With the news that Shanghai is set to become the world's largest city, where the fringes of the metropolis are even more dense than at the centre, it reminded me of a recent TED talk I gave in Guangzhou, where I related how the visionaries of literature and the silver screen have accurately predicted the future changes in our world, from robots to the mobile phone. In looking at Star Wars, I outlined how the planet "Coruscent" first appeared on screen in 1997 in "Return of the Jedi," however it was first mentioned in Timothy Zahn's 1991 novel "Heir to the Empire" as an "ecumenopolis," or rather a "city occupying an entire planet".
Trantor. Image: flicker
The word was invented in 1967 by the Greek city planner Constantinos Doxiadis to represent the idea that in the future, urban areas and megalopolises would eventually fuse and there would be a single continuous worldwide city as a progression from the current urbanization and population growth trends. This concept was already current in science fiction since Issac Azimov imagined the planet Trantor in 1942.
With a land surface of 194,000,000 km² (75,000,000 miles², 130% of Earth land area) Trantor was entirely enclosed in artificial domes. Development stretched deep underground, and was home to a population of 45,000,000,000 (45 billion) human inhabitants and a population density of 232 people per km² (600 per mile²), similar to the current population density of Germany or Connecticut but well below that currently of Shanghai at 995 people per km². Its population was devoted almost entirely to either administration or maintenance of the planet itself, including energy provided by "heatsinks" (geothermal core taps) and production of food via underground farming and yeasts, produced entirely with care provided by robots called tik-toks, whilst nearby planets supplied food which the world-city could not grow for itself.
Doxiadis also created a scenario based on the traditions and trends of urban development of his time, predicting at first a European "eperopolis" ("continent city") which would be based on the area between London, Paris, Rhine-Ruhr and Amsterdam.
China is intending to bring urbanisation rates up to 70 % in the next 30 years, from the current 50%. With about 20 other such urbanised mega-cities being proposed as the solution. Will such high metropolitan densities preclude the country's cities sprawling into one great eperopolis, as that presaged by Doxiadis, or will the vision of Azimov prove amazingly prescient?