Spread the load of population growth to smaller fringe cities

As Shanghai reins in its numbers, the pressure already being felt by the biggest cities means smaller urban centres must being encouraged to absorb future growth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 12:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 1:21am

Shanghai is to rein in its population growth. It is not the only big city to feel the pressure of urban migration on services and housing. At the same time, as part of its economic growth strategy, the central government plans to increase the country’s urban population, which passed 50 per cent only recently, to 60 per cent by 2020 and 70 per cent by 2030. So the question is, where else will they all go if not to the biggest cities and, if they don’t, how will megacities cope with the provision of basic services such as sanitation, electricity, education and health without social inequality and environmental stress? The answer is – with difficulty, which has the potential to sour the country’s economic progress.

The mainland’s financial capital is tightening its grip on population growth to strengthen its control over the booming property market and ensure public security. Mayor Yang Xiong says the city government plans to cap its population at 25 million to improve urban planning and management and distribution of resources. Officially it is already more than 24 million, counting people with household registration or temporary residence permits but, according to government sources, it is really about 30 million, including unregistered migrants. Yang promised a mixture of “stringent” population control measures, thought to include the issue of residential permits only to those with skills needed for the city’s healthy growth. But observers doubted that administrative power alone would be enough to stem the tide.

The short-term answer lies in providing incentives and infrastructure for decentralisation of business and industry to third and fourth-tier cities. In the long term, given the attraction of big cities to those seeking opportunities and a better life, the answer may lie in the development of clusters of cities. Planners envisage the evolution of megacities into administrative and financial hubs surrounded by smaller cities to which industry, hi-tech enterprise jobs and people can be relocated.

The Shanghai authorities have recognised that even great cities can become too big for their own good. Sooner or later the provision of basic essential services such as electricity and sanitation becomes problematical. It is all about sustainability.

Population pressures on the biggest cities and a glut of new homes elsewhere have already prompted Beijing to encourage smaller urban centres to offer housing incentives such as subsidies, tax breaks and lower interest rates to attract rural migrants – a step in the right direction.