Rebeca Grynspan: Speech at Chinese University of Hong Kong on Urbanization and Sustainable Development

Oct 19, 2013

Rebeca Grynspan,
UN Under-Secretary-General and UNDP Associate Administrator
Speech at Chinese University of Hong Kong
on Urbanization and Sustainable Development
Hong Kong SAR, China

I am pleased to join you here at the Chinese University of Hong Kong - a university renowned not only in Hong Kong and China but also throughout the world for its forward-looking, comprehensive research capacity, its global vision, and its mission to combine tradition with modernity, and bring together China and the West. I am especially gratified to have the opportunity to meet with talented young people from across Hong Kong and mainland China to talk about one of the most critical issues of our time: urbanization and sustainable development.

I chose to focus my remarks on urbanization and sustainable development because they are so important in our collective efforts to create a brighter future for all.
I will start by looking at the global context, demonstrating why the issue is important, and go on to review the challenges and issues in China that were analyzed in the national HDR which was launched in Beijing about a month ago by UNDP Administrator and the President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I will finally present my own vision and UNDP’s recommendations to face the challenge of urbanization and sustainable development.

Half of the world population today is living in cities. This was less than 5 per cent a century ago. And by 2050, estimates are that it will reach 70 per cent, representing 6.4 billion people.
Even more impressive is that ninety five percent of this urban expansion will take place in developing countries, mostly in Asia and Africa.

This is a phenomenal change, full of challenges and opportunities at the same time.

There is no doubt that urbanization creates opportunities for more inclusive growth and for poverty reduction.  Cities have long been critical in driving economic and employment growth, through their function as centers of connectivity, creativity, and innovation. By 2025, 23% of the cities may be generating 65 per cent of global growth. From these, 73% will be in emerging markets..

This growth will be driven in part by the rise of the middle-class, as up to 1 billion new middle class consumers  are expected to be added to cities by 2025. Much of this increase is expected to take place in Asia-Pacific. This middle class will be more demanding in terms of services and good governance. The real question is if this growth can be made sustainable and inclusive at the same time.  

Taking urban poverty as an example (13% rate in urban areas compared to 20% in total), currently there are about 290 million urban residents living below the dollar a day poverty line, accounting for about a quarter of the poor in the world.

By 2040, urban residents are projected to form a majority of those with less than a dollar a day.

China passed a key milestone in its urbanization process two years ago. In December 2011, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that at the national level, more than fifty per cent of the population of the country was now living in cities.

While the transition to a predominantly urban population is not unique to China, urbanization here has two striking characteristics. The first is its speed, and the second is its scale.

According to China’s national censuses, its urban population grew from only eleven percent in 1949 to over fifty percent. The speed of this urbanization is astounding - urbanization in Europe took 150 years to go from twelve per cent to 51 per cent, and only 52 years in China.
Internal migration to cities in China has occurred on a massive scale and shows no sign of abating.

The urban population is predicted to rise to 70 percent by 2030, resulting in an additional 310 million new city dwellers in the next two decades.By then, one billion Chinese will live in cities. This speed and scale of migration is unprecedented in human history and places China at the forefront of the world’s rapid urban transformation.

As urbanization increases, China will face pressures to ensure the efficient use of natural and energy resources, and the development of urban governance systems. It will need to ensure that there is employment, transportation, housing, access to basic social services, and security for its urban citizens, and protection to the livelihoods of migrant workers. There will also be challenges to China’s development related to water and air pollution, the ageing population, and sustainability of economic growth dependent on the structural transformation of the economy.
Let me say a little about each of these challenges:

In terms of the economy, after three decades of fast economic growth, it is expected that the economy will shift to a more balanced development model, with a balance between speed and quality. But the success of these new aspirations rests, to a large extent, on the performance of cities. China’s cities are faced with adjusting the economic structure to provide high value-added emerging industries and improve its social and environmental sustainability.

On employment, from now to 2015, the annual increase of demand in urban jobs will be about 25 million, but according to Government estimates just over 9 million jobs will be created on average each year. Imbalances in the employment structure, such as a mismatch between demand and skills, may complicate urban development. Unemployment and inadequate employment are among the major factors contributing to urban poverty.

A specially vulnerable group is young people, who are particularly affected by urbanization processes. Competition for scarce jobs, skills deficit and low education, makes young people in developing countries more vulnerable. They are overrepresented among the urban poor, with limited access to credit and business networks. And they suffer high unemployment rates (about 13 per cent globally), are almost three times as likely as adults to be unemployed in South Asia and East Asia and also suffer from high underemployment with irregular and low-wage jobs in the informal economy.
According to UN forecasts, 60 percent of urban population will be under 18 years old by 2030, making youth a special case for attention for poverty reduction and sustainability.

On transportation, many of China’s cities face serious traffic congestion, as many of you will know all too well. By the end of 2012, 240 million motor vehicles were in circulation, including 120 million cars. While roads have been expanded and public transportation has been developed. Many road networks are disconnected with public transportation. Sidewalks and infrastructure for non-motorized transport are often absent. These problems increasingly affect small and medium-sized cities in particular. Urban planning and traffic management need to be improved.

On housing, one of the basic determinants of urban liveability, rapid urbanization has fuelled strong demand for housing. But for more and more city residents in China, it is increasingly unaffordable. Costs in some coastal cities are as high as, or even surpass, those of developed countries. Regional differences in housing prices are stark.


On social security and basic public services, significant achievements have been made for permanent urban residents. But for rural migrant workers in cities, only some of them are registered as city residents, and the remainder does not enjoy the same benefits as people with urban household registration, and have little protection in case of lost employment or incapacity.

Because certain social security and services are linked with the household registration system, and the carrying capacities of cities are limited, many restrictions to obtaining local household registration still persist.

On the ageing population challenge, according to UN standards, an aged society is defined as one where more than 7 percent of people are over age 65. By the end of 2011, China’s over 65 population had reached 122.88 million, equivalent to 9.1 percent of the total. China is now ageing at the second fastest rate in the world after Japan. Twenty-six Chinese provinces and cities have entered into aged society status. UNFPA projects that by 2050, the over 65 population of China will be 332 million people or 23 percent of the total population. Being aged before being rich will complicate the course of social and economic development. With accelerating ageing, the number of retired employees keeps soaring, as do expenditures on pensions, medical care and welfare. More products and services are needed for older people; public facilities in cities are far from adequate. And the pension management and social security systems could be further developed.
On pollution, the price of rapid industrialization and urbanization has included environmental pollution in many cities, in particular with respect to air and water quality. When air pollution standards are updated to include finer PM2.5 particles, fourth-fifths of Chinese cities fall short of the minimum quality standard. The situation is particularly bad in eastern coastal cities. These issues are already exerting major negative impacts on the health of the population in several urban centers.
They undercut multiple dimensions of human development by reducing living quality, increasing disease, threatening social stability and even causing environmental refugees in some areas.

Aware of the urgency, the Chinese authorities are already taking action on many fronts, introducing new policies, experimenting with innovative ideas, and beginning to compile national plans to guide urbanization.

In early 2013, Premier Li Keqiang referred to a new type of urbanization: “people’s urbanization”which should be human-centered, ensure the prosperity of the people, and support China’s growth. Premier Li’s remarks reflect China’s determination to promote social and economic development through sustainable urbanization.

China’s leaders have also called for the development of an “ecological civilization” to minimize or avoid the negative impacts of industrialization and urbanization.

This concept stresses ‘respect’ for nature instead of its ‘conquest’, and promotes an ethical basis for people and nature to exist in harmony.

China’s Twelvth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and many recent political statements underscore its leaders’ strong aspiration for more balanced development. What happens in cities, how well they are managed and governed, and how effectively they address the needs of growing urban populations is vital for that.
Urbanization and sustainable development is one area where very strong benefits can be derived from both North-South and South-South cooperation and exchange of experiences among countries and cities. International best practices, knowledge and technology on urban development are important to make great strides in development. Referring to global experiences, we can see that various countries have followed different approaches to urbanization with various degrees of success.

For example, Istanbul applied a series of actions, including demolishing and relocating nearly all industries, constructing new disposal system,  restoring the Golden Horn to its former status as a social and cultural locus, and reengaging citizens with the beauty and history of the area.

Singapore is another good example. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 led Singapore to reevaluate its growth strategies. Through boosting spending on R&D, Singapore has transformed into a more knowledge-intensive society.

In Latin America where I come from, countries and cities are also taking actions. Mexico City adopted strict vehicle standards and transportation measures to address air quality, which has improved markedly since monitoring began in the late 1980s. The city also boasts the largest subway system in Latin America. To further reduce traffic and encourage alternative transport, the city expanded the availability of bicycle lending stations. A 2009 article by the World Resources Institute estimates that the Mexico City Metrobus rapid transport system alone cuts carbon emissions by approximately 47,000 tons each year.

All these examples can be relevant to China since China’s urbanisation challenges require timely and strategic responses.

When looking forward to the future, I would like here to refer to some policy recommendations from the China’s 2013 National Human Development Report entitled “Sustainable and Livable Cities: Towards Ecological Civilisation”.

It is a very recent Report, which was launched by the UNDP Administrator Helen Clark and the President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing just over one month ago.

The report argues that the most realistic pathway to optimal urbanization – where cities are socially equitable, economically dynamic and environmentally friendly – may entail a compromise between the quality and scale of urbanization. In other words, moderation is key to the emergence of cities which are both sustainable and livable.

To realize that scenario for optimal urbanization, the report emphasizes the importance of effective governance, including through reforms in city management which encourage more citizen participation and ownership and performance monitoring of public officials.  

The human development paradigm has long guided UNDP’s work. It is about enlarging people’s choices and opportunities in ways which are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, in order to benefit present generations without compromising the prospects of future generations. Urbanization can be guided by the same principle.

China is transitioning from an urbanisation propelled by industrialization to one now influenced by a quest for inclusion and integration of all urban residents into city life and improvement of the quality of life for its residents indeed requires a greater focus on human development as a guiding principle. Some challenges are more urgent than others and decisive action on some of these more urgent ones can make a significant impact on human development.

Rapid urbanisation has placed increasing stress on institutions and decision-making processes. As the pressures continue to increase, a close look at the adequacy of current governance structures and capacities is essential, as these structures must be equipped to make it possible for China to steer the urban transformation toward livability and sustainability, not only at the national but mainly at the local level.

Because of the magnitude and speed of many changes in the urban landscape, the window of opportunity for addressing many of these is relatively small. Making up front investments and bold decisions today could mean lower costs in the future, with a last chance to avoid lost opportunities and higher costs.

In closing, let me say that I believe that people are cognizant of their individual and collective roles in making the most of the enormous opportunity for change that urbanization provides. There is more to do, to act upon and to research. As current talented students and as future leaders in whichever field you choose, I hope you are able to take this vision of sustainable development, and incorporate it in your actions, choices and decisions, wherever you find yourselves: as individual citizens and as professionals.

It is this sum of such individual contributions which keeps any city in the world alive, and it is eventually what can also make a difference for the generations to come.

Thank you!

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