Macau is ranked as the jurisdiction with the highest population density in the world. The number of inhabitants per square kilometre is set to further expand as the city is projected to be home to some 800,000 people in 2040, according to the draft urban master plan. To ease the problem, authorities plan to expand the share of residential area, but other issues need to be addressed, experts point out.
Imagine this scenario: Imagine every human in the world — some 7.7 billion souls — all living and working together in Japan. What do you think this experience would be like? Overcrowded? Poor living conditions? Other problems? No one could answer this question better than the residents and migrant workers of Macau.
The latest official figures show that Macau’s population density, which is often cited as the highest in the world, stood at 20,400 people per square kilometre last year — which is comparable to the scenario in which the entire global population were concentrated in Japan — with the figure hitting 57,300 people per square kilometre on the Macau Peninsula and more than 140,000 people per square kilometre in the northern district. But these astonishing figures may not stop there.
The long-awaited draft of the master plan for the city’s urban planning development (2020-2040), which was unveiled in September of this year and is now undergoing a two-month public consultation exercise, indicates that the population size of the territory may increase to 808,000 by 2040, within a land area totalling only 36.8 square kilometres, meaning that the population density by that time will have grown to nearly 21,957 people per square kilometre.
With an overall objective of “actively developing Macau into a happy, smart, sustainable and resilient city,” the draft master plan acknowledges that the population density in Macau “is quite high, particularly in the northern district of the Macau Peninsula.” As one of the proposed solutions, the government will seek to reduce the population density in some districts by making better use of land — for instance, by increasing land for housing in Ilha Verde on the peninsula, Taipa and Seac Pai Van, in addition to the new reclaimed land plots. The draft plan envisages that the land plots for housing will make up 22 per cent of the total land parcels in the city by 2040 – compared with the current 17 per cent – enough to satisfy the housing demand of approximately 808,000 people.
Referring to the overall objective of the master plan in developing the territory into “a happy city”, Gregory Ku Ka Ho, managing director of property agency Jones Lang LaSalle Macau (JLL Macau), remarked: “Nobody will be happy when living in crowded conditions.” In light of the continuous growth of the city’s population and the limited land supply in Macau, Mr Ku suggests: “The government should reserve about 35 per cent of land in each district for living amenities to reduce the pressure residents might feel amid a crowded living environment… Macau could also work hand in hand with Hengqin, to which some residents could be relocated.”
Macau Urban Renewal Limited, a public firm set up by the Macau government, is now developing the so-called “Macau New Neighbourhood” project on the nearby Hengqin island, Zhuhai, which will provide 3,800 flats to be sold to Macau residents only, as a collaboration between the authorities from the two sides. Government figures show that as of end-2019, slightly more than 15,800 Macau residents working or studying in the city lived in Zhuhai or nearby areas, an increase of 3.2 per cent from the previous year and more than doubling from 7,211 in 2013 when such data was available.
Local urban planner Rhino Lam Iek Chit also criticises the urban master plan, which he describes as “vague” and lacking concrete ideas to ease the population density. “With the growing population, there should also be more transportation infrastructure, schools, medical facilities, and green areas [besides housing],” he says. “And I don’t see the draft master plan has clearly and exactly highlighted how [the government] will try to lower the population density in the neighbourhood districts [on the peninsula]… If this is not resolved properly, this will lead to many problems in the future.”
Following the handover in December 1999, Macau’s population expanded nearly every year, except for a 1.8-percent annual decline in 2009 and a 0.3-percent drop in 2016. The population stood at 679,600 by the end of 2019, rising 1.8 per cent year-on-year and by a total of 58.2 per cent from 1999.
The main drive behind the growth in the city — known as a home for migrants and immigrants both before and after the handover — is non-resident workers, whose numbers more than doubled in the 2011-2019 period to 196,538 by the end of last year, albeit a higher proportion of non-resident workers are now living outside of Macau. According to a report on the Macau population forecast for the 2016-2036 period, published by the Statistics and Census Service in 2017, only 4 per cent of non-resident employees worked in Macau and lived outside of the city in 2005, but that proportion rose to 43 per cent in 2016 and is expected to hit 45 per cent in 2021.
To a lesser extent, the city’s overall population growth has also been supported by new births here as well as the Mainland Chinese coming to Macau through one-way permits, which are documents issued by the central government that allow mainlanders to stay in the gambling enclave, usually for the purposes of family reunion. The number of new births in Macau averaged 6,484 a year in the 2010-2019 period, rising by nearly 52 per cent from an annual average of 4,267 in the 1999-2009 period, while the number of mainlanders staying in Macau through one-way permits — now the most common way for mainlanders to relocate to the city — averaged 5,486 a year in the 2010-2019 period, growing 68.6 per cent from the annual average of 3,253 in the 1999-2009 period.
People granted the right of abode in Macau — via investments or working in skilled job positions now — were once among the major contributors to Macau’s population growth, particularly after the introduction of the Temporary Residence Scheme for Investors, Management Personnel and Specialised Technicians in 2005, which allowed non-residents to apply for temporary residence permits by making major investments, purchasing real estate or working in technical jobs. But this fervour has been stymied after 2007, when the government stopped issuing temporary residence permits to individuals for purchasing real estate.
The number of individuals granted the rights of abode last year amounted to just 967 people, the lowest number on record since such data became available in 1990, due to further controversies clouding the temporary residence scheme. In 2018, the Commission Against Corruption (CCAC) lambasted the Macau Trade and Investment Promotion Institute (IPIM) — which is in charge of the scheme — for the lack of stringent vetting when granting temporary residence permits, subsequently leading to the arrests of the IPIM head and other officials over allegations of corruption and breaches of secrecy for allegedly benefiting from fraudulent residence permits, among other crimes.
Slowing migration space
Furthermore, one of the findings of a recent study by the Department of Sociology of the University of Macau (UM) has found that the pace of immigration to the city has slowed in recent times due to the scheme. An academic team led by Spencer De Li, a professor at the UM’s Department of Sociology, has carried out a large-scale, five-year household study, titled “Macau Social Survey,” by interviewing over 3,500 Macau residents aged 16 or above. The research, which was published this July, noted “a high percentage of Macau residents is composed of migrants and migrant workers who mostly came from mainland China to reunite with their families or to seek employment.”
“Among over 3,500 people we have interviewed, we found that about half of them could be classified as [immigrants], who were born outside Macau and intend to stay in the city,” says Prof Li. “But only a third of those [immigrants] came to Macau in 2008 and onwards. The pace of [immigration] has slowed down since 2008, probably due to the suspension of obtaining temporary residence permits through real estate investments in 2007.”
The scholar adds that the SAR is a “quite open, quite inclusive” society, with the vast majority of residents holding “no prejudices against migrant workers and immigrants,” but concedes that a small number may have a sense of job and economic insecurity spurred by the newcomers.
More than space
As the population density here is set to grow further, the government should do more than merely optimise the land resources. “Besides providing space to live, there should also be better planning for other amenities from education to healthcare and elderly care to new employment opportunities and others,” Professor Li says.
“Some top social problems the Macau Social Survey identified are the lack of public transportation resources, making it difficult for residents to travel across the city, and the limited occupational choices, as the city majorly relies on the service industry,” the academic says. “To tackle the problems [arising from] the growing population, the [Macau] government, for example, has to significantly increase economic activities to provide more employment choices besides the gaming and tourism sectors.”
“Growing population is a complex issue, requiring the government to be proactive to come up with strategies,” Professor Li adds.