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.


So what happened at Habitat III?

Habitat III's secretary general Joan Clos treated delegates to his famous performance of the Macarena. Image: Getty.

Habitat III – the United Nation’s global conference on the future of cities – has come to a close. About 30,000 people gathered in Quito, Ecuador, last week to discuss the key issues facing cities today and sign off on the New Urban Agenda – the global strategy which will guide urban development over the next 20 years.

For four days, the Casa de la Cultura Benjamín Carrión – where most of the conference events took place – buzzed with action. A range of diverse voices was heard in the conference precinct: from high ranking UN conference officials, to activists who fight every day for a more just city. UN-Habitat can take credit for a diverse and generally inclusive conference which delivered an optimistic – though somewhat ambiguous – outlook on the future of cities.

An inclusive conference

Efforts to make the conference inclusive – it was free and anyone could register – materialised in a big jamboree of all kinds of people interested in urban affairs (as well as complaints about long queues). The overall message of the conference emphasised the need to address social, economic and material inequalities in cities and urban areas.

Disadvantaged groups were widely represented at Habitat III. Most side events included representatives of the urban poor, such as organisations like Shack/Slum Dwellers International.

International organisations which had previously ignored the significance of cities in international development – such as UNIDO and the Red Cross – pleaded to join an increasingly popular (and highly lucrative) urban field.

Yet international experts often appeared oblivious to the enormous progress that the poorest urban communities have made to organise themselves and finance their futures. During the sessions, questions from Ecuadorian students raised eyebrows, pointing towards unexamined assumptions that international experts take for granted – such as what makes a city “smart”.

The New Urban Agenda

The main outcome of Habitat III was that UN nation states agreed on the New Urban Agenda (NUA): a non-binding document, which will guide policies over the next 20 years with the goal of making cities safer, resilient and sustainable and their amenities more inclusive.

The foundation for the 24-page document was a collection of papers written by six policy units, made up of experts from around the world. The NUA itself emerged from a consultative process, whereby UN-Habitat collected the inputs of a diverse community of urban scholars, leaders, planners and activists.

UN-Habitat director Joan Clos in action. Image: Ministry of Natural Resources, Rwanda/Flickr.

The key message of the NUA was “leaving no one behind”. This points towards a vision for the future of cities, where diverse urban aspirations of prosperity and sustainable development are linked by a desire for equality.

Yet the document did not escape criticism. Its reliance on experts generated scepticism about whether the NUA could actually integrate grassroots perspectives. Meanwhile, the consensual approach – which involved redrafting the NUA a total of five times – has led to the avoidance of polemic issues. For example, LGBTQ rights were excluded from the NUA at the request of a group of 17 countries, led by Belarus.

The impact of the NUA will depend on how it is put into practice. Neither the NUA nor Habitat III have clarified how the ideals outlined should be achieved. So for the moment, the text can be thought of as a series of important goals – the consequences of which will only become evident during implementation.

Urban leaders

The role of city governments in implementing the NUA was one of the big issues discussed at Habitat III. The World Mayors’ Assembly which preceded Habitat III asserted two key demands. One was that city, metropolitan and regional governments should have a seat at UN negotiation tables and be able to take decisions without the interference of national governments.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau takes the stage. Image: Jose Jacome/EPA.

The other was that mayors want direct access to international finance. Some proposed that 20 per cent to 25 per cent  of global finance for development – in instruments such as the Green Climate Fund – should be allocated directly to cities.

But the NUA is created by and for national governments. As a result, it often appears to prioritise the role of national policies which strategically coordinate urban development at the national level. This focus may become an obstacle for local governments seeking to implement the goals.

The right to the city

The consensus around the “right to the city” – an idea championed by Ecuador and Brazil – was historical. The “right to the city” generally refers to the capacity of urban citizens to influence processes of urban development, and make a city they want to live in.

Social movements have promoted the “right to the city” to denounce urban processes that generate injustices, such as gentrification, privatisation of public spaces, forced evictions and the mistreatment of urban refugees. But the inclusion of the “right to the city” in the NUA meant watering it down, because it is not explicitly recognised as a universal human right. Instead, the NUA merely encourages governments to enshrine the right to the city in their laws.

Contradictions are already beginning to emerge around the right to the city. For instance, one representative from the Senegal delegation kicked off a high level round table on financing sustainable urban development by explaining that informal settlements are often situated on high-value land. This value, he argued, can be cashed by local governments if dwellers are willing to relocate.

However, this representative did not explain that this means of gathering finances often entails local governments leading a process of urban gentrification. Research on forced evictions has documented the tremendous negative impacts that relocation has on the livelihoods and well-being of displaced people. This is just one of many contradictions which will become visible as the NUA is implemented.

Habitat III brought together thought leaders on the future of urban areas, fostering dialogue and collaboration. It will have a lasting impact on efforts to address urbanisation – one of the global challenges of our time.

Vanesa Castán Broto is senior lecturer in environment and sustainable development at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. It's part of a series on publicly funded UK research at the UN Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. It is a collaboration between the Urban Transformations Network, UK Economic and Social Research Council and The Conversation UK. Read the original article.The Conversation