Sustainability reaching its limit in top Chinese cities

Richest cities stall in social and environmental development as GDP and population size grow

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 April, 2014, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 12:35am

The richest cities on the mainland, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, have reached a turning point at which improvement of the sustainability of their development has slowed or even stalled, a Beijing-based think tank said.

New growth models were needed for them to close the gap with benchmark international cities, said the Urban China Initiative, a think tank backed by global consulting firm McKinsey, Columbia University in New York and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The think tank issued the 2013 China urban sustainability index on Wednesday, evaluating the level and potential of the sustainability of development in 185 cities.

Zhuhai and Shenzhen in Guangdong province and Hangzhou in Zhejiang province were the top overall performers, based on the evaluation of their economic and social development, resources and environment.

A blind pursuit of growth … will prevent sustainable progress

However, the study found the mainland's richest cities - Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Tianjin - were now facing the prospect of limited improvement in sustainability because of their growing populations and higher gross domestic product.

"There are clear turning points at which a city's sustainability potentially slows or stalls," said Jonathan Woetzel, a co-chairman of UCI and a director of McKinsey.

The turning point, he said, emerged when a city's population size exceeded 4.5 million, population density surpassed 8,000 people per square kilometre, foreign direct investment hit US$3 billion and migrants accounted for more than 30 per cent of its population. The six cities mentioned all meet these criteria.

As GDP and population size grew, Woetzel said, these cities fell behind especially in social and environmental development - by measures such as urban employment, number of doctors per capita, industrial air pollution, number of air-pollution-qualified days and waste water treatment.

The study picked 11 benchmark international cities - including London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Copenhagen and Seoul - and found they were doing better on all social and environment indicators than the leading mainland cities.

"Mainland cities are slowly narrowing the gap with the global benchmark cities … But a blind pursuit of economic growth, population expansion and an increase in population density will prevent sustainable progress," Woetzel said.

"Policymakers in these cities must seek out new growth models, including constructing smart and low-carbon cities and improving city planning and management."

The China urban sustainability index, which was issued for the third year, showed the gap between the western and central mainland cities had widened despite Beijing's support for the western regions.

Cities in western China, the study found, performed relatively better in social development but scored the lowest points for resources, compared with those in the eastern and central regions.