Can coordinated city clusters take off in the PRC?

Published on Thursday, 10 May 2018

Published by Stephen P. Groff and Stefan Rau on Thursday, 10 May 2018

The magnitude of city clusters in the PRC well exceeds that of other other countries.
The magnitude of city clusters in the PRC well exceeds that of other other countries.

We just participated in a debate on Urbanization: Testing the City Cluster Model at the 2018 Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference in Hainan. In this discussion, all panelists agreed that integrating cities and urban systems in coordinated city clusters is a global challenge in the 21st century. Cities are the world’s economic engines, accounting for around 80% of each country’s national GDP, but are also the largest sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions with more than 80% of carbon emissions originating in cities and city clusters. About 66% of people are expected to live in cities and city clusters by 2050, with 90% of future urban growth taking place in Asia and Africa.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has included in its 13th Five-Year Plan a total of 19 city clusters, many of which are as large as European countries. In 2015, the PRC’s 11 largest city clusters accounted for one-third of the country’s population, and two-thirds of its economic output.

What the PRC calls city clusters are known elsewhere as mega-regions, metropolitan functional areas, urban and economic corridors, and city networks. Examples of these include: the Northeast United States between Boston and Washington, D.C. (also referred to as the BosWash Megalopolis); the Tokaido Megalopolis or Pacific Belt in Japan; and the Manchester–Milan Axis or “Blue Banana” in Western Europe.

For decades, large and smaller cities in the same vicinity have grown together into vast territories marked by urban development and in many cases urban sprawl. Uncoordinated development has led to unsustainable, carbon-extensive and non-resilient regional and urban development patterns and lifestyles.

In many cases, connectivity and other important elements of coordinated development are far from optimal, resulting in poor service delivery, as well as inefficient land and resource use.

The key obstacle city clusters face all over the world is fragmentation. Too often, multiple administrative entities coexist within clusters, each with independent  authority over tax and budget systems, land use planning, transport infrastructure and traffic management, industry park developments, open space planning and environmental protection, and even labor markets. The chimerical amalgamation of authority and responsibility that results are why too many mega-cities across Asia suffer from pollution, congestion and poor service provision and massive economic losses.

  Effective city cluster governance unleashes many benefits

To overcome the governance challenge, institutionalized city-cluster government with authority over planning, investments and management of connectivity infrastructure is essential. Such a governance structure should also include fiscal management authority over revenues and budgets to effectively implement and administer programs, and to manage infrastructure.

Effective city cluster governance unleashes a range of benefits. Improved connectivity enables an integrated labor market and makes possible reasonable daily commute times for workers across these very large regions. Articulation of industry clusters would enhance competitive advantage through better coordination of economic and tourism marketing, also improving the wider region’s economic performance.

City clusters can be more sustainable, livable, inclusive, and competitive. They can comprise larger and smaller cities and districts linked by intercity rail transit, arranged in increments of compact, walkable mixed-use space and socially integrated around public transit/regional rail stations.

In turn, coordinated regional open space systems can be planned with parks, farmland, forests, river estuaries, and wetlands, providing multiple ecosystem services. These services include recreation as well as managing the environment and flood risk.

There are several models of metropolitan governance for continuous urban areas including:

  • The Greater Tokyo Region in Japan, which is governed directly by a national level ministry responsible for planning transport corridors, and open space protection.
  • Portland, Oregon in the US has an elected regional government with authority over transport planning and has implemented a regional growth boundary.
  • In the Ruhr Valley in Germany, 53 cities cooperate on transport and open space planning, tourism marketing and economic development promotion under the name Metropole Ruhr.

  PRC can learn from previous experience on  city cluster development

Can lessons from these cases be transferred to the PRC’s much larger city clusters?

The magnitude of planned city cluster development in the PRC is well beyond that of other countries. While it can learn from international examples, the government will have to chart its own path, as it has done repeatedly over the 40 years of rapid urban and economic development. This means drawing lessons from other’s experiences and adapting to PRC-specific conditions.

The government has already completed strategy and investment plans for 11 of its city clusters and will finish the remaining 8 plans in 2018 and 2019. The PRC has very strong systems of national and municipal governance that have produced robust infrastructure and efficient public services. The challenge will be to create strong institutions to enable similarly good governance at the city cluster scale.

As urbanization accelerates across Asia and the Pacific, city cluster coordination and metropolitan governance are key policy issues. These require significant investment in both physical infrastructure as well as policy advisory support.

ADB’s work on PRC city clusters focuses on creating synergies and encouraging cooperation across administrative boundaries. Our aim is to support economic, urban and infrastructure development, as well as social inclusion and open space and environmental protection and management. While our focus is on the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei City Cluster, the Yangtze River Economic Belt and Northeast development and revitalization, we apply these same principles to our work across the country.

In Boao, we were asked whether city clusters can take off in the PRC. If we heed these lessons and use robust governance mechanisms, our answer is a resounding “yes.” Rapid urbanization is one of the key challenges facing Asia in the coming decade and ADB will play its part in building cities across the region that are liveable, resilient, inclusive, green and competitive.

An edited version of this blog was first published as an op-ed by the China Daily and the People’s Daily.