Chengdu, China

by Tian Jun


ince the 1950s, there have been three distinct types of slums in Chengdu, each corresponding to a specific phase in economic development and policy change. The first slums of Chengdu were formed on the banks of the Fu and Nanrivers. Originally established as low-rent flats on the fringe of the city, from the 1970s onwards they became inner-city slums with the growth of the city and the spontaneous settlement of rural migrants and returning youth sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Although by no means destitute, location, low levels of income and education and a poor living environment contributed to their social exclusion. These slums were eradicated during the late 1990s, together with other inner-city substandard housing, and the inhabitants benefited from favourable housing-and-relocation policies and strategies.

The second phase in slum formation in Chengdu came as a result of economic reforms starting from the late 1980s. These reforms created much sudden unemployment and poverty, and a new group of suburban poor whose employer-provided pre-1970s row housing and flats became substandard and are now considered slums. Although access to physical and social infrastructure is more or less guaranteed, and while the entire area cannot be considered a slum, it is often perceived as a slum by association. The improvement of their living conditions is contingent upon new sources of employment.

Rapid urbanization and urban development during the 1990s have also created a category of about 1 million loweducated peri-urban dwellers known as the ‘floating population’. Recruited on a temporary basis from the rural areas, most live in rental accommodation provided by farmers on the urban border. Although adequate in terms of size and structure, they are located outside the scope and coverage of municipal services. Therefore, their long-term social, economic and living conditions are of direct concern to the municipality in terms of public health and the environment. Their status as non-resident is cause for social exclusion, as is their role and share in petty crime and prostitution.

Slums are simply defined as shanties in low-lying areas. More than 60 per cent of Chengdu’s slum housing belongs to those residing within them. Of the remaining 40 per cent, all had secure tenure; but many owners of the shanties did not have legally recognized property rights. The floating population tends to live on the fringe of the city either by renting their accommodation from farmers or by constructing sheds and shacks on uncontrolled or unused land. A small percentage is homeless, choosing to sleep in the inner city in such public places as bus and train stations.

The number of slums and slum dwellers in Chengdu is rapidly decreasing due to effective low-income housing and urbanization policies and strategies. Slum dwellers include those without income; those with no work ability (long illnesses, injuries or the handicapped); those with no one to care for them (retirees); those people waiting for new jobs owing to the collapse of their enterprises; low-paid employees with heavy family burdens; and people who receive relief funds.

Chengdu started its lowest living standards guarantee system in 1997, and implemented it in all of its areas of jurisdiction. From 2001, it focused on poor living conditions in the city centre’s single-storey houses, implementing a large-scale rehabilitation, relocation and ‘low-rent housing programme’. The households whose living conditions are below the poverty line standards specified by the city government can apply for apartments appropriate to their needs, with the government paying the rent. In 2001, less than 500 households filed an application with the city government and were provided with appropriate houses. The city government has planned to provide 1000 households with new ‘low-rent apartments’ in 2002.

Chengdu’s successes in poverty alleviation, slum eradication, urban transformation and environmental improvement of the city and its rivers is based on a holistic, city-wide approach that emphasizes the thorough understanding of poverty’s underlying causes. The eradication of inner-city slums involving 100,000 urban poor and the alleviation of their poverty were successfully carried out through an affordable housing policy involving one-time equity grants, and through parallel improvements to urban infrastructure, transport and the environment.

The participatory approach adopted in the slum relocation initiative, involving the residents themselves, as well as other social groups and the public at large, was a key contributing factor to the success of the endeavour. Public meetings and consultations raised the awareness of citizens of the need to simultaneously address the issues of slums, urban poverty, urban renewal and environmental improvement.

The issue of migrant workers will still require more harmonized approaches to economic development, social services and welfare. While many migrant workers witness an increase in cash income by coming to work in the city or on the fringe of the city, they represent the most recent trend in urbanization. Most of them inhabit the grey area that falls between urban and rural jurisdictions, calling for a concerted approach to rural and urban development policies.

Another possible aspect to Chengdu’s success is its three-tier local government management system that covers governance issues of a metropolitan area with unusual effectiveness. The first tier – the metro-level – is in charge of formulating macro-policies and overseeing their implementation by subordinate departments. The second tier – the district government and its subordinate departments – is in charge of implementing the policies established by the first tier. The third tier – neighbourhood committees – are in charge of specific political, social and economic affairs.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.

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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh