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.


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.


The Victorian information superhighway: the story of the first trans-Atlantic telegraphy cable

The steam tug Golliah is the first vessel to lay submarine telegraph cable. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

On 16 August, 1858, the first telegraphic message crossed the Atlantic ocean. Travelling along a recently laid cable, the message from Queen Victoria to President Buchanan took just 16 hours. Prior to this, communication across the pond would have been by ship – and taken around 10 days.

ABC Telegraph Transmitter. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

People had been communicating via overland telegraph since the 1840s, and the first submarine cable was laid between Britain and France in 1850. But the attempt to span the Atlantic Ocean was the most daring attempt yet – and was the talk of the age, the Victorian equivalent of the Apollo mission. The idea that one could seemingly cheat time and space was to inspire all sorts of people – from businessmen to artists, as is explored in a new exhibition in London.

The driving force behind the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was an American businessman called Cyrus Field. In 1856, 150 years ago, he and Englishmen John Watkins Brett and Charles Tilson Bright formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company. They raised £350,000 in private capital, mostly from the business communities in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. They secured a £14,000 per year subsidy from the British government plus the loan of ships and a similar amount from the US government.

Even getting the cable made had proved difficult. The distance between the west coast of Ireland and Newfoundland is 2,300 miles. No single company was capable of supplying the required cable in the desired time frame, so two joined forces to fulfil the order.

The cable had a core of seven copper wires down which the electrical signals would pass. These were insulated with several layers of gutta-percha (a natural plastic made from tree sap), and then armoured with iron wire. The resulting cable weighed just over a ton per nautical mile, so heavy that no single ship was capable of carrying it and the laying had to be undertaken by two: HMS Agamemnon and USS Niagara.

Siemens Atlantic telegraph cable samples. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

The first attempt to do so began on 5 August 1857, with both ships departing from the white strand near Ballycarbery Castle on the west coast of Ireland. The cable snapped on the first day, but was grappled from the bottom and repaired. A few days later, mid-Atlantic, the cable snapped again, this time in water two miles deep. It was lost and the expedition abandoned.

The next summer they tried again. This time the two great ships met mid-Atlantic, each carrying half the cable. They joined the two ends together and sailed away from each other. The cable broke three times: each time, they were forced to start again. On 29 July, with little hope of success, the cable was spliced for the fourth time and the ships sailed for home.

This time they succeeded. The cable was landed in Newfoundland on 4 August, and in Ireland the following day. And a week or so later Queen Victoria sent that first transatlantic message to President Buchanan.

Hopes dashed

The celebrations were tremendous. One newspaper proclaimed:

New York has seldom seen a more complete holiday than that on September 1, 1858, in celebration of the successful laying of the Atlantic cable. The enthusiasm of an entire nation was expressed in this jubilee of its metropolis, and the era of a closer connection with Europe was well ushered in by a day of genuine rejoicing and gaiety.

Celebrations were, however, short-lived: the cable performed badly and failed after just three weeks.

The project was put on hold, but the concept had been proved possible. By 1865 there had been a slew of research into the problems which had plagued the earlier cables. Successful cables had been laid in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf which were better engineered, better insulated and had thicker copper cores allowing faster transmission speeds.

With the Civil War over, Field incorporated a second company to raise funds for the 1865 attempt. He chartered the largest ship in the world at the time, the SS Great Eastern, which could carry the entire Atlantic cable. Huge salt-water tanks and other state-of-the-art machinery were fitted to ensure it remained in mint condition during its journey. All went well until, in heavy wind 600 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, the cable rubbed on the side of the ship, snapped and plunged to the inaccessibly deep ocean floor.

Not one to quit, Field vowed to return the following year. This final expedition passed without a hitch and the cable was put into commercial service on 28 July. One month later, the 1865 cable was successfully brought to the surface and repaired, providing a second Atlantic telegraph link.

Word from the Missing, James Clarke Hook, 1877. Image: Guildhall Art Gallery.

Cultural ramifications

The service had obvious and immediate impact. Governments and the military were able to respond more swiftly to evolving situations. News travelled faster, speeding up trade and boosting businesses. It also had an almost inestimable effect on more equivocal things such as family life and cultural ties. Emigration, for example, no longer meant losing touch with family at home.

The roller-coaster of cable-laying highs and lows between 1857 and 1866 caught the imaginations of a generation; the way the space race did in the 20th century. There was huge public interest in the endeavour and in telegraphy more generally. The fortunes of the telegraph companies were followed closely. Telegraphic science was reported widely in the newspapers. Discussions of the pitfalls and solutions to spanning the Atlantic with cable had become everyday conversation fodder. Government enquiries, lectures at the Royal Institution, and endless articles in the popular press kept the cable project in people’s thoughts.

Evening, William Ayerst Ingram, 1898.

The Atlantic telegraph changed our minds. It changed the way people thought about the world and their place in it; becoming preoccupied with ideas of distance and transmission, the coding of their messages and resistance. And this was as true of artists and writers as it was of scientists and engineers. The Conversation

While engineers with micrometers pursued precision in order to accomplish large-scale projects (such as the telegraph itself), painters similarly turned to tiny details to give a sense of distance and scale – see, for example, William Ingram’s painting, Evening. And where businessmen turned to code books and ciphers to protect their secrets from prying eyes, writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, became preoccupied with encoding clues for their fictional detectives.

Cassie Newland is a postdoctoral research associate at King's College London. She is also an archaeologist and curator of Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy, an exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of the transatlantic cable, at London’s Guildhall Gallery until 22 January 2017.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.