Tufts University Professor Weiping Wu Presents on China’s Urban Migration
World Resources Institute (WRI) is focusing the next World Resources Report on the challenge of creating productive, sustainable and equitable cities. As part of this initiative, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities invites eminent practitioners and researchers to present their work in a series of seminars. The WRI Cities Research Seminar Series is intended to engage important stakeholders, partners and thought leaders to share ideas and collaborate with us as we continue to develop the World Resources Report. All presentations are recorded, and short video interviews are available here.
The pace and scope of China’s recent urbanization has been unprecedented. In 1980, only 19.4 percent of China’s population lived in urban areas. By 2010, this number had risen to 51 percent. This change has brought numerous challenges to Chinese cities, from traffic congestion and air pollution to insufficient basic services and urban sprawl. What’s driving the country’s rapid urbanization and how is it affecting urban residents in China?
Dr. Weiping Wu, Professor and Chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, looks to answer these questions in her research — which she presented on February 4, 2016 at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Migration Is Driving the Growth of China’s Cities
Unlike many countries, explained Dr. Wu, China is unique in that urbanization is largely the result of migration from rural areas to cities, rather than sheer population growth. Since the late 1970s, more than 200 million people have moved to cities, mostly in the central and eastern parts of the country. For example, migrants accounted for about 8 percent of Shanghai’s population in 1990. By 2010, that number had grown to 39 percent. These migrants have been mostly men seeking job opportunities in cities, but unlike migrants in many other urbanizing regions around the world, China’s new city dwellers are predominantly from rural areas within the same province and retain close ties to their families, communities and assets back home.
A Changing Urban Landscape
Dr. Wu pointed out how China’s cities are beginning to cluster together, resembling many other metropolitan regions around the world, like the Eastern Corridor connecting Boston and Washington, DC in the United States and the area surround Tokyo in Japan. Clusters of cities around Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong are drawing significant foreign investment and will likely serve as hotbeds of innovation and services in the future—but they may also have the greatest environmental impact.
China’s recent urbanization has impacted how people interact with each other in cities and where they live in relation to one another. China has a rich history of compact, walkable neighborhoods where residents lived in the same place where they worked. Particularly common in small and medium cities, these state-owned compounds fostered a sense of close-knit community, and travel beyond the compound tended to be for non-work purposes. However, this began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when the national government replaced the compounds with a “commodified,” or semi-privatized, system. The new system, in which local governments are involved in providing low-income and affordable housing but allow rents to be set at market prices, has led to significant private real estate development and uncoordinated urban growth.
This has resulted in more fragmented cities that are divided by socio-economic status. This division is largely driven by the question of local vs. non-local status, as longtime urban residents enjoy many benefits—including a range of basic services like heating and clean water—as a result of their local status, whereas migrants do not. Instead, migrants concentrate in largely undeveloped urban “villages” outside the city center and disconnected from affluent areas with commercial housing. However, while local policies toward migrants have generally improved in recent years, most migrants continue to be quite mobile, floating between work-related housing throughout the metropolitan region. Since many own housing back in their rural villages, they forgo home ownership in their new urban homes. As Dr. Wu pointed out, most migrants are “cash poor, yet asset rich.”
The Future of Chinese Cities
In the coming years and decades, cities will likely become more fragmented by socio-economic class both within and across Chinese cities. Investment will be focused on strategically-located clusters of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and the area around Hong Kong. With low labor costs causing manufacturing to move south to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, these metropolitan regions are adjusting to a more services-driven and innovative economy. Within cities, the recent changes to the housing sector are driving people to locate based on socio-economic status. The question is—how will national and local governments respond?
Watch further resources from the WRI Cities Seminar Series with Professor Wu: