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China: from rapid urbanisation to long-term sustainability

The rate of urbanisation in China is unprecedented in human history. Over half of the Chinese population now live in cities, up from only 17.9% in 1978, with projections suggesting that China’s urban population could top 1 billion in the next 20 years.

This trend seems set to continue following the Chinese’s government’s publication of an ambitious strategy which aims to increase the fraction of China’s urban population to 60% by 2020. For President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, the benefits ofurban growth are multiple – urbanisation is seen as a catalyst for modernisation and regional development, an engine of economic growth. However, The National New-type Urbanization Plan emphasises that this growth should not come at any cost – the strategy must be underpinned by a shift towards sustainability and a people-centred approach.

In a comment piece in this week’s Nature, Xuemei Bai of the Future Earth Science Committee and colleagues explain how the plan’s success hinges on local implementation, saying that the environmental and social challenges caused by past urbanisation must be avoided.

China’s plan aims to promote sustainable development through measures such as promoting green urban construction, and by stabilising the employment of migrant workers, allowing them to register as urban residents in smaller cities and towns, thereby opening up access to education, health care and social security. 

“The devil, however, is in the detail,” the authors caution: local implementation will be key its success. Acknowledging that some of the central government reforms may add up to a burden for city administration, the authors stress that local officials should be made more accountable, and that lessons must be learnt from cities with good track records.

The authors conclude that high-level policy intervention can be a force for good, but must engage with and be adaptable to local social, environmental, economic and cultural contexts.  

“The ultimate driver of urbanization is – and should continue to be – the aspiration of rural people to lead a better life,” Bai and co-authors conclude. “And that will be the ultimate measure of success.”