Shaping Social Cities: A Challenge for Politics and Administration in China and Germany

Event: Society and Politics

By 2025, China’s urban population is expected to increase by more than 160 million people, raising its urbanization rate to over 70 percent. This rapid growth puts great pressure on municipalities to deliver socially equitable services across social strata.

The story of the past two centuries is not only one of industrialization, but also one of relentless urbanization. By 2014, there were more people living in cities than in rural areas, marking a decisive shift in the makeup of human civilization. Across the world, we see today not only cities, but “mega-cities” with populations comparable to small-size countries. Shanghai has a whopping population of 24 million.

As such, mega-cities are a micro-cosmos of national and global developments and challenges. Socio-economic and demographic changes are being reflected in the development of urban areas. Liveable, attractive, functional and socially balanced cities, towns and neighbourhoods are more and more becoming the foundations for the social cohesion of a whole society. In China, Germany and around the world, municipalities are under pressure to adapt to growing populations and to deliver socially equitable services. Ensuring access to urban infrastructure and providing the access to social services across social strata will determine the success of the policies city governments undertake.

“Shanghai’s downtown population had increasing by 659.300 people annually between 1993 and 2015. This rapid growth has caused several ‘urban diseases’, including environmental degradation, high real estate prices, social segregation and a lack in the provision of social services.” (Prof. Ma Xiheng, SAI)

Recognizing these challenges, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Shanghai Representative Office (FES Shanghai) and Shanghai Administrative Institute (SAI), Shanghai’s central training school for high level cadres, jointly organized an international symposium on 13-14 September in Shanghai. The symposium brought together experts and scholars from Germany and China in order to foster a dialogue on current and future challenges of cities.

The explosive expansion of the global urban population has gone hand in hand with concerns over housing, education, health, elderly care and the digitalization of life, among others. Municipalities can only succeed in creating livable, attractive, functional and socially balanced cities, if they address these concerns. This symposium discussed three particular areas that require the attention of city policy-makers: affordable housing, the reconciliation of work and life in the era of digitalization and elderly care. During the conference, both Chinese and German experts repeatedly emphasized that efficient coordination is urgently required and that municipalities would need to include a wide range of actors and to serve as a hinge between them in order to achieve success in the shaping of socially balanced cities.  

“Municipalities need to elaborate an integrated development concept for their cities that include the administration, citizens, experts and the civil society.” (Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Martin zur Nedden, German Institute of Urban Affairs)

In each session of the conference, whether it be for elderly care, affordable housing or the reconciliation of work and life, experts called for coordinated action, integrated systems and the inclusion of a wide range of actors as a fundamental condition to address the pressure cities face in create socially balanced cities. Dr. Ulrich Hatzfeld, Director of the Subdivision for General Policy Issues and Planning related Legislation at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety pointed out what it needs to tackle Germany’s rising urban. Creating affordable and sustainable housing would require a more sophisticated policy coordination that integrates housing policy, energy policy, urban development policy and sustainability. Fiscal measures would be needed to support and channel these efforts. His call was shared by Zhang Lili’s (SAI) presentation. She pointed out the similarities in the characteristics of the challenges between German and Chinese cities, however, it goes without saying that the growth and sheer size of mega-cities like Shanghai put additional pressure on urban policy-makers and shareholders. Thus, it is not only important to look at best practices, but to adapt these to local circumstances in order to develop best-fit approaches.

In assessing the current state of urban elderly care, Simone Prühl (Federal Social-Democratic Association for Local Politics) and Professor Zhang Lijun (SAI) stated that cities would face challenges not only by urbanization but also by aging societies, two megatrends that can hardly be separated. With growing urban population numbers and fewer and fewer working people who support an increasing number of retired people, cities face high pressure to meet the rising demand for care workers and inpatient care, while at the same time they have to ensure that quality standards are being met. Similar challenges can be seen when it comes to the reconciliation of work and life. Technology has an enormous impact on the future of work and social policies and a social urban infrastructure would need to take this into account in order to reconcile work and life and to shape it in an inclusive, equitable and suitable manner.

In the face of urbanization, demographic, technological and environmental changes, it becomes enormously complex and challenging to make precautions for building and shaping socially balanced cities. The conference has shown that the efficiency of coordination and finance will determine the success of municipalities’ efforts. The discussants concluded, that more research and intensified exchange on international best-practices is urgently needed to find best-fit approaches for regional realities.

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