Coupling Relationship between Urbanization and Green Total Factor Productivity in the Context of Population Shrinkage: Evidence from the Rust Belt Region of China

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Coupling Relationship between Urbanization and Green Total Factor Productivity in the Context of Population Shrinkage: Evidence from the Rust Belt Region of China


1. Introduction

A vital stage of social progress is urbanization. Data from the WHO of the United Nations suggested that by 2050, urbanization might rise to 68% worldwide, with an urban population of 6.7 billion [1]. Such a large amount will inevitably cause shocks and disturbances to the resource and environmental carrying capacity. It has been documented that urbanization for economic growth in the past has put pressure on resources and ecology, including energy consumption [2,3], food and water scarcity [4,5], greenhouse gas production and climate systems [6,7], and changes in ecosystem functions [8,9]. Urbanization was physically rooted in resources and the environment, so cities inevitably underwent a transformation in the face of issues such as resource scarcity and ecological destruction. Facing the transition, the Rust Belt, a characteristic phenomenon of the world’s industrialization process, has been considered a typical region [10,11]. The term “rust belt” originates from the United States, which refers to an area characterized by deindustrialization, economic decline, population loss, and urban decay because of the shrinkage of industrial sectors, especially steelmaking, automobile manufacturing, and coal mining. In China, the Rust Belt mainly refers to the northeastern region [12]. As an old industrial base, the northeast assumed most of the industrial pressure in the early years of the founding of the country; however, overexploitation and irrational production methods have caused the northeast to face problems of environmental pollution, resource depletion, and industrial decline, which has led to increased ecological pressure, declining economic efficiency, and massive population loss. With the goal of achieving a social development that is sustainable and improves the well-being of people, it is crucial to balance the interaction between urbanization, resources, and natural environments in light of population shrinkage.
China’s sustained and rapid economic expansion depends on urbanization. China has experienced an enormous rise in urbanization since the reform and opening up. It has increased rapidly from 17.92% to 63.89% [13]; by 2050, the number is predicted to reach 76.0% [14]. However, behind the economic growth are problems such as resource consumption, environmental pollution, an increasing regional development gap, and imbalance in population distribution patterns. The entire driving force of regional socioeconomic and even naturally occurring ecological variables was responsible for population shrinkage, and it also had the opposite impact on the growth. The new urbanization driven by the increasing “shrinkage context” had a profound impact on urban socioeconomic development and interfered with urban green development and environmental health. This has given the subject of promoting urbanization and ecological environment coordination a new meaning. Investigating the realization of coordinated growth of urbanization and the environment has emerged as a hot topic of concern for society and academia, aiming at the major strategic needs of China’s modern urbanization and ecological civilization simultaneously.
The following aspects were the main emphases of the most recent research on the coordination between urbanization, resources, and environment. (1) A theoretical analysis and framework for the cooperation between urbanization and the environment’s ecological system. The relationship between cities and the environment had previously been researched in Western nations, mostly by the Environmental Kuznets Curve [15], the Circular Economy Theory [16], and the Decoupling Theory [17]. On this basis, China proposed the “Social-Economic-Natural” complex ecosystem theory [18], and further theoretical frameworks and technical routes were constructed to explain the coupling and role of the mechanisms of increasing urbanization along with ecological conditions [19,20], which provided a systematic research paradigm by analyzing from multiple perspectives. (2) The impact of urbanization on ecological environment and its analysis. Researchers used the ecological footprint, carbon emission, and eco-efficiency as eco-environmental representations to demonstrate the response and interrelationship between ecology and urbanization from a microscopic point of view. They selected the national, urban cluster, provincial, and municipal scales as study areas. The main arguments were as follows. First, urbanization improved resource utilization and restoration through technological innovation and economic investment, thus effectively improving ecological conditions [21,22]. Second, while urbanization promoted economic development, it caused waste of resources and environmental pollution, which damaged the ecological environment [23,24]. third, the relationship between urbanization and ecological environment is nonlinear due to the heterogeneity of the role of elements [25,26]. (3) The study of how urbanization and environmental issues interact ecologically. The interplay between human beings and the environment, which is complicated, nonlinear, and not certain, creates the social-ecological system [27]. They constructed a system of urbanization and ecological environment indicators, bringing the two under the same framework to explore the degree of their coordinated development. They also introduced an econometric model to analyze their spatial and temporal divergence and influence mechanisms [28,29,30,31]. Research focused on the dynamic evolution and feedback mechanisms of socioeconomic and ecological systems, leading to a comprehensive analysis of the elements of social and ecological systems [32,33]. Urbanization that respects ecological carrying capacity can prevent the ecological environment and cities from harming one another.
According to year-by-year population data comparisons, Northeastern China continues to suffer from population loss, and most of the outflow is from the young and middle-aged labor force, leading to changes in the local demographic structure and making the problem of population shrinkage even more significant [34,35]. In light of this, this article used samples from cities in Northeast China, focusing on the two themes of urbanization as well as resources and the environment, and empirically studied the spatial and temporal evolution patterns of urbanization and GTFP coordination levels in 34 cities in Northeast China under the context of population shrinkage and quantified the key influencing factors. The innovations of the paper are the following. (1) In the background of the study, population shrinkage is innovatively taken as the premise of the study, and different degrees of shrinkage are classified to measure regional heterogeneity. (2) The object of the study is to select a typical rust belt region in China, the three northeastern provinces, and to refine the perspective to the prefecture-level city level. (3) In terms of research content, we include GTFP in the research framework as a system that refines the input and output of resources and the environment in the coupled system of urbanization and ecological environment. This study provides important practical implications for the implementation of urban green, low-carbon, and ecological development strategies.

4. Discussion

4.1. Population Shrinkage Analysis

From 2010 to 2020, only Changchun, Shenyang, and Dalian did not experience population shrinkage, while the remaining 31 cities suffered different degrees of population shrinkage and used a “high in the north with a low in the south” geographical pattern. The main reasons are as follows. (1) The internal logic of the shrinkage was the weakening of the “development potential” of the region caused by the downturn of the investment and consumption economy [48]. Under the long-term effect of “deindustrialization, suburbanization, globalization” and other factors [49], the economic vitality of Northeast China had declined, and the population showed a gradual shrinkage, i.e., the inflow of population was less than the outflow of population, and the outflow of population were mostly young and middle-aged laborers, which indirectly led to a decline in the birth rate in the region and the rise of the aging population. The shrinkage in general showed a relatively stable inertia and persistent development characteristics. (2) The region had a high degree of primacy, with the economy and resources concentrated in the core city. Under the “polarization” effect, the surrounding population concentrated toward the center, and thus the population was in relative dynamic balance, while its surrounding cities were deprived of space by the central city, and the phenomenon of shrinkage occurred to varying degrees. (3) Population shrinkage cities mostly for resource cities, decline-type resource cities were mainly concentrated in the north of Heilongjiang, such as Yichun, Hegang, and other areas, which were located in the border, access was not high, the depletion of resources led to a severe employment environment, resulting in a large number of population outflow. Regeneration-type resource cities were concentrated mainly in the south of Liaoning, such as Huludao and Panjin, with locational advantages, and were port cities; the marine economy had a certain support for its development and was still in the stage of mild shrinkage.

4.2. Analysis of the Level of Coordination between Urbanization and GTFP

Overall, it showed a circle structure with Harbin-Daqing-Changchun, Shenyang-Dalian as the core and decreasing to the periphery, which was in line with the overall development pattern of Northeast China, i.e., spatial agglomeration along the Harbin-Dalian corridor and from north to south: The “core circle” of Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang, Dalian was the leading economic region in the northeast, but also an advanced demonstration area for urban transformation, with a significant urbanization and GTFP coordination level. Shuangyashan, Chaoyang, Heihe, and Yichun in the “outer circle” had the highest growth rate of coupling coordination level. These areas were mostly ecologically sensitive or geopolitically sensitive areas with less ecological and environmental pressure. Under the influence of national ecological functional areas and other policies, the transformation of urban green development was quite effective. This indicated that the region has been still agglomerating with the urban agglomerations of Harbin-Changchun urban agglomeration and Central and Southern Liaoning area as the core, while inter-regional development tended to be balanced and was experiencing the process of transitioning from a higher level of agglomerations to a higher level of balanced development.

4.3. Analysis of Influencing Factors

The degree of government intervention mainly affected the level of coordination through infrastructure construction. Moderate investment and infrastructure construction were conducive to the development of urbanization and the creation of a green environment, thus increasing GTFP, but excessive infrastructure construction might cause a waste of resources, resulting in a decline in GTFP. Meanwhile, moderate environmental regulation played the leading role of the government, prompting enterprises to technological innovation, and the resulting benefits can compensate for the cost of regulation, realizing a positive cycle, and the green environment was conducive to the development of urbanization. However, excessive environmental regulation might drive up resource costs, and in the interaction between the government and the enterprises, the enterprises might compress the research and development expenditures and investment in innovation, which might hurt the GTFP. Scientific and technological investment for the city to create an innovative environment, technological innovation to promote the green development of enterprises, good technical facilities to attract talent, so that the overall level of R & D, however, due to the current mismatch of resources and other reasons, resulting in knowledge spillover yet to coordinate the level of negative impact. With the transformation of pollution-intensive industries, enterprise production energy consumption decreased, reducing environmental pollution, and opening to the outside world was conducive to stimulating market potential, accelerating the flow of factor resources, stimulating market vitality, and promoting green development.

The reduction of pollution-aggregating enterprises is necessary for dealing with the issue of environmental pollution in the current agglomeration of resource cities. Second, an increase of the degree of exposure to the global outside to draw in human and technological capital. In addition, acceleration of the flow of factor resources and acceleration of industrial structure upgrading and green transformation, so as to positively influence the level of coordination in both urbanization and green development. Therefore, local governments ought to, on the one hand, actively promote scientific and technical investment, innovate technology, increase energy efficiency and decrease resource consumption. On the other hand, they should deepen the convergence of industrial planning and the connection between them of industrial structure. In addition, they should coordinate the knowledge spillover with the allocation of resource factors to realize the transformation, so that intellectual capital can be used as a reserve of talents to build up the strength for improving innovative technologies and to enhance the whole level of research.

5. Conclusions

This research concentrated on the two key themes of urbanization and ecology by taking the cities in the “Rust Belt” of China as samples to empirically analyze the spatial and temporal evolution of the coupling and coordination of urbanization and GTFP in 34 cities, and quantitatively analyzing the key influencing factors, to investigate the coordinated creation of high-quality urban transformation and GTFP within the context of population shrinkage and to come up with the following conclusions.

The population of the three northeastern provinces as a whole has shown a trend of shrinkage, characterized by a spatial pattern of “high in the north and low in the south.” The level of urbanization and GTFP were on the rise, spatially showing a “core-edge” pattern centered on Harbin-Changchun, Shenyang-Dalian, and spreading in all directions. The urbanization level of non-shrinking cities was much higher than that of shrinking cities. In shrinking cities, the coordination level continued to decline as the degree of shrinkage increased. The overall difference in GTFP was relatively slight, with mildly shrinking and moderately shrinking cities experiencing relatively smooth changes, and non-shrinking and severely shrinking cities experiencing larger changes, exhibiting a general growing pattern.

The coordination level of urbanization and GTFP presented the characteristics of the transition from “primary coordination” to “intermediate coordination.” In terms of spatial pattern, it showed a circle structure with Harbin-Daqing-Changchun, and Shenyang-Dalian as the core and decreasing to the periphery. The coordination level of cities with a non-shrinking population was significantly higher than that of cities with a shrinking population. In shrinking cities, as the degree of shrinkage increased, the level of coordination continued to decline, and regional differences gradually narrowed, forming a balanced development trend. The level of coordination was affected by government factors, technical factors, and economic factors. Among them, government intervention, environmental regulation, and knowledge spillover had negative effects on the coordination level, while beneficial effects on the industrial structure, external access, and technological investment created spatial spillover effects.

The influencing factors of coordination level showed certain regional heterogeneity. Under the total effect, the influencing factors had a significant positive effect on cities with all degrees of shrinkage, and the effect on cities with severe shrinkage was more significant. Government intervention and industrial structure only had a significant positive effect on mildly shrinking cities. As the degree of shrinkage deepened, the effects of the level of opening up and environmental regulation on the level of coordination gradually changed from negative correlation to positive correlation; technology investment and knowledge spillover had a positive impact in non-shrinking and moderately shrinking cities and a negative impact in mildly and severely shrinking cities on the coordination level.

In response to the above discussion, in the future, Northeast China may seek new points of focus for coordinated development in the midst of shrinkage. First, it is important to pay attention to the phenomenon of population shrinkage and to look at its impacts in a dialectical manner. The government should stabilize the population, recognize the fact of shrinkage, reevaluate and position the city types, guide them in a categorical manner, reconstruct the development space of the stock, promote the moderate migration of the population, improve the public service and pension system, and increase the population’s desire for staying in the city. It will improve the quality of the population, perfect the household registration system and social security system, upgrade the level of medical care, health care, education, and public facilities, and promote policies on housing security and the introduction of talent, in order to encourage the coordinated growth of urban assets and people. Second, to achieve the green transformation of the northeast region, it must integrate urbanization with the establishment of ecological civilization within the context of population reduction and overcome the route dependence of regional development and strengthen the northeast region’s integrated development. In addition, it should adopt differentiated strategies within the region, optimize and adjust the industrial structure, integrate production factors, develop low-carbon innovative economic models, optimize the spatial spillover effect, and give play to the driving role of the pioneer demonstration areas to radiate the surrounding cities. Mildly shrinking cities with a certain industrial foundation strengthen the construction of regional industrial chains, absorb the technology and resources of core cities, and clarify the industrial division of labor and upgrading. Border areas focus on the combination of economic development and ecological environmental protection, rely on high-quality natural background and product advantages, strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries and regions, promote the transformation of resource-oriented cities, and realize diversified development.

In addition, urban development is a comprehensive result of the complex interaction of several factors. Due to the availability of data, this paper did not include the housing vacancy rate, the quality of the demographic structure, and so on. There is still room for optimization in the construction of research indicators and models, so it fails to specifically quantify the relationship between population shrinkage and the economic society and the ecological environment. These deficiencies will be the focus of the next study.


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