• The Growing Field of Urbanisation: an Interview with Prof. Tieshan Sun, Associate Professor at the PKU School of Government


    EUC: What are the most important questions facing you in your field? What are the biggest problems that researchers in your field are trying to solve?


    Prof. Sun: China has been experiencing a rapid urbanization in the recent three decades. The level of urbanization in China was less than 20% in 1980, and increased to 56.1% in 2015. In China, there are about 770 million permanent residents living in urban areas now. Rapid urbanization is triggering huge problems and challenges, such as the large and increasing urban-rural income gap, urban sprawl and the inefficient spatial and economic structure and organization of cities, rising social inequality and urban poverty, higher urban costs and housing affordability issues in large cities, urban environmental degradation, weak urban financial and governance capacities, etc. All these problems and challenges are important questions that researchers on China’s urbanization and urbanism are facing currently.

    Generally speaking, the problems that researchers in my field are trying to solve mainly focus on three major aspects:

    1) Economic efficiency of urbanization and urban development

    Size and Economic Efficiency: One distinctive feature of China’s urbanization, pointed out by Henderson, is that many cities in China are too small to exploit urban agglomeration economies efficiently due to the highly localized urbanization in China. On the other hand, some cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, attracted huge migratory inflows and developed to over-crowded mega-cities with the problems of severe congestion and pollution. Research efforts have been made to understand the relationship between economic efficiency and the size of Chinese cities. Policy responses should maximize the benefits of agglomeration economies and minimize the negative externalities.

    Urban Sprawl and Inefficient Land Development: Motivated by the land revenue, local governments promoted urban land development to facilitate local economic growth, which led to the dramatic spatial expansion of most Chinese cities in past years. From 2004 to 2014, China’s urban population increased by 38%, while the urban built-up area increased by 64%. This implies urban population density is decreasing in most cities. Some recent study suggests that there are over 160 cities that expanded in the built-up area were facing notable population loss from 2000 to 2010. The extreme examples of this inefficient urban expansion and land development are so called “ghost cities”, which inspire fears that China’s land urbanization is outpacing demand, fueled by unsustainable debt and over investment.

    Inefficient Urban Spatial Structure and Land Use Pattern. With great expansion of urban space, urban population and industries are moving outward to the suburbs. Like Western cities, Chinese cities are becoming more decentralized and facing dramatic spatial transformation. Most cities take a mono-center mode of urban spatial structure with the great separation of living and working places, which is a major contributor to the traffic problem. In recent years, polycentric spatial development strategy has gained traction and research efforts have been made to understand the nature of spatial restructuring in Chinese cities and how to develop an efficient land use pattern to cope with the growing problem of traffic congestion and pollution.

    2) Sustainability of urbanization and urban development

    Rapid urbanization has detrimental impact on the ecology and environment. In recent years, sustainable development has been emphasized in the urbanization process of China. Research efforts have been made to examine the relationship between urbanization and eco-environment, and the ecological degradation of urban sprawl. Secondly, the connection between urbanization and resource utilization has also been examined. Some study predicted the growing demand of energy and mineral resources for China’s urbanization and pointed out that China will experience a long shortage of resources in the fast urbanization. Lastly, energy plays a vital role in the process of sustainable urbanization. Some studies emphasized the importance of energy’s efficiency, renewability and new technologies and strategies to ensure the security of energy supply and quality improvement for China’s urbanization.

    3) Social inequality and exclusion of urbanization and urban development

    Through the household registration (hukou) system and other policies, China has maintained a strict separation of the urban and rural sectors. It makes rural-urban labor mobility difficult, and the division of the labor market has important implications for urban-rural inequality. In land markets, the lack of transfer rights and the division between urban and rural land markets exclude rural residents from sharing land revenues in urbanization. This has widened the gap between urban and rural income in recent years, leading to the higher social inequality in the process of urbanization.

    Meanwhile, rural migrants who work in cities have been marginalized by the existing system, which prevents them from obtaining urban entitlements, including public housing, pensions, education, health care and other public services. They usually face serious social exclusion when living in cities, and the process of social and economic integration can be very difficult for them. With more rural migrants flowing into cities, there will be a huge challenge for city governments to create jobs and provide public welfare. There is a risk that existing patterns of rural-urban inequality will be reproduced within cities at the neighborhood level (such as migrant enclaves with concentrated poverty).

    Therefore, it is still a big question of how to cope with the social inequality and urban poverty issues during the rapid urbanization in China.


    EUC: How has the field of urbanisation evolved in China since you began as a researcher? Has it become more popular? Have the questions and problems changed?


    Prof. Sun: The study on urbanization and urbanism in China has developed very fast in last twenty years, which has drawn a lot of attentions from both Chinese scholars and the international academic community. Urban studies in general have become popular research subjects in many fields, including planning, public policy, economics, geography, and sociology, etc.

    There is an impressive corpus of literature on China’s urbanization and urban transformation since the initiation of economic reforms in 1978, contributed by geographers, urban planners, economists, sociologists, and others. Research efforts have been made to understand the unique features, mechanisms and driving forces of China’s urbanization and urban development, and to build up China’s own model which emphasizes the mutual influences of globalization, marketization, power of state, and localization.

    Furthermore, a lot of studies have been made to solve the practical problems emerging in the process of rapid urbanization. The questions in these studies are mostly driven and framed by China’s policy needs and strategic demand. Over the first few years of the Xi Jinping – Li Keqiang administration, the central government proposed the “New-Style Urbanization” as the new, comprehensive strategy for China’s economic growth and development, and issued the “National New-Style Urbanization Plan, 2014-2020” in 2014. Rather than land-driven, the new urbanization will be “people-centered.” It will also be “intensive and functional” in its land use and “green and low-carbon” in its environmental impact. Rather than a concentrated underclass in megacities, new urbanites will be the new middle class in smaller cities. Responding to this new strategy, research in this field tends to be more focused on the social, institutional and sustainable aspects of urbanization.


    EUC: What can researchers in China and Europe learn from each other? Are there problems that both regions share? Have you worked with any European researchers or institutions?


    Prof. Sun: Certainly, researchers in China and Europe can learn from each other. Both China and Europe have a relatively long history of urbanization. Chinese cities are more like European cities than US cities, with high density, but relatively larger in size than European cities. The planning strategies and experiences of European cities have been widely used in China’s urban planning, such as building the green belt to contain the urban growth. In recent years, the polycentric spatial development strategy promoted by the European Spatial Development Perspective has also gained traction in China and been applied in several cities’ planning practices and policy design, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou, etc. These cities hope to solve their urban problems, including the unbalanced urban development, traffic congestion, pollution, and to increase the economic efficiency and social integration through applying the polycentric spatial development strategy within the metropolitan area.

    For European researchers, I guess China’s urbanization experiences and policy interventions are also of interest. Although I am not familiar with European urbanization issues, I believe both Chinese and European cities share similar problems. For example, the issue of urban shrinkage has become very common across Europe: a large number of urban areas find themselves losing population. The nature of the process and its causes and consequences for the affected European urban areas have been examined and discussed in details, and urban policies designed to overcome the adverse consequences of shrinkage have also been proposed. Although China is facing rapid urbanization, some recent studies do point out that many urban areas in China, mainly county-level cities and townships, are also experiencing notable population loss in recent years. The Chinese shrinking city research network has been established, and calls for more research work to understand these shrinking cities and the reasons behind the population falls, and to find possible policy tools. This is just one example to show Chinese and European cities may face similar problems, and comparative studies on this kind of subject between China and Europe can be valuable for both regions.

    I have not worked with any European researchers or institutions so far, but if having opportunities, I would be very happy to do that. Actually, I am going to visit Free University of Berlin in this August, and attend a workshop on sustainable development. I hope I can find some collaborative opportunities in this trip.


    EUC: What projects are you currently working on? Can you provide any links if readers would like to learn more about what you are currently working on?


    Prof. Sun: My research mainly focus on the spatial restructuring of Chinese cities during the rapid urbanization. To be specific, I study the distributions of people and jobs in metropolitan areas as well as the development of urban transportation in China, and try to understand the mutual relationship between spatial dynamics of urban economy and transportation.

    I just finished one project, “The Beijing Job Accessibility Map – Transit”, which uses the story maps to illustrate the amount of job opportunities accessible by transit from each sub-district in Beijing within 30–, 45–, and 60– minutes of travel time. This can be of interest to people who are interested in the job accessibility and public transit issues in Beijing.

    The project is a joint initiative between the Global Transit Innovations at the University of Minnesota in the United States and the School of Government at the Peking University in China. Here is the linkage for the project: http://maps.umn.edu/beijing/


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