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Toward sustainable urbanisation in China

As its construction boom continues apace, China should not embrace the large and the foreign, argues Jiang Gaoming. Smaller, more sustainable cities will mean that precious natural resources won’t be lost forever.

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China’s large-scale urbanisation dates back to late 1980s, when Beijing still had fields and natural wetlands. Since the 1980s, urbanisation has accelerated, with the number of cities in China’s central and coastal regions leaping from 315 to 521 from 1988 to 2000. Cities are expanding at an even faster rate than their populations. Urban land increased by 8% from 2000 to 2003, while the urban population grew by only half that figure. And now the country has become a giant building site, with almost 770 square kilometers of land being built on annually -- a figure that increases by almost 6% annually.
This urban explosion is linked to an unfortunate quest for large, foreign-style cities. Cities, plazas, roads, houses – the bigger and more foreign they are, the better, whether they are needed or not. Cities are swallowing up their surroundings – particularly Beijing, which is expanding by 20 square kilometers per year and showing no sign of slowing. Economically backward cities build huge plazas, cities with no congestion build eight-lane highways, all for the sake of appearance. The trend for spacious accommodation started with Beijing officials, with the standard living area for a departmental cadre rocketing from 70 or 80 square meters to over 200. There is even competition over who has the biggest office. And buildings are built in foreign styles, leaving us with non-descript cookie-cutter cities.

This construction makes an undeniable contribution to GDP, but the ecological and social issues it causes have been ignored. The current urbanisation rate is about 40%. If China is to achieve moderate levels of development, this will rise to 60% – encroaching on even more land and using even more resources. If China’s urbanisation is to be sustainable, the country must halt excessive expansion and resolve the issues discussed below.

Urbanisation in China continues apace

photo by Yuek Hahn


Big cities or small towns?

China’s urbanization is focused on expanding its cities – there are lots of people, so you enlarge the city – and that expansion then attracts more people. This unlimited expansion causes more pollution, congestion and poor living conditions, threatening the natural and rural environment.

Urbanisation in China is different to that of developed countries. The nature of the population flow is different. When rapid urbanisation started in 1960s America, the country had a population of only 23 million. But China’s urbanisation has been a quick expansion of residential areas and transport infrastructure to envelop populations. In the next 25 years, 850 million rural residents will be relocated to the cities. The use of resources is also different. Materials for the United Kingdom’s urbanisation were supplied by its colonies worldwide, but China must rely on its own (non-renewable) sand, soil, stone and steel.

And so this rapid expansion is not feasible for China. We need smaller cities with a range of employers to attract rural labour. Green belts similar to those surrounding England’s cities should be used to protect the environment and limit urban expansion. 


Solid, practical cities – not showpieces

The desire for the foreign is widespread. Traditional Chinese architecture is frowned upon, with US and European styles preferred. (Even the statues are bare-arsed Greeks.) Municipal leaders think it reflects better on them, and the city planners know where the money comes from. And in this rush for Roman plazas and European streets, China’s own traditional culture is lost and our cities all come to look the same.

Dreams of western lifestyles see the rich spending their money on large apartments or villas, which are eating up China’s parks and scenic areas. The well-known Fragrant Hills in Beijing are now surrounded by housing. Despite astronomical prices, supply can’t keep up with demand. Many are purchased merely as status symbols by people too busy to live there; they sit empty, as in a ghost town.

These problems permeate China’s urbanisation and are causing excessive expansion and massive waste of land and resources. Green areas and natural habitats are shrinking and the cities are losing their individuality. Urbanisation requires practical infrastructure and smaller housing. The government has recently taken steps in this direction, but their effect remains to be seen.

Cranes on the Beijing skyline show China's rapid urbanisation

photo by  EddieG.se


How long will non-renewable resources last?

One direct result of urban expansion is the massive consumption of non-renewable resources. Villages surrounding cities are being replaced with high-rises. This “fast-food” approach to urbanisation is destroying villages and consuming precious non-renewable materials.

Management of China’s waterways is chaotic, with contractors able to dredge sand at little or no cost. An excavator hired at CHY 200 an hour [$25] can scoop up a tonne of sand in no time – sand which then no longer helps to control floods and to filter water. Many natural waterways are disappearing, along with the wetland vegetation on their banks.

Rock and soil face a similar fate. Entire mountains are carved up for sale. Boulders weighing a tonne are sold off by the roadside. Granite and marble are processed into artworks to be sold abroad, and clay is fired into bricks for buildings.

And yet the buildings China is throwing up today are of poor quality, built with demolition and rebuilding in mind, further depleting building materials. If this continues, our supply of sand, then clay and finally stone, will be depleted.

This is our last chance to preserve these materials. We need quality buildings made to last. We need to consider the use of renewable or reclaimed building materials – for example, banning the use of clay bricks in favour of those manufactured from coal ash. Only in this way can we leave some of these non-renewable materials for future generations.

Homepage photo by Vagrantant 

The author: Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a doctoral candidate tutor, vice secretary-general of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation’s China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group. He is recognised for his introduction of the concepts of urban vegetation and using natural forces to restore China’s ecosystems.


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Focus on the current defect

The urbanisation of China without enough consideration is a mess. The government building in a tiny town is as grandiose as the White House. A common officical's office even reaches a hundred square metres. I saw with my own eyes that some experts of city planning foam with rage, but it is just useless. For the decision-makers are our leaders,and the money spent is obtained from us the common people.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Other countries have faced this same, difficult road

Gaoming Jiang's suggestions are very practical. Its unavoidable that developing countries face problems associated with their rush to develop quickly, but other countries probably faced this difficult road too. Either way, the Chinese government has realised the need to tackle these issues, so let's wait to see improvements.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Developed countries' negative impacts on China's urbanization

Many problems have occurred along with the fast development of the economy in China, but no doubt the majority of them are caused by domestic reasons.

But we could not deny the negative impacts by developed countries to worsen this situation. Urbanization is a good example, as those countries have plundered a large amount of natural resouces from China, such as trees and stones.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Commuting to work in Beijing is terrible

Going to and from work in Beijing every day involves a two-hour journey each way, which is really tiring. It seems like if Beijing keeps expanding at this rate, going to work will involve an eight-hour commute, how terrible!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Inequality is the real urbanisation problem

Urbanisation is rife with unequal development; as the big cities offer lots of opportunities and guaranteed services to residents, the cities have conitinued to grow larger and larger. A sign of China's huge wealth gap is that upscale 'villas' are more and more common, but ordinary workers' families are living in 30-40 square metre flats. In fact when we talk about the problems caused by urbanisation we are really talking about the problems caused by unequal development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Improve city planning

We must concertedly think about the construction of small and medium-sized cities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Strengthen the construction of small and medium-sized towns

People who live in Beijing are often surprised at the city's size, but looking at the ever-expanding map of Beijing, we are not allowed to ask the question - how big can it actually get? China's megacities are swelling at an alarming rate; they cannot accomodate the numbers of people and the increasing strain on resources. As China's large cities have industrialised they have become more attractive to outsiders, depriving small and medium-sized cities which are more environmentally-friendly. If the government were to realise this and take steps to improve the situation, we could improve the fortunes of our future generations.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Simon Spooner

Is urbanisation really such a problem?

Is this really such a problem? There is inevitable change - in UK 95% of population is urban - in cities or towns. Beijing is still much smaller than London or Paris (though it has much more people living in high rise buildings).

The evidence of mega-cities such as Mexico City and others is that they can grow only to a certain size - then it becomes too hard to move around and too unpleasant - so people move elsewhere and growth slows or stops.

In time a new equilibrium will be found.

As for the poor quality buildings - as with the 1950's and 60's eyesores of British towns - they served a purpose when built (rapid development after war time bombings) intime thay come down to be replaced by better quality. It would be nice for China if they could avoid this wasteful step - but it is rather inevitable in a climate of breakneck growth.

Simon Spooner

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



China's urbanization is inevitable

Developed and ecormically advanced countries have urbanization rates of 80% or more. So China's continuing urbanization is inevitable. The question is: what are the characteristics of an ideal, sustainable, efficient, environmentally-friendly, optimal city? We need much more in-depth studies and investigations into this question. Most citizens will prefer to live in a smaller city than a mega size one with millions of people; but they all want to have access to te same opportunities and services in the megacities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Balanced, sustainable urban development requires balanced, sustainable regional development

So far as I see, nobody in this debate opposes urbanisation. (The last two comments suggest that this was so.) Rather, the comments left by our Chinese friends were simply raising concerns over striking the imbalances that have occurred during the last 25 years of reform. For example, the heads of corporation in Shanghai/Beijing etc make billions a year and can afford to send their offspring to Harvard while tens of millions of illiterate farmers strung across western China still live on less than $1 per day, have no access to clean water and their children have little or no access to health and education.

It is this imbalance between regions that also causes imbalances in China’s urban growth. Poverty-stricken rural farmers in Hunan naturally prefer to migrate to several large cities in eastern or southern China where there is (arguably) better access to services and higher wages on offer performing unskilled manual labour. But a development model that attracts the majority of the population to several hotspots (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong etc) will not work as it has in other countries. Beijing could not possibly house one fifth of the country’s population as London does for the UK.

Until we see any concrete actions towards the achievement of a “a harmonious society” – in other words serious investment in the central / western regions – then the majority of migrants will continue to target the wealthiest cities. A reasonably straight-forward means of achieving better balance would be for wealthier eastern provinces to link up with western / central counterparts to provide technical and financial assistance. Fiscal transfers – to be determined at central level – should also be considered.