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.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.