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.

 
 
 
 

Literally just 27 city metro stations with really cool names

Pueurta del Sol square, Madrid. Image: Santiago Díaz/Wikimedia Commons.

Sol, Madrid Metro

Literally “sun”. Named after the Pueurta del Sol square. For several years it was known as “Vodafone Sol”, which was rather less attractive. 

Étangs Noirs/Zwarte Vijvers, Brussels Metro

“Black ponds”. This being Brussels, we get it in two languages.

Besses o’the Barn, Manchester Metrolink

Named for the area of Bury, north of Manchester, in which it stands. No one’s entirely sure why it’s called that but it might be to do with a pub.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Paris Metro

The Paris metro is a particularly great one for names. This one opened as Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées – literally, “roundabout of the Elysian Fields”, which is lovely enough in itself, really.

But its name was changed in 1946, when the nearby Avenue Victor-Emmanuel III (named after the king of Italy, which had just fought against France in World War II) was renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue (in honour of the US president who helped win the thing).

Délices, Lausanne

Named for a neighbouring street. Means “delights”. The Swiss have a station called “Delights”.

Clot, Barcelone Metro

The name means hole/cove/hollow. Basically, it’s a hole in the ground. Called Clot.

Onkel Toms Hütte, Berlin U-Bahn

You’re thinking this can’t possibly be what it looks like, but, yes, it genuinely is. It translates as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, like the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel about slavery.

Image: DXR/Wikimedia Commons. 

The area seems to have taken its name from a pub run by a bloke called Thomas, whose beer garden was full of huts. There’s no pub there now, anyway, but the name remains.

Bonne Nouvelle, Paris Metro

This one’s named for the district above it, which took its name from the Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle church. Which is all very sensible – but it does mean there are on-board announcements which literally translate as, “The next stop is good news.”


Admiralty, Hong Kong MRT

Takes its name from the area which once housed Admiralty Dock. While looking it up we also found...

Адмиралте́йская, St Petersburg Metro

...and decided it sounds so much better in Russian, where it’s “Admiralteyskaya”. Say it out loud. Pleasing, isn’t it?

While we’re at it:

Комендантский проспект, St Petersburg Metro

This one means “Commandant Avenue.” But that doesn’t sound as cool as “Kommandansky Prospekt”.

Keeping with the Russian theme:

Stalingrad, Paris metro

Located in the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad, which was named for the battle.

Brockley Whins, Tyne & Wear Metro

Named for the area it’s in, though where that got its name is anyone’s guess.

Dudley Street Guns Village, Midlands Metro

Named after a street in West Bromwich, and the neighbourhood it’s a part of. That in turn took its name from the area’s once dominant industry.

The local Guns Village Prime School is currently debating a name change on the grounds that guns are bad.

Image: Clicsouris/Wikimedia Commons.

Les Gobelins, Paris Metro

Avenue des Gobelins disappointingly takes its name from a family of medieval dye manufacturers, rather than some actual goblins. But still.

Crossmyloof, Glasgow commuter rail

This one’s technically a mainline station, not a metro, but nonetheless: what a name. It might come from the Gaelic Crois MoLiubha – “Saint (Ma)lieu’s Cross”. Then again, it might not.

In October 2012, Wikipedia tells us, “a highland cow escaped the nearby Pollok Park and walked the rail line to this station, where it was captured and returned”. Wikipedia has one of those “citation needed” notes there, but it’s kept the line in anyway. And little wonder: this is one of those stories that’s just too good to check.

One stop further out of Glasgow on the same line you’ll find:

Pollokshaws West, Glasgow commuter rail

Pollokshaws. Another one that it’s genuinely worth saying out loud, just to hear yourself.

The city’s subway also has a Cowcaddens and a Cessnock, both named for the districts they sit in.

I seriously need to visit Glasgow sometime, that place sounds amazing.

Barbès – Rochechouart, Paris Metro

“A sneeze of a station,” says one correspondent. “Makes you sound like the sausages dog from That’s Life,” says another.

Anyway, it’s named for two streets, which take their names from a revolutionary and an abbess respectively. There’s a rom-com for you right there.

Foggy Bottom-GWU, Washington Metro

Named for a low-lying suburb next to the Potomac River prone to filling up with mist, and also George Washington University. Anyway, it’s where you get off the train if you want to visit the State Department.

Wedding, Berlin U-bahn & S-bahn

During the Cold War, some of the lines this station sits on were closed, to prevent travel between East and West Berlin. They re-opened in 2002, in an event known – inevitably – as “Wedding Day”.

It’s actually pronounced “veding”, but there we are.

The winning bike. Image: David Edgar/Wikimedia Commons.

Eddy Merckx, Brussels Metro

Okay, the name’s hard to pronounce, but the guy won the Tour de France five times. How many cycling tournaments have you won recently?

Luchtbal, Antwerp commuter rail

Means “air ball”. Of course it does.

Burpengary, Brisbane commuter rail network

A suburb whose name is derived from the aboriginal word “burpengar”, meaning the “place of the green wattle”. But which, joyously, has both “burp” and “Gary” in it.

Kunst-Wet/Arts-Loi, Brussels metro

Sitting at the corner of Art and Law streets, the station takes its name from both, and the result is, well, yes.

Picpus, Paris Metro

“Picpus on the Paris metro is adorable,” writes Tom Forth, “and sounds like a type of Pokémon.” Yes. Yes, it does.

It’s not, though. Nearby there’s a Picpus Cemetary.

Thanks to the readers of the CityMetric Twitter feed for doing all the hard work on this one. If you have suggestions for ones we’ve missed, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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