How Migrants Change Cities and Cities Change Migrants

weiping_wuWeiping Wu, PhD, joined the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning in 2011. She is also a senior fellow of the Council on Emerging Market Enterprises at the Fletcher School. Wu holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in urban planning from Tsinghua University (China) and a doctorate in urban planning and policy development from Rutgers University. One of Wu’s primary research interests is in comparing how cities in different geographical regions respond to new urban phenomena such as housing shortages and slum challenges caused by migration or immigration. This work builds on her 20 years of experience as an urban specialist with a geographic focus on China. “I’m at that intersection of area studies and social science research, such as urban studies,” Wu says. “It’s actually an interesting space that I think will have relevance for new collaborations.”

Offering collaboration in
  • migration and urbanism
  • China expertise
  • Seeking collaboration in
  • migration/immigration and urbanism issues in emerging economies
  • technology transfer and innovation policies in developing countries
  • Wu’s research focuses on understanding how population movements shape or reshape the urban space and how new urban practices happen because of large social economic change. “In the case of China, you have the market reform, you have the largest migration movement in history,” Wu says. “My goal has been trying to study how these larger trends are changing cities. It’s actually two-fold: first, how migrants find their way in the cities, particularly their housing—how they live, whom they live with, how they become or don’t become a part of the city. Second, how the city as a physical form is affected by these new entrants into the city.” Wu doesn’t recommend policies directly but rather looks at how current urban policies have either facilitated or become barriers to the settlement process of migrants.

    “I have done lots of fieldwork in China, and most of my collaborators have been sociologists,” Wu says. “We focused on the two largest cities, Shanghai and Beijing, and we had a core set of questions that we used to compare cities. For each city, we surveyed over a thousand migrants, both in terms of who they are—since there’s a diversity of migrants—as well as in terms of where they lived in the cities.” One of Wu’s collaborators in Shanghai works in the quasi-official research arm of the municipal government, so her research has helped shape some local policies.

    The Chinese City (2013) is a new book that Wu co-authored with Piper Gaubatz, a geographer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wu expects the book will be a resource to students studying China as well as to social science scholars who work on China but lack expertise on Chinese cities. The book’s freestanding chapters include Population and Peoples, Urban Restructuring and Economic Transformation, Environmental Quality and Sustainability, and Implications for the World, among other topics. “This is getting quite a bit of visibility even within our urban planning discipline because we have people who are going to China to do planning, and they are very good urban scholars but they know very little about Chinese cities,” says Wu. “They like this because this gives you a very comprehensive inroad into understanding Chinese cities.”

    Wu’s work in China has led to collaborations with researchers who study American cities. “In many ways, the Chinese migrants are akin to the undocumented immigrants in the United States,” says Wu. “For example, the migrants in China and the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. appear to behave very similarly in their housing careers [how they find their housing].”

    Wu’s other collaboration interests include worldwide migration/immigration and urban issues, especially how urbanism converges or diverges in similar emerging economies, given the influx of both global capital and migrants/immigrants. She works regularly with sociologists, economists, and geographers, and believes her Chinese expertise and basic knowledge of geographic information systems (GIS) could be helpful to public health or poverty researchers focused on China.

    Technology transfer and innovation policies in developing countries also interest Wu, who has discussed these areas with colleagues in the Fletcher School, focusing on the institutional framework and incentives for local governments to encourage innovation in urban areas. Wu looks forward to continued collaboration with colleagues at Fletcher, and would enjoy broader collaborations in this area as well.

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