Sunday, 26 July 2015 15:34

The State of China's Cities

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Since the economic reforms began in 1978, China’s urban residents have increased by over 500 million. We now have an English version of China’s own State of the Chinese Cities 2012-13 report. It claims that “China has entered a new path of sustainable urbanization with its characteristics such as integration and coordination of urban and rural areas, interactive development between industries and cities, saving and intensive use of natural resources, ecological and liveable environment, and harmonious development.”

The urbanization strategy

China has a strategy for urbanization. Not all countries do. Intellectually the strategy is rooted in the concept of agglomeration economies, or as the report puts it “the objective law of urban development”. China aims to use the large cities to drive the development of small and intermediate sized cities around them. The urban agglomeration with strong regional functions is the building block of the economic transformation. It is a model that is anathema to the urban containment traditions within planning that are still strong in many parts of the world.

The intention is build “urban agglomerations with better international competitiveness in the eastern region, and to cultivate and develop urban agglomerations in central and western regions where conditions allow.” In European terms (there is a formal EU-China Partnership on Urbanization) this is a polycentric approach to development. As in Germany, for example, the settlements at the second and third tiers in the hierarchy have important roles to play. It contrasts with mono-centric structures where the capital city region dominates political and economic development. In the last decade growth has slowed in China’s biggest urban regions but accelerated in agglomerations elsewhere, e.g. in inland and more remote cities.

A National Zoning of Major Functioning Regions was enacted in 2011. It regulates “the population distribution, geographic spread of economic activities, state-owned land use and urbanization patterns according to the resource and the environmental carrying capacity, current development strength and development potentials in different regions.” It also sets “the scope, function positioning, development orientation and regional policies for major functional zones.”

Rural to urban migration

China’s welfare policies have failed to adjust to the pace and scale of rural to urban migration. After 1949 welfare was sharply divided between urban and rural areas, with entitlements tied to a person’s official place of residence. It would be difficult to design a less appropriate system for a rapidly urbanising society. In these circumstances, considerable ingenuity was needed to make urbanisation possible. This has taken many forms, most notably the idea that rural residents can move “temporarily” to urban areas while still being denied full urban rights. Many are housed in high rise “urban villages” developed in what are classed to be “rural” areas that once stood outside the city but have now been engulfed in its spread. These are often developed to low standards in terms of construction and public services, while in the countryside there are “hollow villages” with a dwindling and ageing population.

In Shunde City, Guangdong Province, for example, the total population increase from 1998 to 2008 was 653,000, a rise of 46.4%. Of these only 149,000 were households with formal registration rights in the city, an increase of 14.2 %. In contrast, the population without household registration in Shunde increased by 504,000 (142.2%).

Something like 85% of the current generation of “rural migrants” have never worked in agriculture. The State of the Cities report recognises that these “rural” dwellers are indeed long-term urban residents. They make up more than half of the workforce in sectors that are vital to the urban and economic transformation of China – urban manufacturing and processing, construction, and services including sanitation, housekeeping and catering.

The report promises that “Great efforts will be made to enhance the equal access to basic public services with a view to attracting rural migrant workers to settle down in urban areas, to facilitate the urban residentialization of the rural migrant workers and the orderly settlement of qualified rural migrant workers in their places of employment, to rationally guide these population flows, optimize the distribution of rural migrant workers over cities and towns, and to promote sharing of benefits of reform and urban development.”

Environmental problems low carbon and eco-cities

The report is also frank in acknowledging the environmental problems that have come with rapid urban industrial growth. “In some key basins and coastal areas, water pollution is severe; in some regions and cities smog is a serious problem, and mission of major pollutants exceeds environmental capacity in many regions.” The main grain producing areas and the areas suitable for urban construction overlap.

A key part of the response is to develop low carbon and eco-cities. Shenzhen has been chosen as the first model city. The plan includes green architecture, public transport, ecological protection, environmental improvements, solid waste recycling, water management and industrial restructuring. In the very different environment of the Gobi Desert, Turpan New District in Xinjiang is focusing on solar energy. The project there will combine “the fields of urban planning, green architecture, climate forecast, smart micro-grid and green transport, (and) will establish a new energy system and management model featured by integrated solar energy utilization and building complexes, with the largest scale and the most comprehensive technological integration in China.”

Of course, in developing low carbon approaches to urban development, China is acutely aware of the huge potential that there is in global markets for such technologies and products. A planned approach to development is not “an anchor on enterprise”, rather a means of growing market opportunities.

Public participation

Of course, developers in China have not been subjected to the frustrations associated with local democracy and the capacity of local objectors to stall or even overturn projects. It is therefore interesting to see that there is a section on public participation in the report. It acknowledges that there has been a “weak organisational basis” for public participation in the past, but heralds a “new stage”.

It reports that in Beijing there is now “face-to-face interaction between planning professionals, representatives from neighborhood committees and community residents.” Meanwhile Shenzhen has initiated “the Program of Community Planner Participation, and effectively promoted the public participation in community planning.” Furthermore, “during the protection and transformation of the Ahuo community in the old towns of Kashgar, the local government has abandoned the traditional practice of taking charge of everything, and encouraged each resident to participate in the design under the guidance of architects, allowing the residents to experience the I-am-the-master-on-my-land situation.” There has even been the start of rural planning for the first time in China. In 2010 Chengdu sent out the first 50 planners to rural areas. They “were not only the publicity agents, participants and technology reviewers of village and town plans, but also the bridge between villagers’ expression of opinions and government decision-making.


Planning in most countries is a local function defined by national legislation. Regulation of development and local politics dominate the practice. It is not surprising therefore that most planners have little interest in what goes on outside their local patch. Readers of this World View blog are exceptions to this rule, but in a globalised world where innovation is so important for economic development, this parochial vision is a serious, possibly fatal handicap to the profession. Similarly, there are well-meaning planners in the global North who assume that an international outlook means finding ways to “help” their professional colleagues in rapidly urbanising countries to “progress” towards a set of planning practices that are current in the UK, US, or whatever happens to be their own country. This again is a flawed understanding of planning in today’s world.

China is so important now and to our future that the state of its cities should be the source of global professional interest and debate. The challenges China is grappling with – notably those of equity within the city, using urbanisation to create jobs and growth, while managing the environmental consequences – are issues that planning practice everywhere needs to address

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