03 June 2010
Cities at the speed of light
Shanghai: mega city, mega challenges. © istockphoto
China is currently the world’s powerhouse of urban growth and manufacturing prowess. Like Britain in the days of the first industrial revolution, there are pros and cons associated with holding this title.
As well as rapid urban growth and unrivalled economic activity, there is pollution, upheaval and continual change.
At the end of 2008, China’s population was 1.33 billion, with 723 million people living in rural areas and 607 million in urban areas (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan).
The United Nations has forecast that by 2015 the rural and urban populations will be about equal, and that by 2035 nearly 70 per cent of Chinese will live in urban areas.
While China’s level of urbanisation is currently lower than the world’s average, the speed of its urbanisation is nonetheless unprecedented.
Professor Paul James, Director of the Global Cities Research Institute at RMIT, says that we are living through a period in which urban living has, for the first time in human history, supplanted rural life.
"This is a momentous shift. However, cities, for all their vibrancy and liveliness, face a growing challenge of providing secure and sustainable places to live. Our research directly addresses this challenge through programs with significant impact on the ground."
The Institute brings together key researchers working on understanding the complexity of globalising urban settings, from provincial centres to mega-cities.
Associate Professor Christine Hudson says: "The research is highly collaborative, linking with institutions and people around the world in long-term partnerships. We emphasise questions of sustainability, resilience, security and adaptation in the face of the processes of globalisation and global climate change."
Last year a delegation of RMIT researchers, including Hudson, delivered papers at an international conference in Shanghai, entitled China’s Urbanisation and Community Development under Globalisation.
The conference focused on the social and cultural implications of urbanisation, particularly in Shanghai and the Yangtze River delta.
Conducted in Mandarin and English, it was held at the prestigious Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) and co-sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation of Germany.
Founded in 1958 and administered by the Municipal Government of Shanghai, SASS is China’s oldest institution for the humanities and social sciences and the largest outside Beijing. It is a leading think-tank and a distinguished academic institution in China.
This month, the Global Cities Research Institute is holding a collaborative workshop with SASS in Shanghai - entitled Re-Imagining City Futures: Chinese Perspectives - and Professor Frank Zhang, the Director of the Centre for Policy and Strategic Studies at SASS, will take part.
"We will discuss issues such as increasing urbanisation, mass population mobilities, climate change, environmental degradation and other changes manifested at the global, national and local levels," Hudson says.
"We’ll be asking questions such as how do we map alternative futures and how is China’s urban future aligned with a global future?"
Another project looks at urbanisation in Chongqing, a major city in central western China, with 7.5 million people in its metro area but more than 32 million in the municipality of the same name.
"Chongqing has traditionally been the wartime capital of China and is currently experiencing a massive displacement of people due to the Three Gorges dam project," Hudson says.
"I presented a paper on Chongqing at the University of Melbourne with Associate Professor SueAnne Ware, a landscape architect at RMIT."
Other RMIT researchers involved with urbanisation projects include Professor Manfred Steger - globalisation and culture, Associate Professor Darryn McEvoy - climate change adaptation, Professor Supriya Singh - community sustainability, and Guosheng Chen - for her expertise on China and language abilities.
Chen is also working on a project for Ji County, a county in the far north of Tianjin municipality in China.
Known as Tianjin’s backyard, Ji County includes spectacular natural scenery and a small section of the Great Wall of China. It has a population of 800,000 and is 115 kilometres from Tianjin city - one of Melbourne’s sister cities.
"With Professor Richard Blythe, a leading architect at RMIT, we are putting together an international project team to plan a new city development for 20,000 people in Ji County, Tianjin," Chen says.
"The project aims to turn a small town into a world-class resort, using leading-edge concepts of environmentally sustainable development."
Summing up, James says: "The Institute is focusing on a number of carefully chosen cities and their hinterlands in the Asia-Pacific region regarding urbanisation.
"Ultimately, our research will have real-world consequences for communities, governments and organisations in China and for the rest of Asia."