rural monster.

london-united-kingdom

The Alps is a similar contender, both urban regions being part of Western Europe known as the ‘Blue Banana’ megalopolis, the world’s largest – scientifically named as that’s the shape and hue it takes on satellite imagery. This form of forcibly disparate -yet unified- urbanity stretches in a vast swathe of highly peppered development from Leeds to Milan.

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bbb

Thus London ultimately weighs in at slightly larger than the NYC ‘metro’ if these artifices are taken into account, but significantly less if not – 14 to 23.6 million ‘Londoners’ and 17 – 20.5 million ‘New Yorkers’ depending on where you stop. Still, the latest inflation from over the pond sees the NYC area nearly doubled to take in another 3 million in a strongly rural, little-commuting landscape.

But let’s forge ahead and do it anyway; sorry London. Let’s count the city contiguous, and omit large stretches of pasture, cows and forest. For years Tokyo was head and shoulders above the rest, a city with a vast, dense centre, as well as blanketing sprawl – but in such significant densities they could easily be included without fuss.  Even with all the differing ways of counting, Tokyo was conveniently well ahead – at a whopping 29-39 million. Second spot (Seoul –Incheon at 24.5 million) was still a good 5-10 million off, and at any projection Tokyo looked to hold on for two decades or more, before finally losing ground to Delhi in maybe 2030.

tokyo-aerial-view-30472-1920x1080suwalls.com

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But then along came Jakarta, a vastly under-measured region of cities and suburbs that had begun melding together, not as neatly as Tokyo, but putting on the heat nevertheless. ‘Jabotabek’ was made up of Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerrang and Bekasi, a term used since the late 1980s, but soon became the even snazzier ‘Jabodetabek’ to include Depok. When faced with more lyrically challenging towns such as Karawang, Sukabuni, and Puwakarta about to join they decided suddenly on ‘Greater Jakarta’ rather than breaking into scat rap each time.  It currently counts over 30 million, and is slowly knitting together townships and suburbs towards Bandung, a city of 2.4 million, with another 6 million urbanites in its environs.

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Then suddenly the jump. It was announced this year there was a new biggest city in the world, contiguously linked, appearing seemingly out of nowhere in China, and leapfrogging both Tokyo and Greater Jakarta in one fell swoop. Something that had been glowering in the background, growing deceptively.

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http://www.landsd.gov.hk

The new kid on the block was Guangzhou, an ancient city of 14 million, whose breakneck growth as China’s manufacturing backbone had coursed west into adjacent cities, and more notably downriver into two huge cities doing the same. One was Dongguan, a manufacturing city of 8 million most famous for having the world’s largest shopping mall, and having it empty also. In turn Dongguan had merged in eddies and swirls around the local hilly topography to connect up with a wandering finger of Shenzhen, the golden child of the China Rise. Once a village of 30,000 Shenzhen had grown to be the richest city in the country, with 12 million inhabitants, within 30 years. All in all 42 million call the ‘Pearl River Metropolis’ home, with 55 million in its ‘metro’ region. It lies on the doorstep of Hong Kong, glimpsed across a border that stands ground on a no-man’s-land of rice paddies right below the skyscrapers of Shenzhen’s CBD.

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But Hong Kong is not counted – the border, however porous, is not enough to justify its inclusion into the greater fold, and moreover there are a good few miles before one reaches the cityscapes of Kowloon. In other words, just behind the mountainous curtain of one of the most popular and famous cities in the world, lies an unseen giant, of glittering skyscrapers, dingy alleys, vast avenues, cutting edge galleries, manicured parkland, teeming markets, dirty tenements, and hidden history rich in street life, wealth and endless highrises, all connected by the world’s largest infrastructure and state of the art transportation systems. (Don’t get too excited though, it’s no longer as pedestrian friendly, and despite being millennia old, 95% of its built history is under 30). Go despite (Zhujiang New City, the latest CBD) if you like Bladerunner, myriad districts distinct in character, nightlife, modern art, fantastic dim sum, or the sheer vastness of the place.

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In terms of scale this little known metropolis is indeed the world’s ‘greatest’ city. It is large in area (though not the largest), but in such high densities of population and highrise building it even beats Tokyo in sheer unending scale. It takes a high speed train hours to reach between the city’s multiple central nodes, and all you see are concrete highrises.

Guangzhou anchors one end:

gz1http://lokya.poco.cn/

Shenzhen the other, at 140 km distant. You can even fly commercially from one end to another:

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深南向上

In a similar vein  is Shanghai (25 million), already connected to Suzhou (4.5 million) and Wuxi (3.5 million) via Kunshan (1.7 million), and about to thread along (if not already at the rate Chinese cities terraform) to Changzhou (3.5 million), to bring a total of 38.3 million urbanites busily being busy. Close, but not the biggest, and still behind Tokyo too.

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shanghai

shngbreathe city by Black station, on Flickr

But what is interesting about Shanghai’s metropolis is the  immediate area – the potential to knit up even more in a metro that is the worlds biggest collection of adjacent cities, that form the Yangtze River Delta, 120 million strong, many of whom live in thousands of sq km of highrises and midrises whether urban or rural (farmer’s apartments that look like a vast city for hundreds of km). This will likely be the new title holder in the years to come.

The ‘countryside’ for over 200km, classed as rural. It takes a bullet train, with stops only for the city centres, 3 hrs to cross it:

chhWayne Cheng Photography

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-So is this it?

A sea of middle class highrises that is the be all and end all of the world’s ‘greatest’ city? Surely people are individual enough, can decide for themselves, or well, don’t really care and can happily live their lives regardless of monikers? People who are loving Kettering or Venice, so be it, and not being upstaged by a mass of glorified tower blocks?

The short answer is yes, of course it is. Don’t be silly thinking otherwise. This is a penis measuring contest and begad someone’s got to win it.

For all the talk about size – and what a wormhole that was – surely there is a city that ticks off the size bracket, but holds much more than the PRD can offer? -In short yes, the all-rounders. Size: yes, yes and yes again. But also economy (tick), business (tick), culture (tick),  creativity (tick), beauty (tick), history (tick, tick, tick), the arts (tick),  food (er, tick), nightlife (tick), cosmopolitanism (tick, tick, tick), social mix (tick), global influence (tick), an army of visitors (tick), digital opportunity (tick), and an ever-changing contemporary society (tick).

So yes, London has it.

But I might be biased there. By living in the world’s greatest city. There’s nothing to argue about at all. The prices are completely fine, the weather’s brilliant, and I love living in a shoe box. Brexit won’t change a thing, no.

londono

 

Up next: SCALE. The World’s Most Built Up City