Resource-based cities are cities in which development depends primarily on the exploitation and primary processing of natural resources (e.g., minerals, energy and virgin forests). Because these natural resources are typically non-renewable, a resource-based city’s economy inevitably proceeds through a process of exploration, exploitation, high yield and ultimately exhaustion [1
], and this process has a huge effect on the overall transitions of resource-based cities. In the long run, resource-based cities have little room for economic improvement if they do not restructure their industries and develop a non-extractive economy [2
]. Furthermore, the high unemployment, single employment structure, low social security, ecological deterioration and other social and eco-environment problems also need solving. Additionally, once a city exhausts its resources and the economy contracts, various serious problems would be exacerbated, such as stagnation of economic development, living standards dropping sharply and ecological environment deterioration (such as Fuxin before 2000). The transition of resource-based cities is a subject of global interest. Several resource-based cities and regions, such as Pittsburgh, Houston and the Ruhr area, have already transitioned to post-industrial models of development, and learning from these overseas experiences is invaluable for China’s resource-based cities. The Ruhr area was a center of coal and steel production since the mid-19th century. However, the area faced structural crisis because of a decline in coal demand since the late 1950s. After decades of transformation, the Ruhr has become a ‘‘Helicon Valley’’ because of its leadership in alternative energy research, e-commerce and software development and is among the world’s most successful restructured industrial regions [2
]. Furthermore, the government tried out various strategies to effectively improve the ecological environment, brown field redevelopment and cultural heritage. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, a large number of resource-based cities, such as Daqing, Panzhihua, Qitaihe and Yichun, were developed to meet the needs of large-scale industrialization, and they flourished under the planned economy [3
]. However, with the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy and the depletion of natural resources, some inherent problems began to emerge during the post-1978 reform period [1
]. In the 1980s, a recession occurred in China’s many resource-based cities, and economic difficulties persisted and grew in magnitude through the early 2000s, with a large number of state-owned resource enterprises going bankrupt [2
]. As a result, the Chinese government began taking measures to revive resource-based cities. In 2001, Fuxin, a coal town in the northeast, was chosen to undergo an economic transition as an experimental resource-based city. In October 2003, a policy titled Opinions on the Strategy of the Revitalization of Northeast China and Other Old Industrial Bases was promulgated by the State Council. The document provided specific guidance for the transition of different types of resource-based cities and the transition in resource-based cities fully implemented. The cities with abundant resources should strengthen the deep processing and comprehensive utilization of resources and extend the industrial chain. The cities with declining resources should consider the problem of alternative industries, and the cities with depletion of resources and close to exhaustion should accelerate the development of continuous industry. Furthermore, the cities should speed up environment restoration and pollution control in mining areas and solve the problems of reemployment for workers and the closure and bankruptcy of mining enterprises. In 2008, 2009 and 2012, three groups of cities (69 cities in total) were designated as resource-exhausted cities (counties, districts), and Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang province accounted for 20 of these cities. There are a number of resource-based cities in Northeast China that produced a wealth of mineral and timber resources in the past. However, their resources are now severely depleted, and an urban transition for a better economic structure, living standards and ecological environment is urgently needed. By 2012, the urban transition of resource-based cities in Northeast China had been fully implemented over a decade.
Transition is considered as a societal process of fundamental change in culture, structure and practice [5
]. The scholarship on urban transitions has mainly applied the transition conceptual models in urban context [6
]. The compact city, smart growth, eco-city, low-carbon city, creative city, living city, smart city and various ideas, to some extent, all contain urban transition characteristics [7
]. Sustainable urban transition refers to structural transition processes, multi-dimensional and radical change, that can effectively direct urban development towards ambitious sustainability goals [8
]. The early stages of urban transition drew substantial attention of researchers in urban economics [9
]. Additionally, now, the research of urban transition mainly includes institutional transition (democratic government elections, privatization, price liberalization, foreign trade liberalization), social transition (internationalization, economic restructuring, social polarization, postmodern culture, neo-liberal politics) and reconfiguring the urban landscape (city center commercialization, inner city regeneration, outer city suburbanization) [10
Resource-based cities as a special type of city have become the hot area of research. The research of resource-based cities originated in the 1930s, which was marked by Canadian geographer H.A. Innis [11
]. Substantial research on resource-based cities has been conducted, including the causes and mechanisms of the problems of resource-based cities [12
]; the impact of transition on a resource-based city’s economic development, labor market and community development [13
]; the social development of resource-based cities [15
]; resource-based cities’ urban efficiency [16
]; and the effect of government policy on urban transition [17
]. Since the late 20th century, the sustainable development discourse has become hegemonic in the field of resource-based cities, and the sustainable development of resource-based cities has become an important issue [19
]. From this perspective, scholars have researched the frameworks and analytical methods that are applicable to resource-based cities and industries [20
], and they have endeavored to establish the indicators of sustainable development. Some empirical research from various regional scales has been performed. Yu et al. measured the sustainability of China’s major mining cities and contrasted them with other types of cities [22
]. Wang et al. and Dong et al. researched the sustainable development of resource-based cities in China at the provincial level and individual city level, respectively [23
]. In addition, the factors influencing the sustainable development of resource-based cities, including levels of economic development, industrial structure, technological progress, export dependence, city size and urban type, have been studied [25
]. Until recently, there had been abundant research on resource-based cities’ transition and sustainable development, but there had been little empirical research on evaluating the performance of resource-based cities that had undergone transitions, with the notable exception of Yu et al. [26
]. While the method in the study of Yu et al. was using the growth rate of detailed indicators, what is absent in the literature is a systematic approach to comparing and linking the transition performance and its mechanisms for resource-based cities. This article develops a sustainable development capability evaluation index system to evaluate the urban transition performance systematically.
Before proceeding any further, the word “performance” should be clarified. Performance is often used in the field of management to indicate meaning the degree to which the results obtained by an individual, a team or an organization engaging in an activity are satisfactory [28
]. The transition of resource-based cities typically focuses on economic restructuring by reducing the city’s dependence on its resource-based industries, which will have a knock-on and positive effect on living standards, social stability and the environment [30
]. Therefore, we broadly define the transition performance of a resource-based city as the economic, social and eco-environmental achievements of the city after it undergoes urban transition. Conceptually, transition performance consists of three components: (1) economic transition performance; (2) social transition performance; and (3) eco-environmental transition performance. Economic transition performance focuses on industrial restructuring, economic output, government revenue, government expenditure, etc. Social transition performance looks at resident income, unemployment, education and healthcare. Eco-environmental performance mainly refers to investments in environmental protection, energy consumption efficiency and the discharge of pollutants.
Following this definition, this article develops a sustainable development capability evaluation index system to evaluate the urban transition performance of resource-based cities in Northeast China. We focused on Northeast China because, as a region with a high concentration of resource-based cities, the urban transition and sustainable development of resource-based cities are the key factors revitalizing the flagging economy of this region [31
]. Since the initiation of the revitalization strategy in 2003, the government has provided strong political and financial support for the transition of resource-based cities in Northeast China. Because urban transition efforts have been implemented in the Northeast for over a decade, the region provides good data for us to evaluate the urban transition performance of resource-based cities, explore a variety of mechanisms and provide guidance for further efforts.
3. Urban Transition Performance
We calculated the performance of each city in Northeast China. The results of the urban transition performances of the 19 resource-based cities in Northeast China since 2003 are shown in Figure 2
. The results show that the gap in transition performance among the resource-based cities is not huge. The difference between the best case (Liaoyuan) and the worst case (Heihe) is only 0.244. This is mostly because the economic strength of resource-based cities in Northeast China is universally weak and is slowly developing. There are eight cities, including Liaoyuan and Songyuan, where the transition performance is higher than the average level for Northeast China. The three top-performing cities are Liaoyuan, Songyuan and Baishan; all of which are in Jilin province. They are then followed by Fushun, Huludao and Fuxin; all of which are in Liaoning province. The three worst-performing cities are Jixi, Yichun and Heihe; all are in Heilongjiang province. Overall, the transition performance of the resource-based cities in Jilin and Liaoning provinces is better than those in Heilongjiang province. The average transition performances levels of the cities in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang were 0.458, 0.491 and 0.381, respectively. The reasons for the poor performance of the resource-based cities in Heilongjiang province are primarily as follows: the traffic conditions, location, economic environment and other factors are poor, and the lack of government policy support is also a contributing factor. Among the 69 cities designated as resource-exhausted cities, which therefore receive preferential policy support, only six cities are in Heilongjiang Province, but 14 cities are in Liaoning and Jilin Province. Furthermore, the resource-exhausted cities in Liaoning and Jilin Provinces were mostly designated in the first (2008) and second batches (2009), whereas those in Heilongjiang were mostly designated in the third batch (2012). Thus, the central government has supported the resource-based cities in Liaoning and Jilin Provinces for a longer period of time compared to those in Heilongjiang Province. Central government support includes the provision of a large amount of funding to support public infrastructure projects, eco-environmental restoration and the development of new industries; it also helps to solve enterprise problems with historical causes and other problems in resource-exhausted cities.
The trends of economic, social and eco-environmental transition performance are shown in Figure 3
. Economic transition performance is similar to overall urban transition performance. Liaoyuan, Shuangyashan and Songyuan perform the best, followed by Fuxin, Anshan and Benxi, but Hegang, Qitaihe, Daqing and Heihe perform poorly. Daqing’s economic transition scored poorly compared with its urban transition performance. The economic structure of Daqing is highly dependent on petroleum, and as a result, the city’s transition to new industries and tertiary industries is difficult, while the industrial structure is adjusting slowly. In terms of social transition, the three top-performing cities are Songyuan, Liaoyuan, Daqing; Shuangyashan, Jixi, Yichun and other coal and forestry cities perform poorly. There is a correlation between economic strength and social transition performance. The petroleum cities usually have strong economic strength, while the economic strength in coal and forestry cities was weak. This is because economic strength has provided a solid economic foundation for social development, including infrastructure improvements, rising living standards, education, healthcare and the development of other public services. Hegang, Mudanjiang and Huludao are the best performers in terms of eco-environmental transition, but Anshan and Fuxin perform poorly. The difference in the eco-environmental transition among the resource-based cities is not significant; and there are 10 cities whose eco-environmental transition is better than the average for Northeast China. From the results above, we could find that economic, social and environmental sustainability are somewhat competing goals. Taking Fuxin, the first experimental economic transition resource-based city, as an example, we could find that the economic transition performance is good, while the social and environmental transition performance is worse, especially the environmental transition, ranking last. The good economic transition performance gains are at the cost of ecological environment deterioration. Therefore, the urban transition should not only focus on the economic transition, but also value the social and environmental transition.
Based on the types of resources on which they are based, the resource-based cities are divided into five types (multi-resource, petroleum, metal, coal and forestry cities), and the mean values of the urban transition performance of each type are calculated (Table 3
). We determined that the best transition performance is found in multi-resource-based, followed by petroleum-, mental-, coal- and forestry-based cities. Multi-resource and metal-based cities perform better in economic transitions. The mineral resources of Tonghua, Huludao and Liaoyuan were diverse, and thus, these cities’ dependence on a single mineral resource was relatively low. Originally, Liaoyuan relied on coal, limestone for cement and building stone; Tonghua relied on iron ore, gold ore and coal; and Huludao relied on coal and nonferrous metals. Now, the coal in Liaoyuan has been depleted; the city must cultivate alternative industries, and Liaoyuan has established a new industry structure based on new materials, health and traditional industries. Furthermore, the medicine, food and machinery manufacturing industries have become the leading industries in Tonghua, and equipment manufacturing and cultural tourism are becoming leading industries in Huludao. Therefore, the urban transitions of multi-resource cities are easier, and their transition performance is better.
The petroleum cities perform well in terms of social transition, but poorly in terms of economic transition. Because of these cities’ robust economic strength and abundant oil, their quality of life, employment opportunities and other social issues improved more than in other cities. However, their excessive dependence on oil results in a single industrial structure. With the petroleum and petrochemical industry accounting for a high proportion of their economies, their output is dominated by the primary processing of petroleum resources, a short industrial chain and a lack of product competitiveness [44
]; thus, their economic transition performance is poor.
Metal-based cities exhibit strong economic transitions, and this has a significant relationship with the adjustment of their industrial structures. Benxi accelerated the development of its biomedical industry; its total sales of 30 billion Yuan accounted for 28.6% of its total GDP. Anshan developed fine steel, deep processed steel and new materials for the magnesite industry. However, metal-based cities typically exhibit the worst eco-environmental transitions. Opencast operations produce large amounts of dust, and steel smelting consumes large amounts of energy and water and produces large quantities of pollutants, all of which have adverse effects on environmental improvement. The transition performance of coal cities is poor, especially among the four lowest-ranked coal cities in Heilongjiang province. This is primarily because these cities typically focus on coal mining and the primary processing of coal as their leading industries, but the sustained low price of coal products has resulted in a high ratio of liabilities and a high level of unemployment. Simultaneously, coal mining and processing cause serious water, land and air pollution [45
]. The urban transition performance of forestry-based cities is the worst because their locations are typically very remote, and they are therefore disadvantaged in attracting new industries. In addition, excessive logging during the planned economy period resulted in the gradual depletion of their forest resources. More recently, the Natural Forest Protection Project, initiated in 2000 by the central government, places serious restrictions on the deforestation of natural forests. The aim of this project was to protect natural forests by changing the main economic function of forestry-based cities. However, the program has put these cities’ logging corporations in a very difficult situation and created large numbers of unemployed workers, all of which contributes to their poor urban transition performance.
5. Policy Implications
Based on our findings, the following policy implications are offered to improve the transition performance of resource-based cities in Northeast China. First, the government should establish a sound long-term assistance mechanism for the sustainable development of resource-based cities. Capital input has the strongest effect on urban transition, but the ability to accumulate capital and the regulation and management of funds are limited in resource-based cities. Therefore, the national and provincial governments should formulate policies and provide financial support to guide and promote the development of resource-based cities. The funding support by the national government should target construction of energy, communications and water conservancy and other infrastructure projects; upgrading industry and agriculture.
Second, the government should strengthen the construction of transportation infrastructure, enhance trading and attract foreign investment. This is especially important and challenging for forestry-based cities and coal-based cities in Heilongjiang province, which suffer from poor locations. These cities should focus on the construction of transportation infrastructure to create better connections with regional centers.
Third, policies from higher levels of government should become more sensitive to local contexts. At a minimum, they need to consider different types of resource-based cities, as the one-size-fits-all approach does not help solve all of the cities’ key problems [49
]. For instance, context-specific programs should pay more attention to the economic transitions of petroleum-based cities, to the economic and social transitions of coal- and forestry-based cities and to the eco-environmental transitions of metal cities. Policies regarding urban transition involve various departments within local and provincial governments; therefore, the processes of policymaking and implementation need to be better coordinated. Taking Yichun as an example, there is potential for the high-tech food and drug industries to become strong alternative industries, and therefore, the provincial government should escalate its preferential policies to facilitate relevant projects and industrial chains.
Finally, when the government evaluates the cities’ performance on urban transitions, it should not narrowly focus on input-output, but should fully consider location conditions, the external development environment, the level of sustainable development and other factors.
6. Summary and Conclusions
In this study, we developed a systematic method to evaluate the transition of resource-based cities based on economic, social and eco-environmental factors and used the system to analyze the transition performance of 19 resource-based cities in Northeast China beginning in 2003. We also analyzed the factors that influence urban transition performance. Two conclusions can be drawn.
First, Liaoyuan, Songyuan and Baishan in Jilin province performed better in terms of urban transition; Jixi, Yichun and Heihe in Heilongjiang province performed poorly. The resource-based cities in Liaoning and Jilin province showed better performance than those in Heilongjiang province. Multi-resource and petroleum resource-based cities performed well, but coal- and forestry-based cities performed poorly. Economic transition has the largest effect on urban transition; the petroleum cities performed better in terms of social transition; and the difference in the eco-environmental transition among the cities is not significant.
Second, in Northeast China, capital input, road density and location advantage have the greatest effects on urban transition performance, followed by urban scale, remaining resources and the level of sustainable development; supporting policies and labor input have small effects. Supporting policies have a small effect on urban transition performance, which suggests that this factor is not as influential as the other factors. However, the effect of supporting policies in some provinces is high, especially in Jilin and Heilongjiang Province. Because the province is a relatively independent administrative unit, there are remarkable differences in levels of development; thus, the mechanisms and strengths of influential factors are different in different provinces.
The experiences from our article have important theoretical and practical significance, in terms of developing new methods to assess urban transition performance, exploring a variety of mechanisms to urban transition and providing guidance for further efforts. However, our research has several limitations that should be addressed in the future. First, because of problems with the acquisition of the data, the index system is not perfect. Therefore, improvement of the index system will be the focus of our next study. Moreover, this study focused only on Northeast China. In the future, we will compare the Northeast with resource-based cities in other areas, and therefore, the results will be national rather than regional. Finally, we only analyzed the starting point (2003) and the ending point (2012). The limitation of this approach is that we could only evaluate the results of urban transition. In the future, we will develop a method to evaluate annual changes, which will give us more insights into the process of urban transition.