Rose Cheung investigates the challenges facing the world’s megacities.
Robert Gottlieb & Simon Ng, Global Cities: Urban Environments in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and China (The MIT Press, 2017), 447pp.
At first sight, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Chinese megacities could not seem more different from one another. Granted, they are all super metropolitan states and homes to millions of souls, but the United States and China are also located in entirely different continents, separated by the formidable Pacific. The cities also seem to have different developmental patterns – Los Angeles is a horizontal city, “the capital of sprawl”, the edge of the city ever-expanding (7); Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a vertical city, with buildings made denser and higher (11). Meanwhile, its neighbours in the Pearl River Delta combine the horizontal and vertical, seeing an exponential trend in construction, industrialisation and urban migration (16).
Yet these cities have never been more connected. In the past few decades, they have benefited from a mutual relationship, allowing them all to join the ranks of global cities, a configuration of city networks ranging across the world (19). But development comes with consequences: the increase in urban population has led to environmental degradation, which deeply affects daily life and threatens sustainability (262). In Global Cities, Gottlieb and Ng identify and discuss six of the environmental issues shared by such cities, offering a thought-provoking insight into the opportunities and challenges presented by the world’s megacities.
The book, neatly divided into eight chapters, documents situations in the titled cities throughout decades, with regards to the movement of goods, air pollution, water management, food system, transportation and space use, and how the cities have responded to these challenges. Among the environmental problems, the most notorious reputation the cities share may be for air pollution: one may remember the marketing of “canned fresh air” in China just a few years ago (63). Merchants in Los Angeles saw similar business opportunities, yet they did not sell fresh air, but containers of “Los Angeles smog” to tourists instead (61). Interestingly, the close connection Los Angeles and Hong Kong share with China is a double-edged sword: the cooperation between the cities enables the implementation of international environmental policies to combat emissions from traffic and industries (91), but the busy worldwide trades and transportation are also responsible for the pollution (93). In a globalised world, even the longest distance becomes short: smog from China does not only reach the nearby Hong Kong, but manages to be exported to a land as far as Los Angeles (93). Apart from providing eye-opening facts of what is happening in our cities, Gottlieb and Ng also explore the evolution of environmental politics and the possibility of a structural reform brought by social movements and policy initiatives (263).
Global Cities is crafted with extreme care, and with an emphasis on fact. A considerable proportion of the book is dedicated to history, explaining how the cities have seen demographic, economic, political and social growth throughout the years, and how the aforementioned environmental issues have ultimately arisen. As a result, readers will not only know what is happening, but why it has come to be the way it is. The research methodology is centred on literature review, integrating statistics and experiments with information. The remarkable organisation allows easy reference throughout the book. One of the greatest features is perhaps the explanation of the cities’ geographies. It is surprising how many books on environmental issues fail to give an account of the basic geography of the regions they are focusing on, given that the environment cannot be talked about without a knowledge in geography. Global Cities is particularly reader-friendly for this reason: it has a precise explanation of geography and even provides maps to its readers, highlighting the regions that the book revolves around. This allows the book to be easily understood even by the public, who may not have an expertise in environmental issues. The book also clears up common confusions one has about the environmental challenges of our society and illustrates the significance of environmental protection, so even newcomers to urban planning will have a solid understanding of the current situation after reading.
Gottlieb and Ng offer an interesting perspective that “a contemporary global city is defined by its environmental impacts” (19). The word “defined” paints the picture that environmental consequences are inevitable, perhaps even necessary, during urban development. Indeed, much of the book is about the environmental issues faced by Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Chinese cities during their growth. However, knowing that the destruction of the environment is a by-product of prosperity, is a degraded environment somehow a positive thing, an evidence that a society is progressing? Over the years, the Chinese government has given priority to economic growth over environmental protection, until it became evident that such development plan has taken a toll on the environment, but China has also achieved the explosive growth it has aimed for. As our world further connects, more megacities will surely emerge. Should they first focus on economic growth, tending to the environment later; or should they willingly slow down their economic progress for the sake of the environment, while risking being surpassed by their peers? This dilemma has been a much-debated topic, which Global Cities also touches on. It is also up to current global cities like Los Angeles and Hong Kong to decide whether they should encourage new-coming cities to not repeat their past — a past somewhat regrettable, but nevertheless (and perhaps most importantly) glorious.
Global Cities ends appropriately with a remark on the future of our environment, discussing possible environmental policies that should be taken for the megacities to thrive together. It is also appropriate that this review ends with a note on the future actions that may be taken by anyone who is intrigued by the subject. Readers with a scholarly interest in environmental issues will surely find the book a valuable addition to their bookshelves, but it will also appeal to anyone who is interested in learning more about a world that is constantly growing. Gottlieb and Ng point out the “cross-border nature” of environmental issues (92) — as we live in a world that continues to become more globalised, the environmental issues a nation faces will no longer be limited to its own soil, but shared by all the inhabitants of our planet. Whether we like it or not, we are part of planet Earth. Together we advance, together we face challenges, and together we combat them.
Rose Cheung is a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Before becoming an English major, she studied medicine for two years. She is interested in the art in science and the science in art.