A view from the ground at Masdar in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Masdar is UAE’s new eco-city and is an ongoing experiment into a low-energy, low-impact city. Photo by: Tom Olliver / CC BY-NC

To spur economic growth and improve livelihoods, countries often build new industries and infrastructure. Or, in some cases, entirely new cities.

Across the “global south,” a crop of megaproject, master-planned cities has been sprouting up as a way for countries to jolt their economies and attract greater foreign investment. It is a striking phenomenon that is currently catching on particularly in developing countries. The trend holds great potential for how urban areas can be planned and designed more efficiently. But so far, most instances of these planned cities still provide a cautionary tale of weak labor standards, environmental degradation and population displacement as countries consider new urban developments.

Those were the general findings of a team of urban geographers at McGill University in Montreal which has been studying new cities around the world. They coined the term “new cities” to specifically mean urban areas built on greenfield sites with the purpose of attracting business, investment and new residential areas. The team presented some of their key research findings on this trend at the first day of the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador — the principal United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urbanization.

Perhaps the most popularized examples of new city developments today are in the Middle East. The Masdar planned city project in the United Arab Emirates mainstreamed the idea with its futuristic technologies that aimed to achieve zero carbon emissions, though that goal has been significantly dialed back. The King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia is the largest new city in the world, roughly the size of Washington, D.C. The city actually offers publicly traded shares to fund its operating budget, making its mayor a de facto corporate CEO.

In less prosperous parts of the globe hundreds of other new cities are also taking hold. China, India and Malaysia are all constructing new cities. And across sub-Saharan Africa places such as Nova Cidade de Kilambe, Angola; Kakungulu, Uganda; Appolonia, Ghana; and Eko Atlantic, Nigeria are all examples of new cities, according to McGill.

The rationale for constructing these new urban areas is pretty clear cut for national governments. Most new cities are driven by foreign private investment that is bullish on the continent’s growth potential in the case of Africa. The foreign direct investment, in turn, can have positive spillovers. It can build state of the art infrastructure, create jobs and target new industries that can diversify economies. Building new cities from scratch gives governments a blank slate to alleviate and address pressing urban problems such as congestion, pollution and sprawl.

In principle, new cities can have a huge upside. Builders of new cities have the potential to hardwire cities with features that promote many of the core city services put forward in the New Urban Agenda — the U.N.’s principal framework document for sustainable urbanization. Efficient transport, mobility, walkability and reliable public works are all called upon in the NUA and new state-of-the-art infrastructure in new cities can fulfill those needs.

Joan Clos, executive director of U.N. Habitat has also called for cities to undertake smart, fundamental urban planning policies that generate intrinsic wealth and value for citizens. The construction of urban areas predominantly around strategic higher value industries — as is being done with many new cities according to the McGill team — is one way to do that.

But in practice, there are several pitfalls in how these new cities in developing countries are currently being executed, the McGill researchers noted. One concern is weak labor standards that can result in construction-related deaths or poor working conditions for laborers.

“The creation of world class cities comes at extremely high human costs,” said Sarah Moser, director of the urban studies program at McGill who headed the study.

Other areas for potential red flags are environmental degradation and the displacement of people that previously occupied the land. Many instances in China saw the government exercise eminent domain to confiscate land to build new cities, according to McGill research. Further out, as new cities mature, economic sustainability questions also come into play.

“How do you manage an artificial city and endow it with the ability to eventually stand on its own two feet and experience organic growth?” Moser said.

But the new cities trend is only picking up steam, according to the McGill team. As they continue to expand throughout developing countries, the development community could play a role in monitoring their growth. One immediate priority for the U.N. and other development agencies is to acknowledge new master planned cities as a global trend and set standards for them. Standards could include environmental impact assessments conducted by third parties or “social audits” by independent groups that monitor financial flows for transparency.

Devex is reporting from Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, this week. Follow reporter Naki Mendoza @mfbmendoza to keep up with Devex coverage. You can also read more about the #newurbanagenda.

About the author

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    Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.