Life Between Buildings: China’s Rapid Urbanization

Published on by Green Initiatives

The largest human migration in world history is taking place now -- from Chinese rural villages to urban areas. In the 1940s, China had only 69 cities with just 13% of the population. Currently, it has around ten times as many cities accommodating more than 60% of the population. As China's economy continues to progress, projections estimate the urbanization rate to reach 70% by 2035. To put this in perspective, Asia’s most urbanized country is Japan at around 92%.



Urbanization is generally defined as a process of people migrating from rural to urban areas, during which towns and cities are formed and increase in size. Even though urbanization is not exclusively a modern phenomenon, industrialization and modernization did accelerate its progress.

China's rural-to-urban population movement is largely viewed as a response to the economic reform, and better employment opportunities in large-scale cities.


Mega-cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, have been at the heart of this change, serving as the engines of China's rapid economic transformation.

There are at least 200 million migrant workers in the whole country, according to a national census carried out in April 2011. Many are seasonal workers who work in cities part-time and then return to their villages - though an increasing number live and work in urban centers permanently.

 Source:  Caixin Global

What are the effects of this large-scale migration you may ask?


The rapid urbanization in China has brought massive economic and social benefits to the country, such as GDP growth and improvements to transportation, healthcare, and education infrastructure. From 1978 to 2018, China’s GDP expereienced economic growth of 245 times. In 1987, the GDP of China and India were almost equal but by 2019, China's GDP was 4.78 times greater than India.

Source:  IMF

Urban areas with higher population densities bring about greater economies of scale, not just for private and public investments, but also for resource allocation. Thus, from a government or infrastructure developers point of view, cities are a vital part of any growth story.


Growing urban areas also call for higher living costs. Living in modern cities such as Beijing and Shanghai is almost twice as expensive as living in smaller cities such as Qingdao, Dalian or Jinan. As households enjoy higher disposable incomes in those larger cities, private car ownership and usages also increase. This also means many large cities in China experience severe traffic congestion, along with air pollution and high carbon emissions.

 Source: Tech in Asia

By most measures, the income gap between urban and rural households in China is one of the largest in the world, with urban residents’ incomes more than triple those of their rural counterparts. Lack of economic opportunities in rural China is one of the primary drivers of the rural to urban migration. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, this migration has caused China’s rural population to reduce by nearly 50% since the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Average disposable income (¥) between rural and urban households in China

Source:  Statista

Furthermore, as greater number of people migrate out from rural areas in search of jobs and better economic opportunities; more children are being left behind in the villages. According to UNICEF the figure is around 69 million children in China alone. These left-behind children are particularly educationally disadvantaged as compared to their city counterparts. In some cases, they are more likely to suffer from mental health issues such obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and paranoia.


The concept of reverse migration, also known as counter-urbanization, or de-urbanization, is still quite novel and has yet to be explored to its fullest potential. The basic idea is for a person to migrate back to his/her rural area from the city, bringing with them all the experiences and knowledge they have gathered from their urban life. With support from the government and organizations, reverse migration can contribute significantly to the economic development in rural areas as it brings growth and new opportunities.

Source:  ORF Online

In order to make this a reality, countries will have to re-engineer their societies as they spread out across the countryside. From providing high speed internet access, transportation connectivity and improved basic services, it will require a complete shift in thinking for corporates and governments. As major cities around the world are still battling with the COVID19 outbreak and quarantines, there could be no better time to answer the question - Why does a person have to be in an office building in a city center to be able to attend a meeting?

Some governments across the world are now promoting this concept in an effort to reduce the pressure on densely populated mega cities and improve the overall standard of living in smaller towns.


While encouraging individuals to walk away from cities may not always be easy and possible, perhaps focusing on building better planned and more livable cities could be another direction to address the problems or urban congestion. Since the 1960’s, cities have been designed around automobiles and traffic, and till this day we continue to do so in the same way. By 2050, an estimated 80% of our population will be urbanized. How do we expand our cities in a way that cater to people instead?

Source:  The Human Scale

Architects such as Jan Gehl, have made an excellent case about designing cities around people instead of automobiles or traffic flow. He suggests that urban planners need to start incorporating more aspects such as green spaces, bicycle paths, walking streets, reorganization of parks in a way that can be conducive towards humans. Interventions like that can help make urban living more enjoyable and less stressful for urban dwellers.

Source:  The Human Scale

The film, The Human Scale, explores these possibilities more in depth with Gehl as he visits mega-cities like Chongqing, New York, Copenhagen, and more.


Green Initiatives will be hosting a film screening of Human Scale on Thursday July 16, from 19:00-21:00. In The Human Scale, Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl who has studied human behavior in cities through 40 years will tell us how modern cities repel human interaction, and argue that we can build cities in a way, which takes human needs for inclusion and intimacy into account.

Scan the QR code below to register. Limited seats available.