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.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook