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Visualizing East Asia's Explosive Urban Growth

A winning data visualization highlights the successes—and perils—of the recent East Asian city boom.

Nadieh Bremer

In January, the World Bank released a monster report—an eBook, really—on the rise of urban East Asia. Between 2000 and 2010, the international financial institution reported, nearly 200 million people moved to East Asia's urban places. 200 million! As the World Bank points out, if just those people were to create their own nation, it would be the sixth largest in the world.

These sorts of gigantic numbers can be difficult to comprehend. So the World Bank set up a contest, with first prize going to whomever could design the best data visualization to accompany its expansive database on urbanization. Data scientist Nadieh Bremer answered the call. Her winning entry is below.

There are a bunch of fascinating takeaways from this visualization and the accompanying World Bank report. The first is that China's Pearl River Delta has grown like crazy, overtaking Tokyo as the world's largest metro area in terms of both size and population. The area, made up of the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan and Dongguan, contained 27.7 million people in 2000; in 2010, it had 41.8 million. China as a whole is by far the most urbanized country in East Asia, with 600 of the region's 869 urban areas. The Chinese government's aggressive urbanization policies seem to be paying off.

(Nadieh Bremer)

But China's enormous Pearl River Delta has not seen the most growth in urban population density among large East Asian countries. That title belongs to Indonesia. The graph to the right shows the growth in urban population densities during the decade studied, with 2000's figures in black and 2010's in red. Indonesia's urban density ballooned by nearly 30 percent, from around 7,400 people per square kilometer to 9,400. As Bremer notes, this jump is not necessarily a good thing: It's "likely due to constraints in investment in urban infrastructure and housing."

Finally, the World Bank data—and Bremer visualization—draws a firm link between urbanization and economic growth. Smart policy, of course, plays a role in this: it's hard to argue that China's ghost cities, huge cities built by the government but mostly uninhabited, are good for the country's long-term economic future. But as Bremer's graph below shows, there is a link between the size of a country's urban population and its GDP per capita.

(Nadieh Bremer)

And yet, despite all this talk of fast urbanization, Bremer and the World Bank want to remind policymakers that there's still a lot of room for (sustainable) growth. Just five East Asian cities have more than half of their residents living in cities. As the World Bank writes, "Urban planning needs to match physical expansion with access to jobs, affordable housing and shopping, public transportation, and health and education services to ensure equal opportunity for disadvantaged communities."

(Nadieh Bremer)

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