Chen Ronghui <em>Modern Shanghai</em> 2023, from the Megacities project, Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. This project is supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2022. Courtesy of the artist<br/>
© Ronghui Chen

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

The platitude that more than half of the world’s population live in cities at the start of the twenty-first century has captured the imagination of those working in governance, culture, architecture and urban design in recent years. Driven by unprecedented urban population growth, the phenomenon has also seen the emergence of new, dominant urban morphologies, which have altered the dynamics of how people live today and will live in the future. One key morphology is the megacity.

Megacities are defined as urban areas with over 10 million inhabitants.1 The expansion of this urban phenomenon has been rapid. In the 1950s there were only two megacities: Tokyo-Yokohama and New York City-Newark. By 1990 there were ten, including additions from South America and South and East Asia. By 2022 there were over thirty megacities, with Asia home to half of these. Rapid urbanisation in Africa may see the world’s biggest cities concentrated on that continent by 2100 – Lagos is predicted to become the world’s most populous city by then.

Megacities are defined by population, but the population data doesn’t tell the whole story. (And the data may not even be accurate: no-one is sure of how many people live in Lagos right now. The United Nations suggests it has almost 16 million residents; some organisations believe there are around 25 million.) Megacities are not only sites for future population growth – they also contest what constitutes a city of the future. The focus is shifting away from metropolises in Europe and North America to cities in South America, Asia and Africa. This geographical and cultural shift also shifts perceptions of what an urban future may look like. It does not, however, disrupt the fiction of Western superiority.2 The story of the megacity is often one of fear and prejudice told by the wealthy, or those who hold power through cultural and economic production in the West.

Despite the rise in the number of megacities in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the lens through which the megacity has been seen to date is a ‘Euro-American’ one, contends anthropologist Austin Zeiderman in his essay ‘Cities of the future? Megacities and the space/time of urban modernity’.3 He argues that the rise in the number of megacities has paralleled a rise in literature and film in the first decade of the twenty-first century that posits megacities as places on the brink of collapse, riddled with environmental degradation, traffic congestion, failing infrastructure and criminality. Zeiderman references Rana Dasgupta’s Parachute journal article ‘The sudden stardom of the Third World city’ to make this point. In the early 2000s, Dasgupta witnessed a shift in the Western perception of the city as it is portrayed in film, citing Secuestro Express (2005, set in Caracas) and City of God (2002, set in Rio de Janeiro), among other films released around that time, as two examples that received much media attention outside their countries or regions of production. In City of God, Rio’s favela slumlords take centrestage. In Secuestro Express, Caracas is dominated by uncontrolled street violence and extraordinary municipal corruption. According to Dasgupta, reel cities outside of the West tend to be portrayed as chaotic and unruly.

Scholar Ananya Roy calls out this cinematic representation of megacity-as-slum in her influential essay ‘Slumdog cities: rethinking subaltern urbanism’. In this paper, she critiques the film Slumdog Millionaire (2008) for its stereotypical portrait of poverty and inequality in Mumbai. Slumdog Millionaire tells the tale of Jamal Malik, a young man from the Dharavi slum of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on a program similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? In this film, directed by British filmmaker Danny Boyle, the slum is a colourful fabrication that boosts the rags-to-riches story of orphan Jamal – alongside carjacking, criminal syndicates and corrupt police that act as plot devices to propel its protagonist to (finally) get the girl in a Bollywood dance number. ‘It’s a white man’s imagined India’, remarked film studies professor Shyamal Sengupta, who was one of several Indian film critics that scorned the film for its monocultural depiction of Mumbai at the time.4 Roy agrees, arguing that the film reduces the cityscape to ‘poverty pornography’ and the complex and cosmopolitan Mumbai – and in complicity, the megacity – to a metonym for ‘slum’, the slum itself a metonym for violence, destitution and lawlessness. The megacity is unwittingly cast as a de facto dystopia.

The semantics of megacity-as-slum may be rooted in fiction, but they can still be dangerous. A city shown in a filmic context, writes architect Nezar AlSayyad, is a construct that is ‘not only that which appears on the screen, but also the mental city made by the medium of cinema, and subsequently re-experienced in the real private and public spaces of the city’.5 The fictional megacity-as-slum can have an effect on Western audiences by allowing them to project fears and fascinations onto particular cities and their inhabitants.

An underlying theme in the phantasmagoria of the megacity as a future-slum-for-everyone is not only that these cities are poor and violent, but that they are also unmanageable. This belief partly stems from observations of informal urbanism in many megacities – that is, a bottom-up urbanism choreographed by citizens that sits outside (topdown) government-led planning. Broadly, megacities can be seen as places without government rules, codes, laws and regulations for managing resources and shaping development. Also, this type of urbanism is seen as negative precisely because the idea of what constitutes a city is based on the epistemologies of Western cities.6 A call for more state-led regulation, development and intervention may actually be a call for these cities to model themselves on Western cities; this is underpinned by the colonial belief that Western urban planning can control the urban environment.

A lack of regulation may not be inherently bad: it can be a source of innovation. Study of informal urbanism has highlighted that a lack of regulation in the urban environment is positive as it means state authority is transcended or avoided, and an alternative model for urban development comes to the fore. Informality can infer resilience and creativity, where a strong sense of community and resourcefulness sees citizens develop their own solutions to problems such as access to water, sanitation and transportation. This logic shifts the thinking around urbanism, argues anthropologist James Ferguson: ‘Informalities that not long ago were automatically identified as symptoms, problems or monstrosities are today increasingly likely to be reinterpreted as assets, capacities, or opportunities’.7

Informal processes do not only exist in megacities. Ananya Roy insists that informal urbanisation is the purview of both the slum and suburb; informality transcends geographies, classes and time zones (though while the processes may be similar, how this informality plays out for poor and rich people will be very different). Therefore, the informal, fictional megacity is also a foreseen future for the West. Architect Rem Koolhaas forewarns of this in his study of Lagos, in which he notes, ‘Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.’8 He writes this in reference to observing the dynamic functioning of the city in spite of a lack of public services and amenities. A city seemingly without governance could be a city for everyone in the future.

While it is part of the championing of informality to try to combat the stereotype of a dystopian megacity and change that perception to one of a resilient metropolis, one should also be lucid about the fact that there is no inherent emancipatory power in informalisation. In fact, informality is entangled with structures of power, warns Ananya Roy.9 It is not only marginalised citizens that carry out informal activities – this is also the purview of state planning, argues urban geographer Ann Varley.10 She states that urban governance bodies may flout planning rules and regulations when it is convenient to do so. Synchronically, state-led organisations routinely regulate informal markets when this is in their interests.

The urban morphology of megacities, whether created through top-down or bottom-up processes, is an outcome of a political apparatus. This includes the inequity that global capitalism brings through development and underdevelopment, which is founded in colonisation. The seemingly orderly cities of the West are not simply a result of Western urban planning traditions. They are also an outcome of wealth accumulation through colonisation, with the forced exploitation of resources and people alongside the imposition of cultural values and practices that implies. These historical injustices continue to impact the social, economic and political realities of societies today, as well as the popular imaginary of the megacity.

The NGV Triennial 2023’s Megacities project offers a counterpoint to the myths of the megacity. Here, the story of the megacity is told by photographers who live in them: Yagazie Emezi (Lagos), Hana Gamal (Cairo), Gustavo Minas (São Paulo), Francisco Mata Rosas (Mexico City), Farhana Satu (Dhaka), Saumya Khandelwal (Delhi), Mikiko Hara (Tokyo), Chen Ronghui (Shanghai), Mas Agung Wilis Yudha Baskoro (Jakarta) and JT White (Seoul). Commissioned by the NGV, these artists have provided fifty photographs each to the NGV’s Multimedia team, which has produced a film that presents a critique of the imaginary megacity. It not only reveals the truths of the participating photographers, but by combining several megacities together, it also creates several fictional megamegacities – places that resist a single, simple definition.

In Megacities viewers witness enormous urban conglomerations as engines of cultural and social change from the street view. They also see the increased density and scale of urban environments; these material factors strengthen community bonds, which are vital for dealing with the complex and wicked problems that the planet faces in the twenty-first century. The mega-megacities revealed at the NGV Triennial prompt us to think about future inhabitation by contemplating how we perceive cities, through the lived experiences of those who reside in them.

Megacities has been commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. This project is supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2022.

DR TIMOTHY MOORE is a Curator, Contemporary Design and Architecture, National Gallery of Victoria.



UNDESA, ‘World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision’, United Nations, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, <>, accessed 3 May 2023.


The term ‘West’ typically refers to the countries of Western Europe and North America, including the United States, Canada and countries in the European Union, and other countries with similar cultural and political values, such as Australia.


Austin Zeiderman, ‘Cities of the future? Megacities and the space/ time of urban modernity’, Critical Planning, Summer 2008, pp. 23–39.


Mark Magnier, ‘Indians don’t feel good about “Slumdog Millionaire”’, 24 Jan. 2009, Los Angeles Times, <>, accessed 3 May 2023.


Nezar AlSayyad, Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real, Routledge, New York, 2006, p. 2.


Jennifer Robinson, ‘Global and world cities: a view from off the map’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 26, no. 3, 2008, pp. 531–54.


James Ferguson, ‘Formalities of poverty: thinking about social assistance in neoliberal South Africa’, African Studies Review, vol. 50, no. 2, 2007, pp. 74–5.


Rem Koolhaas et al., Mutations, ACTAR, Barcelona, 2000, p. 653.


Ananya Roy, ‘Why India cannot plan its cities: informality, insurgence and the idiom of urbanization’, Planning Theory, vol. 8, no. 1, 2009, pp. 76–87.


Ann Varley, ‘Postcolonialising informality?’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 31, no. 1, 2013, pp. 4–22.