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Europeans are watching with a mix of admiration and anxiety as China’s cities become big, bigger, biggest.

Reasons for the admiration are clear: the dizzying pace and scale of China’s urbanization and transformation from a largely rural to an urban nation is unprecedented in human history.  There is also recognition that cities have been the major drivers of China’s impressive economic growth and as such there is EU support for Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang as he champions the cause for further Chinese urbanisation.

As the world urges China to rebalance its economy, there are hopes that increased domestic consumption due to urbanisation will overtake exports to become the main driver of the economy.

As European Commission Vice President Joaquin Almunia said in May last year at the launch of the EU-China partnership on sustainable urbanisation, “city dwellers and migrants are the lifeblood of China’s economic development and need to supported in their search for social and economic opportunities.”

Cities in both China and Europe are focal points of economic growth, innovation and paid employment.  On average, urban residents have better access to education and health care as well as other basic services such as clean water, sanitation and transportation than rural populations. If well managed, urbanisation can continue to offer important opportunities for economic and social development.

But urbanisation is not as simple as relocating rural people to cities or turning them overnight into city-dwellers.  It is also about the quality of urban living, being able to provide urbanites with social security, housing, health, education and recreational facilities.

As such, there is concern in Europe – as in many parts of the world – that China may not be able to cope with the demands of its increasingly assertive “urban billion”. China’s urban expansion poses a huge challenge for local and national leaders who must find sufficient public funding to provide social services and deal with pressure on energy resources, land, water and the environment.  It is also clear that integrating rural migrants into city life will not be easy, given the current system of local residence permits (hukou).

Clearly, the hukou system has helped to control the influx of rural migrants to the cities, maintained social stability and, at least partly, avoided slums-like outskirts next to China’s bigger cities. But can the hukou system meet the challenges of urban living in the 21st Century?  The fear is that in the long run, it may impede growth by lowering labour mobility and preventing some urbanites from becoming real consumers.

Europeans do not just want to watch China’s urbanization from the side lines. The European Union believes firmly that potential for EU-China cooperation in creating energy-efficient and “eco-cities” is immense. The EU-China sustainable urbanization partnership launched amid much fanfare last year is a very visible symbol of the two sides’ hopes of working together on what many in Brussels view as a global challenge, not just a Chinese one.

European businesses, meanwhile are hoping to help China meet its urbanization challenge – and make money in the process. And there is no dearth of experts, academics and scholars who are already giving their advice on how best to improve China’s cities of today and build China’s cities of tomorrow.

The task facing China is immense.  At recent meetings on the subject organised in Brussels, Chinese and European experts have underlined their concerns regarding the impact of the mega-cities on China’s already massive problem of environmental pollution, water and waste management, property prices and transport bottle necks. Providing health and education facilities to the rising number of urban dwellers will be difficult.

However, there is also confidence that Chinese architects, urban planners and other urbanization experts will be able to create and build cities which are adapted to the needs of 21st Century citizens. Ideally, European technology and China’s organizational and implementation skills can be combined to produce the best results.

Faced also with energy constraints, increased citizen mobility and dwindling natural resources, Europe is making great strides in greening its cities. But as illustrated by a series of EU projects, including the EU “smart cities and communities” initiative, the quest to develop integrated sustained solutions that offer clean, secure and affordable energy to citizens is far from over.

Since cities account for 70 per cent of Europe’s overall energy consumption, EU plans to ensure 20 per cent energy saving by 2020 and to develop a low-carbon economy by 2050 hinge on how quickly and successfully European cities can become more resource-efficient.

Europe can share its experience with China in areas such as providing pensions, health care and education for migrant workers as well as in managing rural communities.  EU policymakers also insist on the need to involve civil society representatives in the dialogue on sustainable urbanisation.

As such, over the coming years, European and Chinese mayors, architects, urban planners and industry leaders will have many opportunities to meet, identify and find solutions for common problems and priorities. The EU’s own Covenant of Mayors, set up in 2008, has more than 3,800 towns and cities as members who discuss issues like climate change, water, waste and mobility but also over-consumption and ageing.

Given the right balance, in China, Europe and elsewhere, cities can be wonderlands of creativity, abundance and talent. But achieving that equilibrium will require out-of-the-box solutions and visionary global partnerships.

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