The geographer Danny Dorling explained a lot of truths about cities and population growth by doing no more than logically looking at the facts and objectively forecasting the outcomes. The world as he – and the facts – saw it, would not grow far beyond nine or ten billion people and a city, hinterland included, would generally not expand much beyond 32 million people. That hinterland could be quite extensive, encompassing other large cities within it. Greater Tokyo including Yokohama and Greater London extending to all of southern England with cities like Cardiff, Bristol and Cambridge included.

Generally speaking, this appears to be a sound template, but he did not account for Xi Jinping declaring himself the lifetime President of China and encouraging (i.e. mandating) an adjusted approach. Changes in China have also been driven by the speed of growth, as much as how the government wishes to manage such a huge territorial area. Also, in some areas China displays some of the infrastructure development foreseen by Dorling to make the large city work within its hinterland. So, China is going to have thirteen “city clusters” – roughly united areas that will be really huge. Three in particular – the Yangtze River Delta around Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta which includes Hong Kong and Macao, and the JingJinji Megalopolis based on Beijing – will range from 70 million to 150 million each.

Dorling has been busy on other projects and has not updated his thinking, but what is clear is that the Chinese type of infrastructure does allow a city and its hinterland to function in a cohesive way. We had seen that around Tokyo and in areas in Europe such as the Netherlands and Germany, but were not so sure it would replicate globally. For instance, in Chonqqing – a modern city of about 8 million but designated as a metropolitan zone of 32 million – the infrastructure remains poor. Nevertheless, China has decided Chonqqing needs to be linked with Chengdu, to which it is now linked by a frequent bullet train that takes less than 2 hours and nearer 1 hour if you choose to go on the fastest. The new combined city cluster is already not far off 100 million people.

As cities grow the countryside empties
The opposite aspect to this rapid urbanisation is depopulation in the countryside. We are seeing it in other parts of the world where the population is ageing. Japan and eastern Europe are probably the worst, as a general opposition to immigration is combined with a fast aging population, but many other places like Spain and Portugal have to be included. Often, as can be seen in places like Lisbon or London, the cities are thriving and attracting young people, despite the complexity of lower salaries with higher cost of living. The villages become populated by retirees, holiday homes and the left-behind.

For the leather industry, everywhere in the world, it is this outer landscape that is of interest. It is clear that getting acceptance of very high-density farming of livestock will be difficult, despite the fact that it has been shown that dairy cattle kept indoors are as happy as those on grass. My feeling is that to win the battle over keeping animals to produce meat and dairy products, our farmers will increasingly have to focus on the use of long term grassland and the minimum of other inputs. This will allow them to promote good soil, high levels of carbon sequestration, creating the best environments for biodiversity allied with strong resilience against floods and droughts, all along with the great PR that comes from the animals being visible, eating grass.

Linked to their presence on appropriate land in every one of these major city zones throughout the world – 32 million or larger – a major tannery should be nearby, able to handle the vast majority of the hides and skins fresh; certainly without salting, if at all possible. This does not mean the end of international trade, but it will reduce it and it should adjust to grades and qualities better used elsewhere, and probably part processed to reduce transport weights and volumes.

Shift towards an experience economy and rental model
Beyond changes in our raw material supply, which are likely to happen faster than we might expect, the growth of cities has many other societal and demographic implications for the leather industry. They are a proven cap on large families, regardless of culture or religion, since children are costly and difficult to manage in cities. In China, after ending the one child policy, the government is struggling to persuade couples to have a second child. In places like Tokyo, young people are disinterested in sex, apparently being overwhelmed by social media and on-line pornography. As an increasing proportion of the world’s children are born in cities, they are growing up without the connection to agriculture normal with previous generations.

The small houses and apartments in cities mean little room for possessions and entertainment, hence the steady shift towards an experience economy and a rental model. This is impacting the transport sector also, since car ownership in cities is largely being priced out with heavy investment being put back into public transport. Older generations wanted a flashy automobile, younger ones would rather own a terraced house.

All this may be overwhelmed by one more concern, which is that employment in the cities is all about service and creative industries and is alien to manufacturing and factories. While in some parts of the west there is a nostalgia about the “factory system”, even to the extent that it gets Presidents elected, they have a very mixed history. The leather industry is likely to have to work even harder in the future to attract employees and to persuade society that manufacturing and factories are valid enterprises.

Dr Mike Redwood
April 24, 2019
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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