Cities to Megacities: Shaping Dense Vertical Urbanism

Shenzhen (top), Guangzhou (middle), Hong Kong (bottom)

Shenzhen (top), Guangzhou (middle), and Hong Kong (bottom)

There is perhaps nowhere on the planet that demonstrates the impact of urbanization as markedly as the cities of China’s Pearl River Delta – which surpassed Tokyo as the world’s largest single continual urban conurbation of 42 million in 2010,1 and is set to grow to potentially 120 million inhabitants by 2050.2 Against the backdrop of the world’s urban population growing by a million new urban inhabitants every week,3 Shenzhen has become the poster child for urban growth statistics, growing from 300,0004 to an incredible 12 million people5 in just 36 years,4 since Deng Xiaoping declared it a “special economic zone” of China in 1979.6 In that same period, Hong Kong established itself as one of the world’s major financial and trading capitals, and Guangzhou – the first Western trading port in China some 330 years ago7 – is largely unrecognizable physically from the city it was just a decade or two ago.

The results of the rapid and unprecedented urbanization in the Pearl River Delta has produced an entirely new urban substance, one that has provided an unequaled opportunity to explore the impacts of tall buildings set within a network of ultra-connected, modern infrastructure. With some of the lowest energy intensities on the planet8 and a population density of 6,700 people per square kilometer,9 Hong Kong demonstrates the real benefits of the high-rise condition with a plethora of connected transport options that effectively make the city one large “transit-oriented development.” Shenzhen has similarly invested in amazing levels of new infrastructure to support the iconic skyscrapers appearing across its skyline. Nearby, Guangzhou has also managed to embrace the iconic, the tall, and the connected, while retaining its historic buildings and colonial charm.

More than this though, it is perhaps the land and water-based infrastructure that exists between these cities that is the most interesting. One will soon be able to make the 142-kilometer trip from the 7.2-million population5 city of Hong Kong, through the 12-million population5 city of Shenzhen, to the 20.5-million population5 area of Guangzhou-Foshan in 48 minutes by high speed train,10 120 minutes by hydrofoil,11 or 40 minutes to Macau via the 30-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge now being constructed across the South China Sea.12 In addition to the three cities that hosted this conference, the 8.4-million population Dongguan, 1.5-million Zhuhai, 1.4-million Jiangmen, 1.7-million Huizhou, and 3-million Zhongshan are also linked into parts of this connected infrastructure and mass urbanization.5

Thus, in so many ways – physically, culturally, and economically – these teeming metropolises are merging into, effectively, one super-connected urban whole. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a host of challenges that must be addressed, including: pollution, energy production obstacles, quality of life issues, and a loss of heritage and identity amid unbridled redevelopment. These challenges, which are common around the globe yet magnified in this region due to its unique circumstances, should be seen as a litmus test for the great ideas of our time and a call to action for bold new paradigms in urban development.

The rich tapestry of the Pearl River Delta was therefore the ideal platform for a CTBUH conference exploring the real impact – both positive and negative – of density, vertical growth, and concentrated urban infrastructure, not only in China, but around the world. In an unprecedented first for a CTBUH conference, the event took place progressively across the three cities, beginning with two presentation days and a day of technical tours in Shenzhen, before moving on to explore the industrial powerhouse, Guangzhou, then the premier urban laboratory that is Hong Kong. In addition to absorbing the very latest in best practice developments in both skyscraper and urban design from around the world, this conference directly embraced numerous tall buildings and urban spaces in the region that have become iconic in their own right, through technical tours and social networking events. Delegates joined us in the Pearl River Delta “mega-region” for an investigation like no other into the true facets of urbanization and vertical growth.

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2. Harris, P. and Lang, G. (2015). Routledge Handbook of Environment and Society in Asia. New York: Routledge, p.370. Back

3. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Sep. 2015]. Back

4. Shen, J. (2008). Urban Growth and Sustainable Development in Shenzhen City 1980-2006. TOENVIRJ, 2(1), pp.71-79. Back

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12. Wikipedia, (2015). Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Sep. 2015]. Back