China’s urban policy unit just met for the first time in 38 years. Here’s what it recommended

Liuyun Xiaoqu is a livable community in Guangzhou. It’s not gated, but its public spaces are only open to pedestrians. It is a sustainable and vibrant example of what the new guidelines would support. Image: CC Huang.

On 21 February, when China’s State Council released a new set of urban development guidelines, it backtracked on many of the conventions that have defined the past two decades of rampant urbanisation. These new guidelines aim to produce a framework which will revamp and revitalise China’s cities – to create urban areas that have improved navigability, tighter-knit communities, better access to commercial and public areas, and are less resource intensive.

These new directives were taken from the recommendations derived from a rare meeting of the Central Urban Work Conference this past December – the last time it met was in 1978 – and come down from the top echelons of power in the country. They are, to put it bluntly, an enormous milestone that should have a drastic impact on how China’s cities develop into the future.

Over the past couple of decades China has been undergoing an unprecedented urbanisation boom. Cities across the country have been building hundreds of completely new sub-cities, districts, and towns, as China’s urban population jumped from under 20 percent in 1978, to 57 percent today.


The breakneck speed of urbanisation during this era often outpaced quality planning, and China gradually became a land of single-use, car-dependent, Soviet-style superblocks. This has resulted in a uniform urban landscape across the country – “a thousand cities with the same face,” as it is often put. Environmentally speaking, these water-heavy, land-intensive, and car-dependent sprawling new urban areas were horrendous. What’s more, over a million villages, myriad historic areas, ancient landmarks, and traditional-style urban neighborhoods have been razed in the pursuit of new land for building these new developments.

But for some time now there has been a budding consciousness among some urban designers, architects, and government officials that China’s brand of urbanisation was far from optimal — socially, economically, and environmentally — and that the country must build its cities differently. To this end, the central government stepped in to deliver this new set of urban development guidelines, which aim to apply principles of sustainable urban development to all cities across China.

"These new standards are an urban design revolution,” says Peter Calthorpe, a principal at Calthorpe Associates, an architecture firm that has been working to improve China’s urban areas. “They overturn the destructive Chinese model of superblocks, gated communities, and giant streets that has been too long eroding the livability their cities. [The authorities] have been testing these ideas for years, but now they are moving them to a scale that is unprecedented.”

These new guidelines support many urban design strategies that have been developed successfully in cities around the world, such as in New York, London, and Copenhagen. More specifically, these guidelines bring the following seven areas into focus:

1. Denser street networks

At the root of these urbanisation guidelines is a revamping of the street layout in urban areas – to improve the transportation network, increase walkability, create space for more street-facing shops, and enhance the social fabric of urban neighbourhoods. This process will be partially carried out by breaking up superblocks with narrower, one-way streets, as well as opening up and phasing out gated communities.

This last move which has been highly controversial in China. “For the discussion right now about the gated community, I really think that it should not be about how to take the walls down, which we have heard so much about recently,” said Wen Zhao, an associate partner at ZGF, a design firm that has been experimenting with open neighborhoods in China since 2006. “I rather see this as a new urban design movement focusing on how to create a new type of open neighborhood that work with the local lifestyle and culture.”

2. Enforcing urban growth boundaries

Over the past couple of decades China’s cities have been swallowing up large tracts of countryside as they grow to many times their former sizes. At the height of the urbanisation boom, over 2,000 km2 of rural land was being requisitioned annually for new city building.

The sheer size and scale of many of these urban expansion projects is almost inconceivable: Shanghai increased its area sevenfold in 15 years; Dantu, a new area of Zhenjiang, is 748 km2 (about half the size of Greater London). Chenggong in Kunming is 461 km2; Tianjin’s Binhai New Area comes in at 2,270 km2; and Changzhou, in Jiangsu province, has one new district the size of Los Angeles and is working on absorbing another which is larger than London.

Despite having large populations, this rapid expansion means that many Chinese cities are less dense than they could – and, some say, should – be. Under the directives of these new guidelines, growth boundaries will be instituted to curb urban expansion. This is intended to preserve land for agriculture and to promote more sustainable, less resource-intensive, compact development.

3. Expanding mixed-use development

The new urbanisation guidelines encourage mixed-use development and recommend that all residents should have improved access to a diverse range of public and commercial amenities – schools, supermarkets, retirement centers, hospitals, parks, and cultural centers – within range of where they live. There is a special emphasis on green space: the guidelines decree that all city dwellers should have access to public parks, gardens, and other open areas.

“To build a healthy living environment, we have to actively create a new zoning guideline,” said Wen Zhao. “The current functional zone approach, like sports zone, medical zone, etc., in many cities is not the best solution for increasing the performance of the city or communities. I believe that the concept of mixed-use is the better solution.”

One article from a user with the handle “Pretending to be New York” on China’s popular WeChat compares New York City with Beijing. “The convenience of Manhattan is difficult to imagine without experiencing it first-hand. Within two minutes of my apartment, I can reach the metro, Starbucks, supermarkets, movie theaters, office supply store, gym, furniture store, bookstore, library – anything you can think of.

“This megacity has the same conveniences as a small city in China. When you compare Manhattan to Beijing, where it can take 10 minutes to cross a road because you have to take a pedestrian bridge or walk underground, Manhattan really seems like heaven, and is truly a city built for people.”

4. Increasing the prevalence of public transportation

The new guidelines also emphasise the need for a diverse mix of public transportation options, including light rail, buses, and subways.

Although China already has a relatively effective bus system, and is working to build over 7,000km of new subway lines in cities across the country by 2020, the new guidelines call for enhancing these networks even further to ensure everyone within an urban center is always within 500m of public transportation.

5. Historical preservation and city character

The calamity of China having so many cities that look virtually identical, and the wholesale destruction of historic areas, has not gone unnoticed. To salvage what is left of the country’s architectural legacy – and to encourage more diverse styles of building – these guidelines include an entire section about the cultivation of what they dub “city character.”

In practice this means preserving historic architecture, retrofitting old buildings, revitalising older urban areas, and enhancing “cultural continuity” by reviving the long and unique histories of each city.

6. Improve urban architecture quality and construction methods

It has often been stated that the average modern building in China has an expected lifespan of 25-30 years - far less than the 74 years of U.S. buildings and the 132 years of those in the UK. There are many reasons for this: poor design, lack of maintenance, and the use of shoddy building materials.

So this is another woe the new guidelines will attempt to remedy. The guidelines also mandate more efficient and environmentally beneficial building techniques; construction waste and pollution will be cut, building times will be shortened, and within 10 years 30 percent of all buildings constructed will be pre-fabricated.

7. Expand energy efficiency and environmental quality in cities

Over the past decade China has been experimenting with less environmentally pernicious forms of urbanisation – with varying results.

These new guidelines have taken green building and urban planning to a new height by decreeing that government buildings have energy-efficient lighting and other low-carbon technologies; that new buildings must have meters for heating; that water-efficient “sponge city” development should be expanded; that natural environments in urban areas be revitalised, and that air and water quality be restored.

According to these new mandates, by 2020 all cities from the prefecture-level up should treat 100 percent of their wastewater, and water-scarce cities should reuse 20 percent of their water. The guidelines also outline that, by 2020, waste re-use should top 35 percent across the country.

Conclusion

In general, these guidelines are intended to repair the mistakes wrought during China’s recent era of rampant urbanisation – and to set a more environmentally, socially, and economically sound course for urban development in the future.

China’s development will no longer revolve around the profit-centered mindset of building anew as fast as possible. Instead it will focus on improving and re-vitalising what’s already there. It’ll turn the country’s cities away from their dystopian trajectory, and into socially dynamic, community oriented, healthy, convenient, and sustainable places to live and work.

Wade Shepard is the author of “Ghost Cities of China” and a regular contributor to CityMetric.

C. C. Huang is an analyst for environmental policy firm Energy Innovation.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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