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China’s New Urban Agenda in Manchester – a Conference Report

November 2018

CITYMAKER guest editor GAO Xiaoxue participated in the conference China’s New Urban Agenda: An International Dialogue on Sustainable Development in Manchester to present her research. Here she shares some insights from the conference.

From Oct. 31st to November 3rd 2018, an academic conference titled China’s New Urban Agenda: An International Dialogue on Sustainable Development, organized by Manchester Urban Institute, took place in the Manchester Industrial Museum. CITYMAKER guest editor GAO Xiaoxue participated in the conference to present her research and talk about research challenges as a selected early career researcher.

The important contextual information of this conference is: China’s National New-type Urbanization Plan 2014-2020 国家新型城镇化规划 2014-2020, partly reflected through the title of the conference. It was published in 2014 and marks a shift in the Chinese government’s approach towards a new form of urbanization, acknowledging that rapid urbanization has created some ‘urban diseases’ like pollution, traffic jams and so on in China. According to the plan, the new goal is to move away from export-led manufacturing to domestic consumption, reshaping urban growth towards a more human-centered and environmentally sustainable pathway. It has attracted academics’ attention across the globe since it is widely acknowledged among scholars that the Chinese state and state policy play a crucial role in urbanization development, so that, with regard to urban researches, this new political discursive change not only constitutes a critical institutional context but also imposes a significant impact on the thematic options of the studies.

Around this theme, several speakers have pointed out that the top-down agenda shows many structural weaknesses and that it is very difficult for urban practitioners and policymakers to pin down the concrete meaning of critical terms like ecological civilization (生态文明) and human-centered development (以人为本). Others contend that the general statements in the plan echo very much the vision of the United Nations Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda. 

Overall, judging by the conference’s output from researchers from a dozen countries in 23 sessions, the New Urban Agenda is reflected in an emerging thematic scope ranging from ecological, technological, environmental and social dimensions of cities. While many of the researches still have strong institutional focuses, seeking to measure, evaluate and explain specific urban phenomena as result of state administrative policies on all levels, setting solutions/instructions to future policy-making as the goal, there is at the same time an obvious trend that more and more studies address how city is ‘experienced’ by its residents, i.e., their health risks, well-being, identity and so on. This noticeable turn is confirmed by the chief conference organizer, Prof. Cecilia Wong’s comment that “it was impossible for me to even imagine having such a conference on broad urban issues in China in the UK ten years ago, as most of the researchers’ scope was very narrow, focusing on measuring the material-physical structure of space, like whether a Chinese city is poly-centered or not.” Along with the recent research shift to ‘city as experienced’, the lack of necessary theorization and definition of urban concepts in the Chinese social-context was a recurrent question exposed by many in the conference. Therefore, some urgent issues in the context of the New Urban Agenda are actually the most basic ones, among them the questions of how we should understand and define neighborhood, community, urban heritage, sustainability in and for China’s new urban agenda?  


GAO Xiaoxue, Msc. in Human geography from PKU, currently a PhD. candidate in urban sociology, TU Berlin, whose dissertation deal with the meaning of spatial concepts in Chinese context and their practical implications.

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