Unprecedented pace of urbanization presents challenges and opportunities to China, says 2013 National Human Development Report

27 Aug 2013

China’s accelerating urbanisation is approaching a critical stage, and how this is managed will have wide ramifications for the outcomes of many of China’s present development challenges, according to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in China’s 2013 National Human Development Report (NHDR), launched today in Beijing.

“The battle against climate change, the fight against inequalities, and the response to a rapidly ageing population – to mention a few – will depend on measures taken within the context of China’s burgeoning cities,” argues the report, entitled Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilisation.

“China is experiencing urbanisation at a speed and scale that is unprecedented in human history”, said Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator, at the report launch in Beijing. The report states that in 2011, there were more people living in China’s cities than in its countryside for the first time, when only six decades earlier a mere 10 per cent lived in an urban setting. “By comparison, this same demographic transition took 150 years to occur in Europe and 210 years in Latin America,” said Clark.

According to the report, the urban population is forecast to grow by an additional 310 million people to 70% of the total population by 2030. By this point, over one billion Chinese people will live in cities.

This presents both significant challenges and opportunities to China’s leadership, as they have a short window of time to make the policy decisions that will guide the country through this social evolution. It is for this reason that UNDP decided to focus on urbanisation for the 2013 NHDR, being both timely and of great importance.

“Sustainable human development is about enlarging people’s choices by expanding their capabilities and opportunities in ways that are sustainable from economic, social and environmental points of view, benefiting the present without compromising the future. We believe urbanisation should be guided by the same principle”, said Clark.

Framed in the context of urbanisation, the 2013 NHDR examines the interconnectivity between China’s economic, social and environmental challenges, and stresses that all three are pillars contributing to the government’s focus on human development.

According to this report, China’s urbanisation comes at a critical time on all three fronts, with pressures accumulating in matters such as the efficient use of natural and energy resources, the development of urban governance systems, employment, transportation, housing and access to basic social services, security, the livelihoods of migrant workers, an ageing population, structural economic transformation, and air and water pollution. How urbanisation is managed in China will determine the outcome of many of these challenges.

The concept of Ecological Civilization has been adopted by the country’s leadership. Premier Li Keqiang stated in March 2013 that the new model of urbanisation should be human-centred and should ensure the prosperity of the people.

“The vision and principle of eco-civilisation should be fully integrated into the whole process of urbanisation, and we should take a new urbanisation path which is intensive, smart, green and low-carbon,” said Wang Weiguang, President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) during the launch event. The report is a joint effort between UNDP and the Institute of Urban and Environmental Studies of CASS.

Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilisation reports a host of findings and policy recommendations concerned with China’s management of urbanisation. Highlights include:

- By 2030, cities will be home to 70 per cent of China’s population and generate 75 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product.

- Given the current state of affairs in the country, a fine balance will have to be struck compromising between the speed and quality of urbanisation.

- Strong governance mechanisms and institutions for implementation are required to allow the policies needed to act on increasingly complex urban challenges to be successful.

- Because of the magnitude and speed of the changes underway in China, the window of opportunity for addressing many of the associated challenges is relatively small.

- Select demographic groups such as migrant workers and the ageing population will require particular attention, as their participation in the urbanisation process will be of especial importance.

- It is also important that sensitivity for China’s cultural heritage be maintained, and the Report stresses the significance of cultural planning for urban sustainability and liveability.   

The report also draws attention to the opportunities created by urbanisation in China. It argues that urbanisation can accelerate the modernisation process and economic structure upgrading, and be the strategic focus in changing the country’s development profile from a GDP-focused export-orientated economy to a more stable, human development-based one.

The 2013 UNDP China NHDR
Sustainable and Liveable Cities: Toward Ecological Civilization

Framed in the context of urbanisation, the 2013 National Human Development Report examines the interconnectivity between China’s economic, social and environmental challenges, and stresses that all three are pillars contributing to the government’s focus on human development.

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