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RPT-COLUMN-Megacities after coronavirus: Kemp

Wed, 26th Aug 2020 02:00

(Repeats column that ran on Tuesday, with no changes)

* Chartbook: https://tmsnrt.rs/2QqkvGR

By John Kemp

LONDON, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Densely populated and highly
connected megacities such as London and New York have been the
most dynamic centres of the modern economy but for the same
reasons have proved especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Density and connectedness have supported a wealth of
innovation and high productivity, but crowded housing,
workspaces and transport systems have created ideal conditions
for the transmission of pulmonary disease.

Regional, national and international connectedness ensured
megacities were the first to receive the virus, and then
transmitted it onward to secondary and tertiary cities and
eventually rural areas.

High density ensured that once the virus had entered a
megacity it would spread quickly and cause high death rates,
forcing urban lockdowns to bring transmission back under

The coronavirus has intensified a pre-existing debate about
the future of megacities, and whether the concentration of so
much population and economic activity in a few large centres is

Long before the epidemic, analysts and policymakers had
begun to question the distribution of activity between
megacities and other primary cities on the one hand, and
secondary and tertiary cities on the other.

Prior to the epidemic, the question was whether megacities
had become too dominant, leaving other areas behind, and too
unaffordable; now it is also whether they have become too unsafe
and can recapture their past benefits.

Megacities still have advantages, but improvements in
communications and the mass experiment in remote working have
sharpened questions about whether some activity could relocate
to secondary cities and other areas.


London is the quintessential megacity: densely populated;
intensely connected at regional, national and international
levels; and exceptionally productive compared with other cities
and regions in the United Kingdom.

London has more in common economically with other megacities
- such as New York, San Francisco and the Bay Area, Tokyo,
Sydney, Auckland, Paris, Beijing and Shanghai - than with most
other parts of Britain.

Like other megacities, London’s population has boomed over
the last three decades, hitting a record of 9 million in 2019,
up from just 6.4 million in 1991, according to the UK Office for
National Statistics.

However, before that, the city’s population had slumped for
five decades from a previous peak of 8.6 million in 1941, as
inhabitants fled the city for more space and other improvements
outside the metropolitan area.


Like other megacities, London’s population shows exceptional
levels of turnover compared with secondary cities and other
non-metropolitan areas (https://tmsnrt.rs/2QqkvGR).

London is at the heart of two enormous circulations,
exchanging population with other regions of the United Kingdom
(especially adjacent regions in Southeast and East England), as
well as internationally.

Every year, the British capital sees a large net outflow of
adults aged 30 years and over to other regions of the country,
which is partially replenished by a large net inflow of adults
aged 20-29 years.

In the 12 months to June 2019, London saw a net outflow of
almost 88,000 adults aged over 30, partially offset by a net
inflow of 46,000 adults aged 20-29 from other regions.

London is the only major region of Britain that sees a net
outflow of over-30s, and one of only two regions that see a net
inflow of 20-29 year olds (the other being the Northwest),
confirming the distinctiveness of its population and economy.

Overall, however, London has lost population to the rest of
the country every year for the last decade, relying on
international migration to replenish its population and achieve

In the year to June 2018, London saw an outflow of 103,000
people to other regions of the United Kingdom, which was more
than replaced by an inflow of 113,000 from other countries.

The city’s net domestic outflow has been accelerating as it
becomes more crowded and expensive, hitting a peak of 107,000 in
2016/17, up from 69,000 in 2013/14 and 32,000 in 2008/09.

Like other megacities, London is overwhelmingly young,
relying on inward migration of the young from other regions and
international recruitment to replace its loss of older

Young workers come from the rest of the country and overseas
seeking better employment opportunities, while some older
inhabitants leave seeking more affordable housing, more space
and other lifestyle improvements.

London’s population circulation is similar to other
megacities such as New York, San Francisco, Auckland, Sydney and
China's top-tier cities, including Wuhan where the pandemic


The future population and economic activity of megacities
depends on how coronavirus and other factors impact these
massive inter-regional and inter-national migrations.

In the very short term, lasting perhaps a year, the epidemic
is likely to lead to a fall in population in London and other

Health concerns and the desire for more space are likely to
prompt accelerated outward migration, especially among older
residents, while lack of job opportunities and curbs on
international travel will temporarily curb inward migration.

In the medium and longer term, the question is whether
megacities can restart their inward flow of migrants from other
regions and countries to offset their older population losses.

In part, that will depend on the deployment of an effective
vaccine and other control measures to reduce coronavirus
transmission in densely populated areas.

But it also depends on whether megacities can resume
attracting international migrants once travel restrictions are

Britain’s exit from the European Union, the developing
U.S.-China cold war, rising nationalism in many countries, and
de-globalisation could make migration to megacities more
restricted in future.

These cities will have to prove they continue to offer
superior employment opportunities and incomes compared with
other areas, enough to offset their substantially higher cost of

And they will have to maintain that benefit-cost advantage
in an environment where central offices may play a smaller role
and there is likely to be more remote working.

Finally, policymakers must also decide whether to try to
reinforce the attractiveness of megacities, or exploit the
epidemic to try, once again, to disperse more activity to
secondary and tertiary centres.

Megacities generate enormous amounts of output, high-paying
employment and tax revenues, but political cohesion favours a
more even distribution of activity to other urban and semi-urban

Policymakers in megacities, other regions and national level
may have contrasting views on the desirability of any
rebalancing of population and economic activity to other cities
and regions.

London’s population history over the last century shows the
relentless growth of megacities is not inevitable or
irreversible but contingent on their relative attractiveness to
different age cohorts and openness to both inter-regional and
inter-national migrants.

Related columns:

- Must the metropolis mutate for the virus? (Reuters, Aug.

- Coronavirus is the dark side of an urban interconnected
world (Reuters, May 22)

- Coronavirus confronts decision-makers with a terrible
trade-off (Reuters, March 18)
(Editing by Susan Fenton)

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