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    Crowded Shanghai to Develop Suburban Districts Into Autonomous Towns

    Each of the city’s five suburban districts will have its own pillar industry and ease residency requirements to attract new talents.

    SHANGHAI — China’s most populous city is converting its five suburban districts into independent new towns, a move that should help relieve overcrowding and spur economic growth, advisers to the Shanghai government said Wednesday.

    “We should be a city that truly provides high-quality living so that more people can start businesses here. The new towns will become an engine for future economic and social development,” Wu Jiang, a professor of urban planning at Tongji University and a government consultant, said at a press briefing.

    In January, Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng announced in the city’s annual report that massive resources will be funneled to Qingpu, Fengxian, Jiading, Songjiang, and Nanhui districts in the hope that they will become inter-regional transport hubs with high-quality public services.

    The goal for the new urban plan is to address the needs of a growing population constrained by limited urban space, while further integrating the city’s resources with the surrounding Yangtze River Delta region, said Tang Zilai, also an urban planning professor at Tongji University and an adviser to the local government.

    One of Shanghai’s goals in establishing the new towns is to improve local GDP growth, which for several years has lagged behind China’s other first-tier cities, according to Li Jian, an economist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. At Wednesday's press briefing, Li said planners are looking to turn the five “sleepy” suburban areas into economic engines that can drive Shanghai’s future growth.

    For now, the five districts are showing signs of easing requirements for obtaining local hukou — an important household registration document that confers a variety of social benefits including health insurance, access to public education, and property rights. Li told Sixth Tone that the district governments, some of which have been dealing with population decline, are hoping to attract more talents and accommodate 1 million permanent residents each by further relaxing their hukou policies.

    According to local media, the five districts’ housing markets have already seen increased activity, with early investors swooping in to cherry-pick the most desirable plots and plan promising projects.

    China’s large cities have traditionally dealt with rising populations by developing satellite towns. Since 2014, for example, Beijing has relocated thousands of businesses deemed nonessential for China’s capital, including logistics centers and clothing markets, to the surrounding province-level regions of Tianjin and Hebei.

    But Shanghai’s new urban plan should be viewed differently from the traditional satellite town approach, said Wu. Each new town will not be subordinate to Shanghai proper, but rather an independent “node city” with its own pillar industry, the professor said. However, he also warned of the risk of the towns falling into poorly planned urban sprawl, posing problems such as environmental degradation and unhealthy competition.

    (Header image: An aerial view of Shanghai, Oct. 31, 2019. Yin Liqin/China News Service/People Visual)