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2017-12-29 02:36:03 Commentary

In the suburbs of China’s biggest cities, people of different social classes are starting to cluster together. This broad social mix is caused by a number of factors: The massive influx of non-local residents into cities, rapid urban expansion, the restoration of so-called old towns, and urban renewal. As a result, in certain suburbs, the urban elite in their upscale apartments would rub shoulders with swaths of rural dwellers, whose land has been requisitioned for development, and other residents fleeing rapidly regenerating downtown areas. In addition, there are millions of migrant workers who are struggling to assimilate into city life.

Though people of vastly different economic and social status might live in the same neighborhood, that does not mean that they have blended in with one another. In reality, China’s suburban areas are a so-called mosaic of isolated groups of people trying to maintain their status and identities.

Take Shanghai, for instance. Statistics from 2000 to the present day show that in suburbs like Minhang, Songjiang, and Jiading, the proportion of locals has already fallen below 50 percent, with non-native residents becoming the majority group in those areas.

China’s suburban mosaics are clearly visible in the different types of housing that have sprung up on the periphery of the country’s urban centers. These residences include luxury residential high-rises, vast numbers of homes assigned to residents after land requisition, public housing, and older, cheaper houses for erstwhile farmers that have not been relocated.

As you might imagine, people with higher incomes generally choose to live in new apartment buildings with higher rents. On the next rung down, residents with average incomes (or migrants with comparatively high incomes) tend to cluster in older blocks of flats. However, the majority of migrant workers live in informal “urban villages” of hastily assembled low-rise housing. In some places, opulent penthouses are separated from deteriorating communities only by the width of a single road. This division of space sometimes ignites conflicts between different social groups.

We should laud the positive effects of diverse urban population instead of lambasting migrant villages as sources of crime, poverty, and ill health.

The urban villages where migrants reside tend to consist of older housing surrounded by dilapidated infrastructure that lacks basic living and hygiene facilities. Municipal governments have a complex relationship with urban villages: They are often listed for demolition on health and safety grounds, but still recognized as essential shelter for the rural migrants who staff China’s construction sites, road maintenance teams, and sanitation workers.

Current urban planning has not sufficiently accounted for the needs of non-native residents, so the mosaic model of suburban living reflects local incomes and the constraints of urban living spaces. From a long-term perspective, every major metropolis must consider the spatial needs of its residents, including the housing for migrant workers. City planners must aim to help every resident to feel they are a part of the city they live and work in.

Urban innovation depends on diversifying city populations. If China’s major cities hope to become truly exceptional international hubs, they should support ever greater diversity in order to develop their vitality and creativity. We should laud the positive effects of diverse urban population instead of lambasting migrant villages as sources of crime, poverty, and ill health. This is not easy, of course: Many major global cities struggle to acculturate a panoply of different individuals.

Suburban mosaic populations could have two markedly different social effects on future urban development. If members of different social groups interact positively with each other across divisions of class, culture, and income, a harmonious social atmosphere is then created in which innovative ideas can flourish. However, if groups insist on segregating themselves, then the suburban mosaics can give rise to social conflicts that may, in turn, affect the economic development of a city.

China’s major cities need to draw up policies that encourage different residents to mingle with one another. For example, in Hangzhou, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, the municipal government aims to provide 40,000 temporary houses for out-of-town migrant workers by 2020. Initiatives like this encourage cities to remain open-minded toward different urban social groups and, eventually, reap the rewards of fostering diversity.

(This is an extract of an article titled “A Study on the Mosaic Phenomenon in the Suburbs of Megacities” presented at the 7th World Forum on China Studies, 10 Dec. 2017 in Shanghai.)

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A young man stands on a pile of construction waste in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Feb. 18, 2013. VCG)