Urban transformations in China

With an estimated 350 million new urban residents projected over the next two decades, the speed of China’s urban expansion is unprecedented. From innovative planning and increased prosperity to social upheaval and environmental trauma, the challenges and opportunities are profound – and will significantly determine the country’s wellbeing for generations to come.

More broadly, China’s urbanization will likely play a major role in shaping a global future where cities are more important than ever as hubs of growth and change. Already, the lessons and experiments being applied within the country are being adapted elsewhere in Asia and exported across the world. Increasingly, too, China is where some of the leading international urban planners and developers are piloting their boldest ideas.

But while the physical symptoms of China’s urbanization are immediately evident, research on its complex effects on communities, environments and society at large remains limited. This is why a number of projects, jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), were launched earlier this year to improve current understanding of these challenges and support the development of stronger policy solutions.

As a result of migration, tens of millions of Chinese citizens relocate every year, primarily to urban areas in search of employment and improved prospects. Yet this large-scale national phenomenon, dramatic though it may be, also comprises a wide range of experiences at an individual level. While the move to the city can lead to a better life for many, others may find themselves in a precarious position in informal employment with little access to public services or wider social networks.

In this context, Mental health, Migration and the Chinese Mega-city examines Shanghai’s migrant populations and the implications of these shortfalls on mental wellbeing – a pressing issue in large cities in China and elsewhere that has yet to be fully explored. Nick Manning, the project’s principal investigator, explains that ‘the focus of the project is to understand the way urban living triggers and mitigates the impact of the urban form on social distress, as well as inform the development of new interventions’. Moreover, he adds that ‘with China’s first mental health law approved in 2012, and the publication of the related 2014 National Mental Health Work Plan, we are in a strong position to link our work on migrant mental health to a significant national priority’.

Through an extensive process of interviewing and first-hand data collection, the researchers aim to develop a better understanding of the mental health of urban migrants in Shanghai, with important implications for the design of future policies there and in other urban areas. ‘We found migrants in Shanghai suffer from both socio-economic and institutional constraints in every aspect of their life that have mental-wellbeing implications,’ says Manning. ‘However, rather than viewing migrants as a homogeneous group, their life and experiences are highly diversified, complicated and context-specific – far from being passive recipients of constraints and discrimination, they actively seek various coping strategies to deal with their situation’. By creating realistic, accurate portrayals of migrant struggles, the project aims to help destigmatise the city’s rural migrants.

While the speed of its urbanisation has had devastating environmental impacts, China is also notable for investment in a variety of pioneering initiatives to encourage more sustainable urban growth. Though this has included some high-profile failures, due in part to the experimental nature of many developments, it has nevertheless led to a steep learning curve with many positive examples of good practice that may be replicated more widely in the years to come.

In this context, with millions of new housing units to be built as part of the country’s New Urbanisation Plan, Eco-Urbanisation: Promoting Sustainable Development in Metropolitan Regions of China aims to enhance the current understanding of sustainable urban development in the country, with a particular focus on the rapidly expanding Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Metropolitan Region. Through an extensive examination of the impacts of urbanisation on the environment and social wellbeing in the region, the project will provide a robust evidence base to assess and develop more resource efficient forms of urban growth.

‘Major work is currently ongoing to conceptualise the complex relationships between urban development and its impact on the sustainability of the urban ecosystem,’ Cecilia Wong, the project’s principal investigator, explains. The integration of community level living style data, with pilot studies underway, to the modelling of the sustainability performance of the metropolitan region, will provide an innovative approach to spatial modelling. ‘The findings will generate policy insights to inform planning and decision-making, particularly with regard to landuse strategy and spatial development patterns at different spatial levels.’

Tianjin-projectHowever, China’s future cities must not only be environmentally sustainable, but socially sustainable too. The effects of mass migration, seismic social change and the extraordinary transformation of its economy to cities, particularly at a local level, has been sweeping. While the country’s urban boom has enriched many, resulting in a greatly expanded middle class, others have been increasingly marginalised by these developments.

The Re-Making of Chinese Urban Neighbourhoods: Socio-Spatial Transformation and Access to Public Services, a multidisciplinary project focusing on Chengdu, Hangzhou and Tianjin as case studies, seeks to examine current urbanisation processes in China from the perspective of the neighbourhood, and therefore to better understand the processes of migration, social and spatial differentiation that are shaping neighbourhood inequalities and access to public services.  With inequalities widening in many cities, the findings will provide policy makers with an invaluable data source to guide more equitable urban growth.

According to Ya Ping Wang, the project’s principal investigator, ‘the conjoined processes of migration, rising middle class consumption, and property development are reconfiguring urban space, social class and ways of living in Chinese cities.’ As new neighbourhood types are emerging, from the inner districts of the urban poor and former state-owned enterprise worker quarters, to migrant enclaves of “urban villages” at the suburban urban-rural interface and affluent gated residential enclaves, these disparities are becoming more evident than ever before. ‘These transformations,’ says Wang, ‘are leading to a rapid rise in spatial inequalities, but also in access to public services such as social housing, education and healthcare.’

Together, this portfolio of projects will help answer some of the most pressing challenges for China’s future cities. By the end of 2018, when all three projects will draw to a close, they will have added significantly to existing research on migration, environmental sustainability and equitable development.