United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development

Mr. Steven Sabey

Speech by Mr. Steven Sabey to High-Level Symposium on Sustainable
Cities and Sustainable Urbanization, 16 December 2013, Yangzhou
Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
It is my honour today to represent the United Nations System in China at
this high-level symposium. This meeting provides a valuable opportunity
for participants from around the world to meet and address one of the
most critical issues of our time: sustainable cities and urbanization. I
would like to thank UN DESA and Yangzhou Municipal Government for
their commendable hosting of this event.
In my remarks today I would like to highlight three points:
First, the context of urbanization in China today and the challenges and
opportunities this presents;
Second, our understanding of the Chinese Government’s thinking on
urbanization at the present stage;
And third, some lessons we believe the world can learn from China, and
some that China can learn from the world.
So, firstly, what is the context of urbanization in China today? In fact, in
December 2011, China passed a key urbanization milestone. The National
Bureau of Statistics announced that at the national level, more than fifty
per cent of the population of the country was now living in cities.
While the transition to a predominantly urban population is not at all
unique to China, urbanization in China has two striking characteristics.
The first is its speed, and the second is its scale.
According to China’s national censuses, the country’s urban population
grew from only eleven percent in 1949 to thirty six percent in 2000 and
now to over fifty percent. The speed of this urbanization is astounding -
urbanization in Europe took 150 years to go from twelve per cent to 51
percent. Internal migration to cities in China has occurred on a massive
scale and shows no sign of abating. The urban population is predicted to
rise to 70 percent by 2030, resulting in an additional 310 million new city
dwellers in the next two decades. By then, one billion Chinese will live in
cities. Or, to put it another way, something similar to the entire
population of the USA will move in to China’s cities in the next 16 years.
This speed and scale of migration is unprecedented in human history and
places China at the forefront of the world’s rapid urban transformation.
As urbanization continues, China will face pressures to ensure the
efficient use of natural and energy resources, and the further development
of urban governance systems. It will need to ensure that there are
employment, transportation, housing, access to basic social services, and
security for its urban citizens, and to protect the livelihoods of migrant
workers. There will also be challenges to China’s development related to
the ageing population, the structural transformation of the economy, and
air and water pollution.
But continued large-scale urbanization will also bring great opportunities,
such as the potential for further growth and development as more rural
residents move into the modern economy. And perhaps the biggest
opportunity of all is for China to build green, low carbon, sustainable
cities from scratch for the influx of city residents to come, while much of
the rest of the world struggles to retrofit existing structures and systems at
considerably higher cost.
Moving to my second point, Chinese leaders have signalled that the
country is committed to a successful urban transformation. They have
taken a series of actions, introducing new policies, experimenting with
innovative ideas, and beginning to compile national plans to guide
urbanization. Urbanization has been placed high on the political agenda
of the country’s leadership, and it has also been made clear by Premier Li
Keqiang that the new type of urbanization has to be human-centered and
must ensure people’s prosperity. There is thus little debate about the
importance of urbanization or the direction it should take; the big issue
now is not what or why but how – and a large part of this is about sharing
of evidence and experiences across cities, both in China and beyond.
This brings me to my third point, what positive experiences can China
share with the world, and the world with China?
In terms of good experiences from China, apart from the good practices
we have already heard about here in Yangzhou, allow me to cite a few by
way of illustration:
In Zhejiang Province, the city of Ningbo has established an internet based
community service platform, which is allowing city authorities to better
understand and respond to demand for public services;
In Guangdong, the city of Shenzhen has been breaking new ground in the
design and construction of energy saving buildings, and the use of urban
solar power;
In Tianjin Municipality, the Tianjin Eco-City – a China – Singapore joint
initiative – has seen the installation of an intelligent electricity network
and the achievement of 100% waste treatment;
And large cities across China also have good experience in providing
social housing, successfully allocating areas of land specifically for
development of affordable homes.
If we look, conversely, at the good experiences from which China can
learn, it is perhaps invidious to single any country out, as every place has
something to offer to this exchange of ideas. But from our own research
and in-country partnerships, let me highlight two, again by way of
In Istanbul, the city government applied a series of actions, including
demolishing and relocating nearly all industries, constructing a new waste
disposal system, restoring the Golden Horn to its former status as a social
and cultural locus, and reengaging citizens with the beauty and history of
the area.
Meanwhile in Singapore, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 led the
country to re-evaluate its growth strategies. Through boosting spending
on R&D, Singapore has transformed itself into a more
knowledge-intensive society.
In light of all these positive experiences, both from China and the rest of
the world, we believe that there is great scope for both upscaled
north-south and south-south cooperation around cities.
Within the UN System in China, UNDP China and the Institute for Urban
and Environmental Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
earlier this year launched a joint flagship publication: the China National
Human Development Report 2013, entitled Sustainable and Liveable
Cities: toward Ecological Civilization. Mr. Wang Dong from UNDP
China will present some of the Report’s key findings and
recommendations this afternoon, so I will not say more about it now. But
suffice to say that at a dissemination event in Beijing a month or so ago, a
number of countries in the region already expressed interest in mutual
learning on several concrete aspects of urbanization.
So, in closing, I would encourage all of you here over the next three days
to take the same approach – to aim to leave with a shortlist of practical
ideas from other countries from which you would like to learn, as well as
to offer your own positive experiences – and your lessons learned – to
For our part, the UN System in China, and UNDP in particular, stand
ready through our network of country offices and our Memorandum of
Understanding on South-South Cooperation with China, to facilitate and
support such mutual learning wherever this would be of value.
With that, I wish everyone here a highly successful Symposium. Thank