Data and methods
Every aspect of the city health examination was designed to serve city residents, with the main goal being the provision of a better living environment. Thus, constructing a ‘people-centered’ urban human settlement environment cannot occur separately from attention to residents’ actual needs and feelings. Satisfaction evaluation, an important variable in the field of human settlement environment research (Zhang et al., 2019), advocates for obtaining residents’ subjective perceptions of various elements of the human settlement environment from a people-oriented perspective, to reveal the interactive law between the settlement environment and individual residents’ needs. Evaluating satisfaction is conducted by using the evaluation system described in sections 3 and 4 (i.e., self-examination, third-party examination, and a subjective evaluation index system). Specifically, satisfaction data were obtained through a survey examining the current status of the residential environment in the pilot cities.
An online satisfaction survey was conducted as part of the city health examination in 2020. The electronic questionnaire was sent to residents (through ways like social media, communication software community, and posters with a QR code entry) in 36 cities: Chengdu, Dalian, Fuzhou, Ganzhou, Guangzhou, Guiyang, Harbin, Haikou, Hangzhou, Hefei, Hohhot, Huangshi, Jinan, Jingdezhen, Kunming, Lanzhou, Luoyang, Quzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, Nanjing, Nanning, Suining, Taiyuan, Tianjin, Shenyang, Shijiazhuang, Wuhan, Xi’an, Xining, Yinchuan, Zhengzhou, Changchun, Changsha, Chongqing, and Urumqi (Fig. 4). Before completing the questionnaire, all respondents were informed that the individual information provided would be used for scientific research and would be kept confidential. This study was conducted with the consent of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of China, who sponsored the city health examination in 2020.
The 36 cities conducted the city health examination in 2020
All completed questionnaires were directly uploaded to the server. Obvious illogical-feedback questionnaires (e.g., where all indicators under a certain dimension were rated ‘unsatisfied’ but the average satisfaction with the dimension was ‘very satisfied’) would be automatically deleted by the server system. According to the research needs, the questionnaires could be further filtered. More than 320 000 people responded to the electronic questionnaires from the 36 cities. Some questionnaires were randomly dropped for an apparent imbalance of respondent composition in certain cities (e.g., when there was a disproportionate ratio of public servants within the respondents in a city, some of questionnaires filled out by public servants were randomly excluded). A total of 265 000 valid questionnaires were retained and counted in this sample study, with an effective response rate of 82.8%.
The questionnaire asked respondents about their average satisfaction with the eight dimensions of the city health examination and 50 specific indicators (‘Subjective satisfaction indicators’ column in Table 1). A 100-point scale was used to measure all questions, ranging from 20 (very dissatisfied), 40 (dissatisfied), 60 (acceptable), 80 (satisfied) to 100 (very satisfied). A ‘don’t know’ option was included for the respondents who had no clear opinion on the questions.
A large amount of information was mined from the data we collected. Specifically, based on this data, this section aims to present empirical research on the main problems and optimization directions of the studied cities. In this section, descriptive statistics are used to describe the satisfaction dimensions and indicators that received the lowest scores, the groups of residents who were the most unsatisfied, and the indicators that received the lowest satisfaction scores by residents’ characteristics (age, sex, income, education, etc.), all of which reflect the cities’ most serious problems. Using ‘city stickiness’ (i.e., residents’ willingness to continue living in the city for a long time) as the entry point, correlation analysis was employed to assess the indicators to which the residents were the most sensitive. The conclusions provided herein can and should be used as the main directions for city governments for making optimization policies. Finally, measures and suggestions on how to deal with highlighted problems and optimize cities have been described.
Finding problems: what are residents most unsatisfied with?
Satisfaction with different dimensions and indicators
As shown in Fig. 5, among the eight dimensions, residents’ average satisfaction with landscape features, ecological livability, and security resilience was higher than with the other dimensions, and average satisfaction with convenient traffic was notably lower. Innovation vitality and neatness and order also showed lower scores. Among the eight dimensions, the variance of the scores of convenient traffic, ecological livability, and innovation vitality was relatively higher; namely, between-cities satisfaction differences were larger for these dimensions. The variance of the scores of security resilience, diversity, and inclusiveness was relatively lower.
Mean satisfaction scores and satisfaction score variances for the eight dimensions in the city health examination
By comparing the scores for the 50 specific indicators across the 36 cities, it can be observed that residents’ dissatisfaction was highly consistent across cities and occurred toward some specific indicators. Particularly, difficulty parking was the most common problem across cities; the average score for the 50 indicators was 49.6, and the average satisfaction score for parking was 68.8. Hohhot, Xi’an, and Shenyang showed the lowest satisfaction scores, all of which were below 60 points. In addition, the satisfaction scores for other traffic indicators, such as road patency and time spent commuting after work or school, were not optimistic.
Residents were also commonly unsatisfied with housing and housing rental prices; particularly, their acceptability of housing prices showed an average score of 69.4, while acceptability of house-renting prices showed an average score of 73.7. The latter score was only higher than those for car parking and housing prices. Other residence- and transportation-related indicators (e.g., real estate management, road patency, old community renovation, time spent commuting after work or school, residential waste classification, and care facilities for older adults) also showed low satisfaction scores. Thus, residents were more dissatisfied with indicators closely related to their daily life, which are also more difficult to largely improve in a short period of time.
Satisfaction with different characteristics
Comparing the differences between residents with different characteristics (Fig. 6), the following conclusions can be drawn:
Mean satisfaction scores of residents with different characteristics
Women’s average satisfaction was lower than that of men; particularly, the average satisfaction of female respondents was nearly one point lower than that of male respondents. Among the eight dimensions, women’s satisfaction with security resilience showed the largest gap in comparison to men. Regarding specific indicators, except for satisfaction with sports venues, women’s satisfaction with all other indicators was lower than that of men; the indicators with the largest gap were public security, air pollution, water pollution, acceptability of housing prices, and sanitary conditions of public toilets.
Middle-aged people were less satisfied than the other age groups; particularly, the average satisfaction of people aged 30–59 was lower than that of the younger and older groups, with people aged 40–49 being the ones least satisfied. Comparing different age groups and the mean of all populations, it was shown that people aged 30–39 had lower satisfaction scores for pollution-related and traffic-related indicators. People aged 40–49 were the most dissatisfied with parking, community care facilities for older adults, acceptability of housing prices, and house-renting prices. People aged 50–59 were the most dissatisfied with care facilities for older adults, shopping facilities, and old community renovation.
Satisfaction score differences among different annual household income groups were not significant, but there were obvious differences in the indicators with which different income groups were most dissatisfied. Low-income people were more dissatisfied with public security, subsistence allowance standard, social security standard, and sanitary conditions of public toilets. Middle-income people were more dissatisfied with acceptability of housing and house-renting prices, real estate management in the residential community, parking, waste classification, and community facilities. High-income groups were less satisfied with traffic-related indicators, such as parking, road patency, time spent commuting after work or school, and cycling environments. People in the highest income group were also dissatisfied with innovation vitality indicators, such as talent introduction policies and the policy environment for starting a company or doing business.
Overall, satisfaction showed a decreasing trend with an increase in education. People with no more than primary school education showed the highest satisfaction, while those with a postgraduate degree or above showed the lowest satisfaction. The junior high school graduates showed lower satisfaction scores for the friendliness to floating populations and public security. High school graduates showed lower satisfaction scores for subsistence allowance standard and convenience stores. Specialized college graduates were more dissatisfied with acceptability of housing prices and subsistence allowance standard. Those with a bachelor’s degree showed the lowest satisfaction with parking and road patency. Participants who had a master’s degree or above were more dissatisfied with parking and talent introduction policies.
Hukou is a system of household registration used in mainland China, which is the registration of an individual in the system. A household registration record officially identifies a person as a permanent resident of an area and includes identifying information such as name, parents, spouse, birthplace, and date of birth. Compared with original residents (i.e., people with local hukou and who were born locally) and the floating population (i.e., people without local hukou), the average satisfaction of new citizens (i.e., the migrant population with local hukou) was obviously lower. New citizens had a relatively low satisfaction with parking, real estate management in the residential community, care facilities for older adults, waste classification, and community-inclusive kindergarten. The floating population was less satisfied with the friendliness to floating populations, disadvantaged groups, and international people, and acceptability of house-renting prices.
Major problems found in cities
More dissatisfaction means more severe problems; based on the survey results, many cities had problems in common. Traffic-related problems, for instance, were common difficulties faced by most cities; huge populations and the rapid growth of the number of motor vehicles have caused traffic congestion and parking difficulties to become daily routines in many cities, directly affecting residents’ daily lives. Therefore, the dimension which residents were less satisfied with was convenient traffic in almost all participating cities, and traffic is a key area that needs to be enhanced through targeted governance.
Moreover, residents’ dissatisfaction with acceptability of housing and house-renting prices showed that real estate prices are too high, and non-concordant with the current household income of most residents. When housing becomes a financial product instead of a public product, it can become a huge burden for non-original residents; this can further affect their life satisfaction and turn into a serious urban problem. In the past decade, this phenomenon has gradually spread from first-tier cities to small- and medium-sized cities across China; accordingly, controlling the excessive growth of housing prices is an important national issue and should be addressed.
The survey also found significant satisfaction differences between different cities. For example, compared with coastal cities, some cities in central and wstern China showed a large gap in job opportunities and policy environment for starting a company or doing business, being less attractive to high-tech talents. Accordingly, city residents were less satisfied with their innovation vitality. There were also marked differences in dissatisfaction levels among residents of different cities for common problems such as traffic.
Residents with different characteristics provided different satisfaction scores for different indicators. For example, women were less satisfied with security resilience, environmental pollution, and public health. New citizens were less satisfied with the health and comfort indicators within communities, while the floating population was less satisfied with the friendliness to floating populations, disadvantaged groups, and international people, as well as acceptability of house-renting prices. These results showed that floating populations might be more concerned about the city’s friendliness and tolerance and about the costs of living in the current city.
Meeting demands: increasing city stickiness
The relationship between satisfaction and city stickiness
The need to become stickier and more attractive is an important development consideration for most cities. This turns them into places where residents want to live and work, and where talent from outside wants to settle. To meet these demands, it is necessary to understand the city’s present level of stickiness and the factors that are effective in improving it. The 2020 city health examination questionnaire included the question, ‘Would you consider living in this city for a long time (at least five years)?’ to which residents had to respond by choosing from among the following options: ‘Yes’ (stickiness score of 100), ‘not sure’ (stickiness score of 50), and ‘No’ (stickiness score of 0). Selecting the response ‘not sure’ denoted that those residents were hesitant; to them, the stickiness of their city was neither more nor less compelling than the attractiveness of other cities—explaining the median value of 50 points. The average value of this stickiness score was used to estimate city stickiness for a variety of residents with different characteristics.
Generally, compared with cities in eastern China, most cities in the northeast and northwest (except for Yinchuan) and some cities in the south lacked stickiness; cities with lower stickiness scores were Urumqi, Harbin, Changchun, and Dalian.
Understanding the indicators that often cause residents to move is critical to assessing the factors that influence a city’s stickiness. Thus, this study examined the relationship between the satisfaction levels of the residents of a city (measured using various indicators) and their willingness to remain in the city.
As shown in Fig. 7, innovation vitality, ecological livability, and health and comfort were found to be highly correlated with city stickiness. Residents’ average satisfaction with convenient transportation and security resilience showed low correlations with stickiness. Among specific indicators, friendliness towards foreigners and suitability to start a company or do business, and policy environment for starting a company or doing business were highly correlated with stickiness; however, parking, acceptability of housing prices, and community care facilities for older adults had low correlation coefficients.
The correlation between the average satisfaction of the eight dimensions and a city’s stickiness
The higher correlation between innovation vitality and stickiness confirms the widely accepted position that job satisfaction (or lack thereof) plays a crucial role in making residents ‘vote with their feet’ (i.e., leave a place they are not satisfied with and settle somewhere else) (e.g., Gu et al., 1999; Storper, 2013; Bjarnason, 2014; Lin et al., 2019). The close relationship between ecological livability, health and comfort, and city stickiness has been discussed in a series of studies; researchers believe that changes in cities’ environmental quality will induce migration (Lundholm et al., 2004; Vilhelmson and Thulin, 2013). Moreover, people may choose to move to other cities when exposed to air pollution in one city (Banzhaf and Walsh, 2008). Li et al. (2014) pointed out that indicators such as land quality, water quality, and people’s assessment and expectations their city in terms of its handling of environmental issues are closely related to residents’ intention to migrate.
Residents’ average satisfaction with convenient traffic showed the lowest correlation with stickiness. This connection can be understood by referring to Ivlevs’s (2014; 2015) studies, which show that people who do not travel frequently and are less affected by transportation conditions tend to be unemployed, freelancing, or not well established in their jobs; these people incur lower costs while changing their workplaces or have other motivations to move. However, people who need to travel frequently and are affected by traffic conditions tend to be settled in their jobs and are likely to incur greater costs if they choose to migrate; thus, they lack the motivation to relocate.
City stickiness for residents with different hukou types
A person’s hukou type relates to their identity, personal connections, and social security rights in the city. These variables may have an impact on whether residents choose to move to another city. Therefore, this section separately analyzes how city stickiness is experienced by people with different hukou types. Among original residents, new citizens, and floating populations, the first two groups showed a higher willingness to stay in the city, while the third had low willingness to remain (Fig. 8). Thus, the hukou may have a significant impact on residents’ choice to stay in a city.
Willingness to continue living in the current city among residents with different hukou types
Comparing the respective correlation coefficients of the relationships between the satisfaction levels of these three groups and their willingness to stay in their city of residence, we drew the following conclusions: new citizens’ willingness to live in the city is more sensitive to satisfaction than that of the other two groups, while the willingness of floating populations is the least sensitive; at the same satisfaction level, new citizens are most likely to plan to move to another city, while the floating population is the least likely to.
Original residents displayed a higher-than-average sensitivity to indicators such as real estate management in the residential community and old community renovation. New citizens were sensitive to indicators such as ease of business and job opportunities. The floating population was sensitive to indicators such as friendliness towards foreigners and restoration and utilization of historical buildings and traditional houses.
Improving city stickiness: major pathways
While aspects of a city should be improved, an effective approach to improve city stickiness is to meet and satisfy the needs that residents perceive to be the most important. For example, although traffic problems had the lowest satisfaction scores, city stickiness would be more efficiently enhanced by upgrading the innovation vitality and ecological livability of the city. Local governments should specifically prioritize friendliness to foreign populations and ease of doing business. This conclusion was derived from the full sample, but there could be variations by city; therefore, individual cities should examine their specific characteristics before making concrete plans.
Furthermore, an improvement in a single indicator was shown to have potentially different effects on different resident groups. For floating populations, stickiness may be advanced through focusing on eliminating hukou barriers, equalizing welfare, and creating a friendly environment for migrant residents. For original residents, stickiness may be advanced by enhancing the comfort of the living environment. For new citizens, improving the environment for entrepreneurship and employment may be conducive to greater stickiness. Furthermore, the results showed that specific strategies are needed for different groups, based on sex, age, income, and educational background.
During the city health examination, conducting surveys to assess residents’ satisfaction may enable more citizens to participate in city management, contributing to the formation of a social atmosphere through which people are conduced to care about and participate in the city health examination. With the help of new media and network technology, residents can have diminished burdens regarding survey completion while being able to provide direct and clear feedback to policy makers and city managers about their feelings on different aspects of the city. According to the satisfaction survey that was analyzed in this study, the following typical problems should be focused upon, solved, and/or improved by city governments as soon as possible.
Regarding the most common reasons for dissatisfaction among residents, such as housing- and traffic-related problems, improvements should address the following: a compact and intensive spatial structure should be advocated; a mixed layout of functions and composite land use should be emphasized; a more appropriate balance regarding the transportation from house to employment should be promoted; parking should be optimized; public transportation and non-motorized traveling methods should be encouraged and prioritized on the road; an urban housing security system in which the Chinese government is the mainstay should be actively explored, established, and improved; new regulations should be devised to strengthen the owners and residents committees’ abilities to supervise real estate management companies; and renovation projects of old communities should be promoted by city governments in an orderly manner. Additionally, specific groups’ dissatisfaction should be addressed; given that each group has differentiated needs, these should be actively targeted and responded to.
Though a series of results with practical value can be drawn from this study, some limitations remain. The most important one is that all survey participants evaluated their satisfaction with the city they were currently living in, so, as a result, each city was evaluated by a different group of people. Since residents of different cities may have different characters and different understandings of satisfaction, satisfaction scores between cities cannot be directly compared. Consequently, a city with a high satisfaction score for a certain indicator is not necessarily better for this indicator. This problem could be remedied by describing each level or score of satisfaction in a more detailed way. Moreover, at present, only a small number of cities have participated in the city health examination, and these cities are scattered all over the country, which makes it difficult to conduct a rigorous and detailed spatial analysis. Since more cities will join in the examination, better approaches may be found in future research and practice.