Amid a clutter of 24-hour arc lights, gigantic cranes and dumper trucks, a behemoth is rising out of a field of churned mud on the outskirts of Chengdu in south-west China. Commuters skirt its vast perimeter fence on their way to the new metro link that cuts under the city. They barely glance at what looks like just another huge construction project in a cityscape that changes every month.
This project, though, is different. When finished later this year, its developers proudly boast, it will be the world’s largest standalone building. The New Century Global Centre is a leisure complex that will house two 1,000-room five-star hotels, an ice rink, a luxury Imax cinema, vast shopping malls and a 20,000-capacity indoor swimming pool with 400 metres of “coastline” and a fake beach the size of 10 football pitches complete with its own seaside village. Alongside will be another massive and futuristic structure, a contemporary arts centre designed by the award-winning Iraqi-born architect, Zaha Hadid.
The scale of the centre is a sign not just of the ambition of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, but a potential vision of the future. Last week Chinese authorities announced that for the first time more than half of the country’s population were living in cities, 690.79 million, an increase of 21 million, compared to 656.56 million rural dwellers. The new urban-rural balance was a benchmark attained by the UK in the late 19th century and the US in the first decades of the last century – in 1800, only 3% of the world’s people lived in cities. But the scale and speed of urbanisation across the developing world today are unprecedented – throwing up a string of megacities, from Jakarta to Istanbul, São Paulo to Cairo. Poor rural families flooding into the world’s urban population centres bring challenges that have never before been seen – nor met.