Secondary cities represent the promise of the future — if they heed the warnings of the past
Asia’s urban landscape is in flux. The so-called megacities, with populations in excess of ten million people, are established features in the landscape. The newcomer is the emerging market city, also known as the secondary city.
China already has about 150 cities with at least a million inhabitants. Experts say that by 2020, this number will grow to between 220 and 400 cities, depending on the nation’s overall growth rate. And this is already driving some hitherto unknown cities onto the world stage.
According to a recent Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) research report commissioned by Citigroup, the Chinese cities (as separate entities from the larger administrative regions of the same name) of Tianjin, Shenzhen and Dalian top the global economic strength index, which takes into account a combination of market size, purchasing power and growth prospects.
The study, encompassing 120 of the world’s major cities, featured nine other Chinese cities in the top 20, with Guangzhou and Chongqing, along with megacities Shanghai and Beijing ranking in the top ten.
A similar scenario is being played out in India, albeit on a lesser scale. The EIU report ranks two Indian cities, Bangalore and Ahmedabad, among the top 20 global cities. Ahmedabad, along with China’s Tianjin, is witnessing double-digit economic growth and has the potential to grow even faster. Remarkably, the city ranks one place higher in the index than Hong Kong.
Ahmedabad is just one name in the long list of secondary cities that are helping India grow beyond the traditional economic hubs of New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. Merely 200 kilometres from Ahmedabad is Surat, the fastest growing Indian city and the eighth fastest growing city in the world in GDP terms. Jaipur, Lucknow, Kanpur, Nashik, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Pune are some of the other unheralded Indian cities that now regularly feature in international benchmark indexes.
The United Nations’ human settlements agency, UN-Habitat, in its latest survey of 250 cities, found that the main economic reasons for the growth of the cities were the designation of special economic zones (SEZ), trade and investment in transport infrastructure and communications services, which in turn has produced another cycle of economic benfits.
The Chinese government says that the country’s economic growth and the accompanied migration of people from rural to urban areas to fill the jobs generated by developing secondary cities has helped lift more than 200 million people out of poverty.
In India, where the infrastructure in metropolises like Mumbai and New Delhi can hardly cope with the size of the population, the secondary cities, known as Tier-2 cities locally, offer new employment opportunities. The growth of Tier-2 cities has kick-started a cycle that includes the creation of many new markets and the resultant investment in those markets by national and global global businesses.
In both countries, the secondary cities have enabled an entire generation to lead a life that is qualitatively much better than their parents’, at a lesser cost than what their counterparts in megacities pay.
But not everyone is convinced of the viability of the phenomenon. Many experts believe the rise of secondary cities is only a repeat of the failed cycle of the existing megacities. They argue that many of the secondary cities are experiencing what UN-Habitat calls “premature urbanisation” — where the size of the city bears no resemblance to its ability to cope with the magnitude of associated challenges.
Land and housing shortages are common in many of the secondary cities, even as city administrators battle a myriad of challenges, ranging from unemployment, to pollution to traffic congestion.
At the human level, most migrant labourers receive low wages and are forced to live in conditions that are worse than what they left behind in their native rural or semi-urban areas. The UN-Habitat calls this worsening of their lives “urbanisation of poverty”.
Consequently, the challenges facing the emerging secondary cities are the same as those testing the megacities. In the decades ahead, the most pressing task for the secondary cities would be to focus their development not just on skyscrapers, wider roads and other infrastructural developments, but also on their ability to attract and develop talent — an aspect that is crucial to the sustainability of a city of any size.
Eventually, the secondary cities, like the megacities, will be evaluated on the basis of the quality of life that they offer their citizens in the form of education, healthcare, recreation and freedom of expression.
Unlike the megacities, the secondary cities have time on their side. AR