Endless cities: will China’s new urbanisation just mean more sprawl?
The announcement that new megacity Xiongan will be built near Beijing is the latest attempt to take pressure off China’s biggest metropolises. Can it work?
Wu Shuhua sells flowers from the back of her bicycle in the pleasant, tree-lined streets of Shanghai’s Xuhui district. Originally from a village in neighbouring Jiangsu province, Wu came to the wealthy eastern city for its abundant economic opportunities.
But it isn’t easy to make it big in Shanghai without education or connections. There are many flower sellers in the city — two other regulars work the same street — and most days Wu positions her bike on a strategic corner and waits patiently for customers.
She is one of almost 10 million rural migrants in Shanghai, part of the world’s most rapid urbanisation, moving almost 500 million rural Chinese people into cities over the last 35 years. China now has more than 600 cities, many of which were small towns just a few decades ago.
In April, the government announced plans to create Xiongan, an enormous new city 60 miles south of Beijing which sits within the Jing-Jin-Ji urban megaregion. While details are still emerging about the future of Xiongan, reports envisage a city that will grow to three times the size of New York. It will incorporate universities, institutions and residents from the capital, helping alleviate pressure on housing and public services — although not before prompting an initial land-buying frenzy in the area cited for development.
The scale of the new city clusters makes them different from any existing form of urbanisation, according to Alain Bertaud, urban planner and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanisation Project. The sprawling northern megaregion Jing-Jin-Ji is designed to hold 110 million people and merge outer parts of Beijing, Hebei and Tianjin.
First announced in 2014, the Jing-Jin-Ji region is already said to account for 10% of China’s GDP, with many factories and manufacturing hubs being relocated to the new cluster. A new $36bn (£28bn) rail plan and 600 miles of new track for Jing-Jin-Ji was approved in December, with plans for high-speed trains to connect the outlying cities of the new megaregion to central Beijing on a 30-minute commute.
He Lifeng, director of China’s national development and reform commission, said in March that Jing-Jin-Ji would help distribute wealth that had been sucked into Beijing to the areas surrounding the capital — many of which are still impoverished villages. He told reporters: “Beijing’s air pollution, water shortage, traffic jams and other urban ailments are the result of it having take on too many urban functions that are not essential to the capital.”
For the last four decades, urbanisation in China has been centred on export demand, cheap labour and low pricing. But now as more than half of the population lives in a city, and the country is moving to a consumption-driven economy, there is nervousness around how to manage runaway megacities.
“Urbanisation didn’t happen because the government wanted the country to urbanise — they even kept the hukou[household registration system] in order to slow it down,” says Bertrand. “The economy asked for it, and the people voted with their feet. The government have had to cope with urbanisation rather than it being a deliberate policy decision. In a way, they are paying the price of this rapid urbanisation now.”
The country already has at least 15 megacities (defined as cities with more than 10 million residents) and expects several more urban centres to reach megacity status, as it predicts the urbanisation rate to increase another 10% by 2020. The central government’s National Plan on New Urbanisation for 2014–2020 outlines 11 “urban clusters” (regions incorporating multiple cities and smaller towns) to receive additional investment. The largest will be Jing-Jin-Ji; the region around Chengdu and Chongqing (projected population of 60 million); the Yangtze Delta cluster around Shanghai (around 90 million); and the Yangtze River Middle Reaches cluster around Wuhan (projected population 29 million).
The government hopes that developing integrated clusters of cities — rather than simply focusing new infrastructure investment on large monocentric metropolises — will alleviate pressure on overcrowded and overstretched cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Planners also point out that building new cities is a chance to redistribute wealth from the crowded eastern cities, with plans for new clusters in the western province of Guizhou, for example.
The urban clusters will get infrastructure to build fast rail transport that allows people to commute large distances quickly, and investment to develop the second/third/fourth-tier cities in that region to hold devolved functions from the main city — such as moving universities out of Beijing to Xiongan.
Both Shanghai and Beijing have unveiled urban plans that involve capping the size of their cities by 2020: Beijing at 23 million and Shanghai at 25 million (both cities are already close to their self-proclaimed optimal size). But the “urban cluster” strategy means it will only be possible to limit the size of major cities like these by developing the areas around them into megaregions.
The Chinese government’s plan also details proposals to integrate smaller cities and towns together into new city structures, hoping to draw rural migrants away from those already struggling with large populations.
Starting from scratch can also be easier. Dr Yan Song, director of the programme on Chinese cities at the University of North Carolina, points out that many cities, such as Beijing, were framed around a socialist ideology, including organised work and housing units (danwei). Existing infrastructure has restricted the development of modern, market-led cities, which require financial centres, commuting routes and residential areas. But, she suggests, these obstacles can still be largely solved with adequate urban planning policies.
“Planners had a lot of historical traditions and restrictions to work with in Beijing, and this made it harder to have more efficient distribution of urban functions,” she says. “But all these problems can be solved — look at Seoul or Tokyo, both megacities with a bigger population, but very well managed. The problem is not population size, it’s a problem of poor urban management.”
Part of China’s challenge is how to integrate new urban residents and provide enough services. Many migrants, even after a decade in a city, are still seen as newcomers, largely because the restrictive hukou system keeps people classified as rural. Around 500,000 school age children live in Shanghai with parents from the countryside, but are largely unable to access the city’s education system. Shanghai schools often hold as many as 45 students per class, and has restrictions on migrant children to protect valuable places.
“Places for migrant children are limited, and many children of migrant workers are not able to get into any school,” says Corinne Hua, founder of the charity Stepping Stones, which provides education for migrant children. “This includes the majority of middle school students, as there are very few middle schools for migrant children, and hardly any children of migrant workers are able to meet the entrance requirements to attend high school.”
Experts have warned, however, that restricting Beijing’s population growth could hit the poorest migrants in these cities the hardest. More than 300 wholesale markets have already been moved out of Beijing to the new district, in a bid from the government to move the workers out of the capital too.
A way of povetry
Urbanisation in China is not always a fair process, particularly for those who don’t want to relocate. “Ideally you’d get people involved, and give them a say about what happens in their home towns,” says Song, “this is not the case in most Chinese cities. Younger farmers are usually happy if the compensation is right; the people who are least happy are those aged 40 to 50. It’s really hard for them to learn new skills if they lose their farmland, and they don’t adapt to urban life like younger farmers do.”
The Paulson Institute estimates more than 200 million villagers have been reclassified as urban residents because their land was developed as urban land.
Bertaud recalls being sceptical when shown the original plan for Shenzhen, the former fishing village which has become one of China’s richest cities. “I told them, ‘You are being too ambitious,’” he laughs. “But it was a misreading on my part to underestimate the enormous ability of China to get these things done.”
The Pearl River Delta — the region encompassing Shenzhen and nearby Guangzhou — now has a population equal to the size of the UK, and is being compared with the government’s new city plans. Although many are quick to point out phenomenal differences between today and 1980s China, Xiongan could still mirror some of Shenzhen’s success.
“Urbanisation in China is unavoidable and it is desirable,” adds Bertaud. “There’s no way to get people out of poverty without urbanisation. The question is really whether they do it well or not.”