> topics > Sociology

Big city blues: Fixing China’s megacities

HU YUNING | 2017-11-02
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Mumbai is the most populous city in India and the 4th most populous city in the world, with a urban population of about 22.8 million in 2017. One hundred years ago just two out of 10 people on Earth lived in cities. Today more than half the world’s population lives in cities. By the middle of this century, seven out of 10 people will be urban dwellers, according to Hot Spots 2025, a report prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit for Citibank.


China is experiencing rapid industrialization and urbanization. The urbanization rate reached 57.35 percent in 2016 and the resulting problems of crowding, transportation, housing and environment are increasingly obvious, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and other major cities.

According to the Shanghai Statistical Yearbook 2016, most of Shanghai’s resources, elements and functions are concentrated in the area within the outer ring. Occupying only one-tenth of the metropolitan region, the area is presenting megacity problems in such areas as housing and transportation.

This phenomenon is not unique to China. It is the outcome of urbanization, and many other major cities in the world are facing similar problems, including London, New York and Tokyo. Urgent action is needed to tackle these problems.


Rational concentration
Megacity problems have both explicit and implicit expressions. Explicitly, they are seen in the influx of people who are attracted to the concentration of industries and resources. For one thing, this results in traffic and rising housing prices due to a shortage of available units.

Also, high population density will test the capacity of the city and produce pollution. Moreover, it also poses challenges to infrastructure, taxing water, electricity, coal and other resources. 
Implicit megacity problems refer to disparities in access to housing, elder care and health services between people with city hukou and rural hukou as well as between people with hukou of the residing city and those without.

These inequities in civil rights are an obstacle to the training and retention of skilled industrial workers. They also harm social stability and development.

Megacity problems are the outcome of urbanization but not an inevitable result of it. Germany, one of the highly populated countries in Europe, is one such exception. It has a 90 percent urbanization rate but none of the megacity problems.

During the urbanization process, the country gradually developed different cities with varied styles and scales based on the inherent advantages of each.

For example, Berlin is the cultural and industrial center, Hamburg is a harbor city and center of trade, Munich is a city of exhibitions and breweries, Stuttgart is the motor city, and Frankfurt is the financial center.

There are no great disparities in infrastructure, job opportunities, social security systems, healthcare and educational resources, so people have no motivation to crowd into any one city and form a megacity, hence bringing about megacity problems.

Urbanization is the inevitable outcome of industrialization. Progress of industrialization will concentrate industrial personnel into an area and the city will expand in scale. A city’s population and industrial capacity should match the local resources and environment.

Quality resources and city functions should be rationally allocated based on the correct positioning of each city. If not, the city will expand in scale, causing a contradiction between population and resources as well as environment, then the megacity problems are sure to come.

Though urbanization started later in China, it developed quickly. Some cities endowed with resources rapidly attracted industries, population, resources and functions, and became megacities and even super cities. High-speed urbanization gives rise to megacity problems. 

Satellite towns, transit
Major foreign cities like New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Jakarta are all facing megacity problems. Countries are exploring ways out. Fundamental measures include relocation of industries, returning people to where their residence is registered, and transferring nonessential functions out of megacities. To be specific, the following are feasible measures.

The first is to build sub-centers and new cities around the core city. Sub-centers and new cities can take on some of the nonessential functions of the core city and serve to expand the city’s capacity.

One example is London in the early 20th century. In order to relieve the pressure of London as the capital, two new cities—Letchworth and Welwyn—were built to take over some non-capital functions from London. Then in the 1960s, three other cities were built to act as “antimagnetic attraction centers.”

Tongzhou and Xiongan are now developing to serve the same functions, i.e., to take pressure off the capital Beijing.

The second measure is to develop satellite cities and towns in the suburb. A satellite city or town is a small city or town on the edge of a major city that has supporting industries, job opportunities, well-equipped residences and public facilities.

The relatively low price of land in satellite cities and towns is attractive to enterprises, which will create more job opportunities and then form an area with the complete functions of a central city.
There are such towns in Germany, the United States, France and Switzerland. They have a better environment than core cities and they can play a role in the global economy.

When working and living conditions in these places with adequate industries, healthcare, education, and other services are better than those in major cities, the population will flow into these cities and towns and thus relieve the pressure of major cities.

The last is to further improve the transportation network and infrastructure by building intercity railways, subways, expressways, rapid transit and more. Through a transportation network leading in all directions, major cities, sub-cities and satellite towns can be connected, and then the connection spreads to suburbs and surrounding cities.


Long-term planning
Building satellite cities and towns with industries, culture, tourist attractions and housing capacity is essential in China. Through transferring industries, population and public facilities from megacities to these places, the whole layout of a region can be altered.

Surrounding the central city, satellite cities and towns offer an independent space for living and work, avoiding common problems of traffic congestion, environmental degradation and housing shortage in the process of city development. Nevertheless, long-term planning is needed to ensure the functions of satellite cities and towns to are realized. 

Satellite cities and towns should be chosen at the rural–urban fringe because it is suitable for the transfer of the non-core functions of megacities as well as of population, capital, technology and other elements. According to international experience, an area 30 to 50 kilometers away from the central city is the most desirable for building satellite cities and towns.

Infrastructure supports the progress of cities and society, and it is also the foundation for the sustainable, stable and healthy development of satellite cities and towns. In addition to water supply, heating, gas, roads, sewage treatment and garbage disposal, these cities and towns should also make long-term plans for health services, education and housing.

This is the basis for guaranteeing the capacity and quality of satellite cities as well as for receiving functions from central cities and accommodating population.

Satellite cities and towns vary in terms of functions they serve. These functions are decided based on their own conditions and historical traditions as well as practical needs. At the same time, targeted policy supply is necessary to ensure the functions of satellite cities and towns.

In addition to city governance, China’s planning for satellite cities and towns also contributes to industrial transformation and upgrading as well as urban-rural integration.


Hu Yuning is from the College of Philosophy, Law and Political Science and Shanghai Normal University.