Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Urbanization challenges

One of China's big challenges now being debated is how to urbanize. The State Council held a press briefing on March 29 where officials from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and departments in charge of labor and social security, land, housing, and agriculture discussed urbanization issues.

China has 655 cities, including 122 large ones that have populations of 1 million or more, and 118 with population of 500,000 to 1 million. The rest of the cities have populations under 500,000 and there are over 19,000 small towns.

Officials would like to channel the newly-urbanized population into these small cities and towns, but comments by the director of the NDRC's planning office pointed out that the smaller places are not as adept at absorbing population, and they tend to use up a lot of land.

The NDRC planning office director said there are still four big issues to be dealt with in urbanization. The "quality" of the urban population is not high. Out of an urban population of 622 million, about 167 million are migrants who are still registered as rural people. While these migrants live and work in cities, their status in cities is very uncertain.

There are big regional differences in urbanization. Eastern regions are highly urbanized, but urbanization lags behind in central and western regions. There are vast differences in environmental "carrying capacity." Of the 655 cities, 400 have water supply problems, and the lack of water is serious in 200 of them. Large water diversion and pipeline projects are underway to deal with the regional mismatch of natural resources, energy, and economic development.

The most advanced developed regions--the Bohai Gulf region, Pearl River, and Yangzi River deltas--have a high degree of urbanization, but urbanization is weak in other parts of the country, especially in medium and small cities. Their ability to absorb population is limited. In particular, small towns consume a lot of land when they expand.

Finally, the author criticizes the reliance on land in urban expansion motivated by the eagerness to make money. He offers statistics purporting to show that urban land use expanded at a rate faster than their population growth. He says this is not sustainable.

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