Building Strong Cities in the People's Republic of China

Article | 3 April 2014

The economic rise and successful urbanization of the People's Republic of China (PRC) offers lessons for the rest of Asia and the Pacific, say ADB's Stefan Rau and Maria Pia Ancora. As part of ADB's South-South knowledge sharing support, the PRC Urban Knowledge Hub draws good practices in sustainable urban development from the PRC experience and disseminates them to other countries in the region.

Since embarking on a path of 'opening up and economic reforms' in 1978, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has successfully promoted industrialization and urbanization, leading to mass rural-urban migration. Between 1975 and 2012, 550 million citizens joined the country's urban population, raising the percentage of city residents to 52% from 17%. By 2030, it is expected that an additional 300 million rural residents will move to urban areas.

How would you describe the urbanization process in the PRC?

The PRC's urbanization policies went through four stages. The first phase focused on developing the three main coastal regions as industrial and urban service centers, namely the Beijing-Tianjin area, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Pearl River Delta Region. These regions have since developed into mega-agglomerations, with its main cities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, becoming global cities sustaining higher value, knowledge-based industries.

The resulting unbalanced urban system, however, triggered the second phase of urbanization policies. These promoted the development of second-tier Megacities and Metropolitan Cities in the country's central and western regions. As such, significant agglomeration economies emerged in Chongqing, Chengdu, Wuhan, Zhengzhou, Kunming, and other cities, attracting secondary and tertiary industries and migrants. National highway and high-speed rail systems provided connectivity that allowed for industrial relocation toward the west.

The third phase of urbanization policies was triggered by the challenges that coastal and inland agglomerations faced, such as lack of effective infrastructure, environmental degradation and pollution, as well as an increasing urban-rural income divide. Policies promoted the sustainable development of small and medium-sized cities, along with balanced urban-rural development. In this phase, planning low-carbon eco-cities based on key performance indicators became a new paradigm for developing new towns and districts.

"The PRC's newly released urbanization plan introduces a fourth phase of policies promoting a people-centered, environmentally sustainable urbanization."

The PRC's newly released urbanization plan introduces a fourth phase of policies promoting a people-centered, environmentally sustainable urbanization. This is a departure from old paradigms centered on GDP-growth. Among other things, the new policies aim to provide access to social security and services to 100 million migrant workers living in cities, support social housing, and address air and water pollution issues. A crucial issue is that the severity of air pollution is now driving large numbers of people away from the country's largest cities.

What was ADB's role in this process?

ADB has been a strategic partner to the PRC, supporting the urban sector with 42 loans totaling $4.6 billion. It has also provided $45.7 million in technical assistance, producing significant results in urban development, urban environment improvement, capacity development and formulation of actual policies.

In 2010, as part of a broader initiative to promote South-South knowledge sharing, ADB started a partnership with Tongji University's College of Architecture and Urban Planning, one of the country's leading institutions in the field. The ADB-Tongji Urban Knowledge Hub was established to share knowledge on sustainable urban development for the benefit of rapidly urbanizing countries in Asia and the Pacific.

What are the hub's activities?

The hub has identified priority challenges aligned with the national urban agenda.

Each year, one topic is selected for detailed assessments and good practice case studies. The studies are then presented and discussed with ADB project management officers, directly linking the hub with ADB lending operations. So far, four workshops have been held on urban development financing, urban and building energy efficiency, urban heritage preservation and revitalization, industrial area redevelopment, and wastewater management.

Last year's workshop on new towns and new districts development was organized with support from ADB's Regional Knowledge Sharing Initiative. It drew experts from the PRC, India, and Europe and had 140 participants. The hub established a best practices award, which was handed out at the event.

What are the future issues for the PRC Urban Knowledge Hub?

The urban knowledge hub will need to expand its South-South cooperation activities and continue to provide expertise especially in light of the PRC's new urban agenda. The hub should among others address the impacts of the country's new social and environmental policies, as well as how to manage and reduce air and water pollution. Establishing environmental zoning to guide urban development and promote land use efficiency and reducing demand for land, transportation and energy will also be activity areas. Finally, the challenges of strengthening institutions and horizontal communications in administrations of cities and agglomerations will also be addressed.