An international platform

Originally from Guizhou Province in China, Helen Zheng is a research associate in the Spatial Policy and Analysis Laboratory (SPA-Lab), within the Department of Planning and Environment.

Helen Zheng

Working in Manchester had always felt like a dream to me and thanks to this job opportunity, and the Newton Fund, I have been given an international platform on which to launch my career.

Helen Zheng / Research associate in the Spatial Policy and Analysis Laboratory (SPA-Lab)

Launching my career in Manchester

I’m currently a research associate and from November 2019, I’ll start a new position as the Leverhulme Trust early career Fellow conducting a three-year project looking at whether spatial decentralisation can achieve sustainable urbanisation. 

Having obtained my bachelor’s degree from Nanjing University in China, I completed my PhD in the Department of Building and Real Estate at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) before being given a post-doc research position at Manchester in 2017. Here I worked on the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) Newton Fund project Eco-urbanisation in China­.

The University of Manchester is a reputable institution and the Department of Planning and Environmental Management is one of the oldest planning departments in the UK so working here had always felt like a dream. Thanks to this job, and the Newton Fund, I have been given an international platform on which to launch my career.

My research involves decision-support for sustainable urban regeneration, urbanisation in China, job-housing relationships, and green infrastructure through mixed methods including spatial analysis in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), statistical analysis and modelling, big data analytics, and qualitative analysis.

Research and impact

The Eco-urbanisation project found that decentralisation of the workforce hasn’t been accompanied by decentralised job opportunities, and where there are no underground or public transport facilities, commuting congestion and pollution are major concerns. There are also particular challenges with migrant workers being displaced by development.

The project addressed the need to manage urbanisation in a more human-centred, environmentally sustainable way, and focused on the merits of using a ‘well-being’ framework, engaging different social groups and supporting multi-level governance for managing transitions.

The city has the second largest Chinese community in the UK and Chinese people can easily adapt to everyday life.

Helen Zheng / Research associate in the Spatial Policy and Analysis Laboratory (SPA-Lab)

China’s biggest urbanisation challenges

As China has urbanised rapidly in the last four decades, a series of challenges have materialised. In my opinion, the biggest related challenges facing China are environmental and social, such as air pollution and social inequity. The publication of the ‘National New Urbanisation Plan’ (NUP), echoing the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, signifies the Chinese state’s determination to coordinate and manage urbanisation towards a more human-centred and environmentally sustainable pathway. 

The Chinese government has begun to positively promote integrated planning by merging the duties of different departments although planning is a complex, political construct that encapsulates different issues with various stakeholders.  

Manchester – a welcoming city

Manchester didn’t feel like a strange place when I arrived as I already knew a few people living here or in neighbouring UK cities. With direct flights to and from China, the region is an important transport connection node in northern England, and the city itself possesses a very convenient and affordable public transport system.

It has the second largest Chinese community in the UK and Chinese people can easily adapt to everyday life in the city with local Chinese supermarkets selling familiar products. The city is famous for its diverse population so you can meet a variety of people and learn about their cultures.

Working at the University

Staff across campus are very friendly and I feel respected and proud to work here. The attitudes of some scholars really inspire me to commit to the field.

The University encourages an open working environment with a diverse culture and I can easily access different resources such as library research papers, IT support and various workshops.

The University attracts a large international community and provides many funding opportunities for collaborative projects. As a researcher, I have already benefitted from this and continue to enjoy the access I have to various scholars.