Anticipating Tokyo Olympic Games 2020, I saw a few weeks ago an interesting article by Andre Sorensen about shrinking Tokaido megapolis (Japan). That struck me since we used to think that everything alive must grow. The increasing itself (whatever in the economy, space or trade, etc.) becomes a symbol of modern progress and movement in the right direction. The same happens with our perception of continuous urban growth towards some larger forms like megaregions, far beyond exceeding the human scale. But is that really the undeniable future? Let’s try to dip into with this Japanese example.

Let me remind you quickly that urbanists have no standard definition for large urban forms with several nodes (megaregion, megapolis, conurbation, mega-city region, etc.). But they describe, more or less, the same logical process when unrestrained growth and infrastructure development of several, yet separated, urban nodes finally lead to the emergence of the coalesced area with a common labor market (ideally). Richard Florida simply describes megaregion as a polycentric agglomeration of cites and their lower-density hinterlands. Anyway, the indisputable pattern of further growth around such megaregions allows predicting the next stage of development, or so-called mega corridor. Based on joining several megaregions they will be larger, claiming to substitute their own countries due to massive economic share. One of the most prominent one is BESETO, stands by Beijing-Seoul-Tokyo (details here and here). But that business as usual approach with endless urban growth could never happen, and Tokaido gives us a great example to understand why exactly.

What’s wrong with Tokaido and why is it so interesting for current urban studies?

Well, the development peak of this megaregion has passed at 1960-70s, which were the glory days of Japanese economy miracle. Its rapid growth after WW2 was the second great example of megaregional development, right after an ideal reference model of BosWash megapolis (Boston-Washington Corridor), described by Jean Gottmann in the late 1950s. Yes, it was based on different principles than US’ rival like developmental state urbanism, the army of bureaucrats with central planning and massive infrastructure investments at regional and national levels (Shinkansen bullet trains, bridges, tunnels, ports, etc.)… Yet its steady, rush and self-confident growth was the object for urban studies and pattern for urban planners in any corner of the world.

But there were at least three main blows for Tokaido’s assurance since that time: a crash of the bubble economy based on hyperinflation due to surging land price and property values at the 1980s, following economic stagnation of 1990s, continuing nowadays and rapid aging of society. As a result, now it shrinks (from 80 in 2010 to 78.8 million in 2015), giving us, urban scientists, a really unique chance to see the logical end of the megaregional evolution. Any current “young” megaregion could face the same cease of growth after decades of constant development in half a century or so. It looks unbelievable now, and bright future of such a dynamic megaregions like American BosWash, European “Blue Banana” or Greater Pearl River Delta in China is not deniable. But that was precisely the same with perceptions of Tokaido’ future in the late 1960s.

Tokaido megapolis at its glory 1960s, combining Tokyo, Nagoya & Osaka. Source: A.Sorensen, based on T.Doi

Well, but which long-term factors could change the current undisputable growth pattern and where it will happen most likely the first? Andre Sorensen is sure that it will be megacities of the same Developed Asian countries, which now experience similar negative dynamic in population – South Korea, Taiwan and partly China (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei megaregion). Regarding long-term future, I would bet that it will happen with Western countries too. Since the Earth’s population will keep growing mainly because of low-income countries in Africa and Asia (according to UN 90% from 2.5 billion newcomers to the world’s urban population by 2050).

Megaregions of the Developed Asia and the West

Since we do not have detailed statistics about world’s megaregions it would not be so incorrect to operate by figures & projections for particular cities (megacities) they comprise of, just to see the overall trend. According to the same UN reports, some cities in low-fertility countries of Asia and Europe have already experienced population decline in recent years due to aging. Those who were lucky to visit Seoul (actually IGLUS has module there) know that providing free rides for elderly people, as one of the fundamental public goods, already became a serious burden for the municipality. Although the current share of elderly people is moderate (around 14%), the country is aging at a very rapid pace. The current fertility rate in South Korea is 1.17 or so, and its population will pick with 53 million by 2031 and then start to decline, while the prominent unification (if) with North Korea will not help at all, according to this article. That definitely will result in Seoul megaregion shrinkage since it has already swallowed a right half of the national population. The same is happening on Taiwan – fertility rate is just 1.06, plus the aging so the Island will likely to decline in the people already after 2022.

I passed through some news articles about the declining population in Beijing with Shanghai (the core urban nodes of their megaregions – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei & Yangtze River Delta respectively), but due to municipal efforts to “redistribute” rural migrants without hukou (household registration system to control rural migration, with urban dwellers’ access to pension, education, and health care). While the fairness of such methods is disputable, we still talk about a mere population decline (10-20K or 0.1%). But in contrast with surging growth within previous decades, it could be a far leading milestone too. Especially if you bear in mind the birth rates declining and rapidly aging society (the registered elderly accounted a quarter of Beijing population in 2017, they are expected to peak by 2050, accounting a third nationwide).

The spatial juxtaposition of different concepts for large urban areas. Yellow, orange and even blue spaces could be considered as megaregional hinterlands.  Source: Georg I., Blaschke T. and Taubenböck H.

But wait, you might argue – you are talking about particular city centers, but not about entire megaregions with their periphery, suburbs, and hinterlands where people ordinary resettle from expensive city centers seeking for better, more comfortable and green life. That means that declining of the population of core cities/megacities doesn’t necessarily lead to shrinking megaregion as a whole. Indeed, the suburban blossom at the expense of decaying city centers was the primary source of growth for western megaregions like BosWash. If you have a chance, just check Detroit metropolitan area with IGLUS (barely recovering after bankruptcy and partly abandoned downtown, is surrounded by far-distance plummy suburbs in “American dream” style). The same western style suburbanization could flourish in China nowadays too. Since one of the recent April’s orders refers to cease or at least to soften the hukou registration system’ constraints for rural migrants in several Tire 2 cities (1-3 mln people), mainly in hinterlands of Beijing and Shanghai megaregions. Because of the deal, 100 million out of 226 million rural migrants who seek their luck and permanently live in cities, are expected to become urban dwellers officially with full excess to social services.

The key role of megaregional hinterlands and groping for the future

But let’s look at the Tokaido case again. Despite the slight growth at central Tokyo & metropolitan area because of sipping the hinterlands (of the whole country), the projected sharply decline in the Japanese population by 30 million people by 2050 will affect the whole megaregion anyway. That’s rather interesting, but UN experts don’t see any significant decline, concentrating only on urban cores (see the table below). But in case of Tokaido and other world’s megaregions the common rule is clear: once you are in shortage of working hands you start to attract it from own hinterland, then from more and more remote territories, rural (if possible) and even foreign countries. But you’re in trouble if your megaregion has no significant hinterlands like the Taiwan island or internal sources of the whole country is fading gradually as in Japan or both factors work simultaneously as in South Korea. I intentionally do not touch the economic issue since it requires another article but its role in megaregional growth/decline is undisputable.

Since we do not have statistics regarding megaregions, here is the UN’ prediction of the World’ largest cities by 2030. Just to see the overall trends, yet Tokyo keeps the 2nd place. Source

But what about larger megaregions, which could be compared to the Tokaido’s role in the global economy ($4-5 trillion GDP, 78.8 million dwellers)?  We definitely need to mention cooling down but yet growing China. Its megaregions around Beijing, Shanghai and Pearl River Delta with Hong Kong ($1.54 trillion GDP, 66 million people) will become only mature after surging development of our time. And of course – catching up India, which urban population will keep increasing at a very rapid pace till 2050 (at least one mega, Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor (DMIC) is planning now). Regarding European megaregion (“Blue banana” along Rhine-Alpine transport corridor, with EUR 2.7 trillion GDP and over 70 million people), it is still growing at the expanse of recently joined Eastern European countries. But it couldn’t last forever anyway. At the first look, only US’ BosWash ($2.9 trillion GDP, over 50 million inhabitants) will keep relatively positive dynamic (migration from the South and relatively high fertility rate in the USA at 1.8 level). But we have to remember that in the North-East USA is the highest share of affluent white families with the same European fertility rate.

So as a conclusion, we could argue that current relatively uneven Tokido’s shrinkage among the growing world’s megaregions will hold its uniqueness for a while since it faces not only economic decline & population aging but consumed almost all available resources of its own hinterland (as Andre Sorensen brightly said, “swallowed the own country”). The same we will definitely see in relatively small South Korea and on Taiwan suffered precisely the same problems, while China has incomparably large hinterlands to keep feeding its megaregions for a while. Even western rivals, now flourishing among its plummy hinterlands and attracting people from the rest of the world soon or later will start to embrace these challenges due to shifting global urban growth towards Africa and India.

So don’t lose your chance to see those Asian megaregions at their glory days, while they are still full of energy and lively dynamic, boosting new ideas and showing a great example of modest but fair societies to the rest of the world. And upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games 2020, by the way, is the best chance to do it.

This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.

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