I’ve been a ‘city kid’ ever since I was young. Growing up near downtown Chicago, I’ve always been drawn to the aura or urban landscapes, the hustle and bustle of city life, being surrounded by diverse groups of people in these densely-packed symbols of global modernity. When I decided to try living abroad for the first time, I knew I wanted to live in a big city, somewhere where it felt like ‘things were happening.’ I wanted to see what life is like in a place that was growing, a place at the cutting edge of culture and politics, a place where people dreamed big and made ambitious plans for the future.
Shenzhen, nestled between Hong Kong and Guangzhou at the center of China’s “Greater Bay Area,” was an obvious fit.
The popular narrative of this still-growing megacity is that it was a mere fishing village in the 1980s. In the ensuing 40 years, it has become a first-tier city of about 20 million people, driven by 90s-era market reforms enticing young entrepreneurs from across China to come and set-up shop. Such rapid urban growth and development is a truly modern phenomenon- in all of human history, no other place has grown so large, so quickly.
Shenzhen’s success is also closely linked to its unique geographical position in the center of the “Greater Bay Area,” referring to the huge area surrounding the Pearl River Delta. It includes the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau as well as major cities in Guangdong, such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Foshan. Plans are underway to closely link these areas economically and infrastructurally, essentially forming an enormous mega-city of 72 million people with a GDP of over 1.6 trillion USD.
But beyond the enormous infrastructure projects and top-line economic numbers, what is everyday life like for the millions of residents who call this mega-city home? And what can the story of Shenzhen and the Greater Bay Area tell us about the future of cities around the world?
Having lived in the region for over two years, I’ve found daily life to be characterized by three major things: futuristic technology and infrastructure, internationalism, and easy mobility. Due to the young age of Shenzhen and its big plans for the future, its urban landscape is unsurprisingly modern and futuristic, with modern roads and buildings, a fleet of electric buses and taxis, brand new malls and parks, and a quickly expanding metro and high-speed rail system. Moreover, as China’s major tech hub, the conveniences of new, innovative technologies can be felt around Shenzhen much earlier on than in other urban centres. Many companies will even beta-test and pilot new products in Shenzhen before expanding them elsewhere. In addition to the use of electronic payments, convenient e-commerce, health monitoring systems, and 5G mobile data, Shenzhen is constantly developing new technologies and has huge electronic markets where amateur developers or enthusiasts can find everything they need.
In addition to electronic technology, Shenzhen, along with Hong Kong and Guangzhou, are also major shipping ports, manufacturing hubs, and finance centers, regularly moving international products in and out of the region. This gives residents easy access to an abundance of affordable goods from around the world. As the region becomes more integrated in global markets, its population is becoming similarly international. For years, Hong Kong has acted as a home for people from all around Asia and the globe. Meanwhile, Shenzhen is a true ‘immigrant city’ with people hailing from around China, with Guangzhou also having substantial immigrant and expat communities. People from around the world come to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this dynamic, fast-growing region, and in doing so start restaurants, establish businesses, and share stories that bring the world a little closer to residents here.
Finally, daily life in Shenzhen is characterized by the increasing ease of mobility around the region. Numerous transport and infrastructure links have been built or are under construction, facilitating easy and seamless regional travel for increasing numbers of people. Thanks to these projects, most of the Greater Bay Area can be reached within 2 to 3 hours of Shenzhen. To some, this means changing cities and crossing borders for business or school is a fact of everyday life. For others, like me, it means easy day trips and weekend getaways to other parts of the Greater Bay Area, or taking advantage of cheaper flights from nearby cities. Residents here can take the metro to a border checkpoint and enter Hong Kong, or hop on a 30-minute high speed rail trip to Guangzhou, or take a short ferry to Asia’s gambling capital Macau, all in the same weekend.
The developments here are presenting an ambitious new model for urban development, upending conventional understandings of cities and how they grow.
The Greater Bay Area could redefine what it means to be a resident of one of these places, as notions of ‘borders’ and ‘territory’ become blurred and cities in the region melt together, becoming difficult to differentiate. If a resident of Shenzhen can go for a hike in Hong Kong, go shopping in Dongguan and then have dinner in Guangzhou, all in one day, how will that reshape notions of urban space and identity in the minds of people living here?
Such big questions remain to be answered. But the Greater Bay Area is not alone in its pursuit of becoming a multi-city megacity. The regions around Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu and Chongqing are all undergoing similar projects to make the urban space larger, more modern, more international, and more connected. What remains to be seen is if this model will be confined to China- a rapidly-urbanizing country with a large population and a fast-growing economy- or if it will become a global model, replicated around the world. After all, the UN projects that over two-thirds of the world will live in cities by 2050.
If we are to build cities that can accommodate increasing populations in a way that is livable, modern, international, and well-connected, perhaps we could look to the Greater Bay Area for inspiration.