Fueled by the 250 million migrant workers moving to cities for the sake of a better life, the number has been projected to grow to an astonishing 1 billion by 2030, as described by Tom Miller in his first book, China's Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History, published in December.
The mass migration, which the author compares to the great immigration from Europe to the US a century ago, has impacted the country's economy, society and environment.
In the book, the Beijing-based British author, also managing editor at the China Economic Quarterly, expounds on the tough issues facing China, such as the hukou (household registration) system, the disappearance of arable land, possible property bubbles and the dysfunctional fiscal system which encourages local governments to sell land to make ends meet. ...
... "Up to 250 million people in Chinese cities do not live genuinely urban lives, because migrant workers from the countryside are not entitled to urban social security and face institutionalized discrimination in the cities," writes Miller, who has been in China for more than a decade.
"As temporary residents with few legal rights, most migrants remain trapped in low-income jobs, save as much as they can, and buy few goods or services," he writes. "For this reason, China has failed to reap many of the economic benefits from its huge surge in migration."
Emphasis added. As the World Bank reported, density, mobility, and global connectivity are reshaping economic geography. If only intuitively, the benefits of density are understood. Geographic mobility is another story. Mumbai is the densest city in the world. Once an open and cosmopolitan place, Mumbai now discourages migration:
Mumbai is a city of open arms. More than any other South Asian city, it has lured Muslims, Jews, Christians, Parsees and Hindus, aspiring taxi drivers and wannabe actresses, and melted them into an industrious whole. In a certain elite realm, freedom reigns; women dance on tables in nightclubs, and gays and lesbians flock once a month to a rather uncloseted party called Gay Bombay.
But Mumbai is also, today, teetering between its tradition of liberality and new tendencies toward intolerance.
In recent years, activists have driven into exile famous artists who offend them, closed down museum exhibitions and agitated to have movies banned. A minority of upper-caste Hindus has lobbied to cordon off whole sections of Mumbai as vegetarian zones, effectively excluding Muslims. And now politicians have revived a perennial cause: ridding Mumbai of migrants.
Looking at Mumbai, I'm not surprised that some would conclude that density makes a city go. With the crackdown on migrants, density will remain. Creativity and innovation will move somewhere else. The Mumbai magic will be lost.
For the fastest growing cities in the world, migration is a policy problem. The numbers leaving the rural for urban are jaw-dropping. But discouraging newcomers is counterproductive.
The primary challenge for planners and placemakers is managing migration. How can a city better integrate recent arrivals? Can we improve connectivity to the most isolated neighborhoods? Strategies that allow for greater density without spiraling rents afford a greater influx of talent, which will foster more innovation and economic growth.