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August 12, 2014

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Home » Opinion » Chinese Views

Solving ‘urban diseases’ with better management and fairer welfare

GROWTH of population poses a great challenge to urban management.

The strained relationship between population concentration and urban development is often described as “urban diseases,” such as traffic congestion, rising crime rate and public safety risks, ecological degradation, cities’ ability to cope, and the pressure on public service delivery.

The pressure of population growth on urban public service provision has further translated into pressure on urban public finances. It also adds to the social cost of running a city. The tensions between population concentration and urban development are also reflected by the conflicts of interests between locals and migrants. And intensified conflicts will harm social integration and cohesion.

As a matter of fact, analysis of the true cause of strained relationship between urban population growth and urban development reveals that the tensions are rooted not in the growing size of population, but in the dearth of urban development capability and management skills.

Does density matter?

Evidence shows dense population concentration has nothing to do with “urban diseases.” Indeed, they are inversely correlated.

Whereas we are aware of the challenge dense and huge population poses to urban public service and safety, we also are reminded of the cases of cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, which, being densely populated, manage to ensure that the city is largely safe and functions efficiently, with a convenient public transport system and relatively high welfare levels.

Even in Shanghai, we have observed that in the more densely populated downtown areas, public security and services are even better. Take health care. There are 100 times as many hospital beds in densely populated downtown areas as in remote suburbs.

If we look at the number of hospital beds per 10,000 people, the figure is 123.6 in the core areas of downtown areas, 66.5 in the rest of the downtown areas, and only 30 in the immediate and remote suburbs. The population density in “urban villages” — where there is a higher proportion of migrants — is comparatively lower and has a lower building floor area ratio.

As such, issues that result from population concentration, like traffic congestion, cramped housing, environmental degradation and poor social security are less a product of population’s pressure on cities than one of uneven distribution of urban management and public service resources.

Urban public security is a major “urban disease.” Past research led by myself had conducted quantitative analysis about the relationship between urban population and public safety. Statistics revealed that population concentration does worsen public security. For instance, 70 to 80 percent of crime in Shanghai is committed by people hailing from out of town. The increased rate of immigration is positively related to higher crime rates.

The links between concentration of fluid population, growing density of urban population and social disorder, criminal cases, squalor and a spike in fire accidents seem to be fairly strong. But when other variables are fixed, we have found that the percentage of migrants as a share of the whole population, an indicator of the extent of fluid population concentration, doesn’t have a noticeable effect on urban security.

Culprit of worsening security

The factors that really impact on urban public security are the proportion of youths in urban population, level of education, security and police presence within communities, unemployment, especially the percentage of jobless youths of the entire population.

Hence, the concentration of fluid population is actually not the true cause of worsening public security; rather, the main culprit is the insufficient policing efforts and spending on people’s education, the dearth of employment and development opportunities, as well as the lack of community-building measures.

Therefore, the focus of urban authorities should primarily be on consolidation and upgrading of urban management amenities such as roads, transport, food, labor market, housing, community governance and investments in urban security, including the police presence. Great attention should also be paid to tolerance and assimilation of people.

Another widely discussed downside of population concentration is the pressure of population growth on basic urban services. The population growth and long-term residency in cities create the demand for basic public services, which, objectively speaking, constitute “costs” of urbanization and translate into burden on urban public finances.

But while we consider the costs of urbanization, we ought to also consider the enormous wealth generated by urbanization. In effect, in the meantime that we consider the pressure of fluid population on urban public services, we ought to consider its positive contribution to GDP growth as well.

Fairer redistribution

Migrants have the right to obtain a share of redistributed wealth from the public finances amid urbanization. The more migrants a city has, the bigger contribution they actually make to urban economic development and social progress. Nevertheless, since migrants are not included in the conventional statistical system, their social contribution to a large extent has been overshadowed.

If urbanization is a process of wealth creation and increase, we can make a general judgment that its contribution is far greater than the social costs it spawns.

And the impact of social costs of migrants becoming urbanites on local public finances are by and large exaggerated.

My recent research on the Yangtze River Delta found that even by the standards of eight basic public services instituted by the national development and planning commission, Shanghai’s provision of basic public services to non-hukou-holding residents accounts for a paltry 6.58 percent of annual GDP.

Under these circumstances, incremental increase of welfare outlays is possible. Of course, it should be noted that the restructuring of different groups’ interests is an incremental process. But an exclusive welfare policy is detrimental to the fluid population’s identity change from rural dwellers to urbanites. It’s important to increase a city’s capacity to provide public welfare.

The author is a professor of sociology at Fudan University.


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