Cities on Steriods: ‘Megacities’

A possibly epochal demographic trend in the United States finds young folks – mostly 20 and 30-somethings — fleeing suburbia for pieds-a-terre in formerly abandoned downtowns. They’ve fled Mom & Dad’s detached single-family homestead to become urban dwellers.

For better or worse, tens of millions of others across the globe are making similar migrations, for a variety of reasons, to teeming metropolises, some of which have ballooned to over ten million residents. At that population point, the vaguely science-fiction term urban planners have coined is “megacity”. In BBC One’s recent three-chapter documentary Megacities, BAFTA-winning journalist Andrew Marr examines five immense cities – London, Dhaka, Shanghai, Mexico City, and Tokyo – to reveal their triumphs and tragedies, and discover what makes these unwieldy leviathans tick.

In Episode 1, Marr’s first stop on this global odyssey is Shanghai, China’s storied megalopolis, a city renowned for its shadowy interwar intrigue, when the European powers held sway over their own distinct quartiers, before Japanese aggression and Chinese Communist hegemony routed them. Marr lounges in the sumptuous, leather-swathed back seat of a Bentley, chatting up Shanghai’s wealthiest tycoon, no mean feat in a town sporting over 7,000 billionaires! Shanghai is now a city on steroids, a bubbling gumbo of New York, Hong Kong, and Dubai, and unhindered by China’s heavy-handed authorities, whose zeal for the new matches that of any capitalist baron.

Marr points out an ominous red label that adorns many of Shanghai’s prewar buildings, a sort of scarlet letter signifying imminent demolition. Here, a vigorous brand of eminent domain razes ‘inefficient’ dwellings, enabling what our host describes as a “forest of skyscrapers”, a Miracle-Gro garden of concrete, glass, and steel, with some 10,000 structures reaching above eight stories toward the heavens, including the World Financial Center, towering nearly 1,700 feet into the blue yonder.

Amidst such hectic development, urban renewal is a mixed blessing, as countless residents have been forced from quaint traditional housing into state-of-the-art high-rises. We may bemoan this transition, but Marr rightly cautions his Western viewers against romanticizing vintage Old World architecture, much of which is inadequate for 21st-century urban realities.

Dhaka, Bangladesh is in many respects the antithesis of gleaming, supercharged Shanghai. A prototypical “Third World” conurbation, Dhaka, labeled by Marr, “a rotten city”, squeezes 13 million, living cheek-to-jowl, within its borders. Guided by a self-proclaimed “slumdog”, Marr visits a local family, whose comfortably appointed home seems utterly incongruous amid the disheartening squalor. As the patriarch serves tea on elegant china, one can almost imagine that our host is back in London, in the drawing room of a Belgravia townhouse.

The capital of the former British Empire also figures prominently in our tour, as Marr inspects a pyramidal steel-and-glass giant called The Shard. Now the tallest building in Europe at over a thousand feet, Marr takes us behind the scenes during its construction, and muses on the socio-cultural undercurrents inherent in skyscraper planning. As I see it, the Shard exists partly as a rebuke to London’s ancient height restrictions, a vestige of class-bound Victorian England, during which the upper classes demanded picturesque views of the city’s grandest edifices. It also announces to the world, consciously or otherwise, that the United Kingdom remains an economic and cultural powerhouse, secure in the usage of its traditional currency. After all, what is a skyscraper if not a hubristic pronouncement of faith in the immediate future?

Unavoidably, Marr also drops in on Tokyo, possibly the most densely-packed city on the planet, with a metro population hovering around 35 million. He describes Japan’s largest metropolis as a “slick, uber-modern city” of “robotic uniformity”, and Tokyo probably can’t be otherwise, if it wishes to maintain an affluent high-tech lifestyle for an overwhelming crowd of residents.

Still, there’s a price to be paid for living in the trendy pressure-cooker that is contemporary Tokyo. The emotional fallout produces hikikomori, socially-stunted, friendless young adults who seldom venture outside and have no career ambitions, antithetical to a society which challenged the mighty United States for economic supremacy a little more than a generation ago. Indeed, some Tokyoites are so starved for company they turn to rent-a-friend services in order to appear more popular to acquaintances and co-workers, and Marr visits a young man who provides such assistance.

Mexico City, the largest New World municipality, is a security nightmare, with an estimated 500 kidnappings a month and three murders every week, but Marr delights in the Mexican capital’s vibrant, joyous street life, its unspoken declaration to embrace the here and now, in spite of a tragic-romantic heritage and far deeper inequality than Tokyo.

Episode 2 focuses on security concerns in the respective cities, and not surprisingly, Mexico City, known as the Distrito Federal by Mexicans, is an environment rife with tension. Erected atop a prehistoric lake, the city subsides ever so slightly each year, increasing flood dangers, a fact only exacerbated by its location in an earthquake zone.

In fact, more than half the world’s megacities are vulnerable to quakes, and Tokyo – an Asian phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Great Kanto quake and brutal Allied firebombing in 1945 — is almost certain to experience a strong temblor in my lifetime, which could be catastrophic. I suspect, however, that denizens of Mexico City, also called chilangos, worry a great deal more about street crime, and chillingly, the middle-class are more likely to fall victim to violent kidnapping than the rich, who employ private security teams. Marr visits a clothing shop featuring bulletproof attire, and we witness an employee take a slug at close range without flinching. One question: Can one buy this stuff at Nordstrom’s?

London’s major concerns are terrorism and rioting, and Marr dutifully trains with some London bobbies specially selected to deal with such threats, along with science-backed knowledge that the threat of unrest increases during heat waves, certain to be more frequent as our planet warms.

By contrast, as a developing city, Dhaka has to contend with improper treatment of prodigious amounts of sewage, stoking fears of a global pandemic, and those of us ensconced in comfy First World societies had better pay attention.

Episode 3 grapples with the issue of movement, both transit of waste products and human beings. Dhaka simply can’t afford sophisticated transportation systems, but there is some local rail, and like some Dhakans, Marr rides atop an overcrowded train, presumably free of charge, a dangerous practice common in poor nations. However, most Dhakans daily use pedicabs, which Marr refers to, perhaps erroneously, as “rickshaws”. The city is cluttered with these three-wheeled conveyances, over half a million at last count. In yet another George Plimpton moment, Marr pilots a pedicab himself, quickly realizing what a tiresome occupation it is. The widespread usage of pedicabs also promotes extreme density in Dhaka, as the vehicles are too slow and labor-intensive to travel significant distances. Of course, overcrowding only adds to sanitation difficulties.

Shanghai and London, obviously, enjoy a variety of transit options, and the latter was the first major city in the world to develop a subway, predating New York’s by decades. Britain’s capital also embraced above-ground rail earlier than most places, and the city quickly metastasized as public transit made it possible for residents to live far from the center. But Shanghai is the star of this segment. A mere quarter-century ago, private automobiles were largely illegal in China; now, Shanghai sports some the busiest avenues on the planet. However, as in Japan and Europe, the city has invested wisely in high-speed rail, including the swift maglev design, in which trains glide silently on a cushion of air. With China’s rapid ascendance, is Shanghai poised to become “capital of the world”? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Waste removal is a bit more complex, and we learn that recycling is a necessity in poverty-stricken Dhaka, where most inhabitants can’t afford to trudge down to the local Target – as if one exists – to purchase the goods they need. Marr also engages in dumpster diving, accompanying two young ‘freegans’ in London, and concludes this chapter with a pleasant lunch among Mexico City’s pastoral floating farms, a sylvan Eden in the midst of this chaotic metropolis, and one wonders why they haven’t been ‘discovered’ by jetset foodies.

Megacities is hardly the first documentary to delve into this subject; basic cable TV in my country – the US – has aired numerous similar programs, although ‘reality’ shows on networks like Discovery and TLC have increasingly crowded them out. As American television has relentlessly sought out sensationalism, we’ve had to look to Britain – and especially the BBC — for informative middlebrow non-fiction. Stellar programs like Walking with Dinosaurs and its various spinoffs wouldn’t exist without Brit TV.

Extras in this package are scant, as is often the case with TV productions; there’s a biography of Marr and a glossy ten-page booklet presenting additional facts about the aforementioned cities, as well as prefabricated capitals like the stark, modernist Brasilia and America’s stately Washington, D.C.

Megacities is an unsurprising but compelling televisual lesson in social studies, and maybe a primer on where urban development and relations are headed in this uncertain new century. That’s both good and bad news, as the future we face could be apocalyptic and grim or something decidedly utopian. Currently, as I scan the papers and newscasts, the former seems a more likely scenario.

RATING 7 / 10