Between Habitat II and III, China changed everything

At the Habitat II cities conference in 1996, China’s take on urbanization didn’t impress many. Today, parts of Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda look lifted from the country’s own new planning guidelines.

A park in the Lujiazui financial center, Shanghai. In advance of the Paris climate talks, China promised to embark on a new pattern of urbanization. (Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

“I went in 1996, when sustainable urbanism was just being discussed, and people were snickering at China’s urban models, showing vast swaths of high-rise housing,” Jiaotong-Liverpool University architecture professor Austin Williams recollected recently, thinking back to the U. N.’s last major conference on urbanization — Habitat II, held in Istanbul. “The snide comments were to suggest that China didn’t realize that ‘We had done that already in the ‘60s and it clearly didn’t work.’”

Over the past 20 years, however, much has changed. China has harnessed the power of urbanization to become the world’s second-largest economy. It also has used that process to more evenly distribute development across the country and to lift some 400 million people out of poverty.

Along the way, the country created over 450 new cities, urbanizing 40,000 sq km of rural land. It has erected hundreds of millions of new homes, built a 19,000 km high-speed rail network, dug 26 subway systems, laid more than 60,000 km of new highways and constructed nearly a hundred new airports.

[See: On China’s central plains, an ‘aerotropolis’ grows near Zhengzhou]

This massive urbanization movement has been double-edged, with grave environmental and social damage along each step of the way. In turn, however, this has led to the formation of a new model — one that runs flush with the ethics that are driving the next round of global urbanization talks, Habitat III, set to meet in Quito in October. There, the global community will agree on new 20-year urbanization guidelines known as the New Urban Agenda, China included.

How not to build a city

The Soviet-style superblock was the predominate design foundation of China’s urbanization boom. This resulted in entire city districts rapidly being paved in gated housing complexes stretching 500x500 meters.

“For 20 years, China made thousands of near-perfect models of how not to build a city. The positive side is that this is no secret.”

Called xiaoqu — “little districts” — these gated-in, subdivided sectors cut up the landscape of China’s cities like a puzzle. They made huge tracts of land inaccessible to outsiders and impenetrable to the city’s transportation network.

These new developments were generally single-use, car-dependent, water-heavy, energy-inefficient, land-intensive and overtly monotonous — creating “a thousand cities with the same face,” as it has often been put. Worse, the buildings were generally built with low-quality materials, with an expected lifetime of little over 25 years.

[See: China’s ‘disposable cities’ not meant to last]

“Unfortunately, during my time working as an architect and master planner in China, I have witnessed the ‘slash and burn’ approach to developing large new neighbourhoods and towns,” said Derek Murphy, a China-based architect, “whereby the existing natural resources and landscape elements were for the most part eradicated to make space for ubiquitous new towns assembled, line after line after line, of building blocks.

Such development paid no regard to existing topography or natural landscape features, Murphy said.

“Existing elements, such as mountains, valleys, lakes, streams, or wetlands are all seen as minor obstacles to be removed in order to provide a blank, flat canvas to facilitate the rapid construction of new towns and cities,” he noted. “It is as if the elements of the built environment and the natural landscape are seen as two separate and opposing entities.”

[See: China encouraged to pursue new models for urban growth]

For 20 years, China made thousands of near-perfect models of how not to build a city. The positive side is that this is no secret.

“The local municipalities, city planners and everyday ordinary citizens are realizing that many of the new urban environments and cities they have built are oppressive and lack consideration for the natural environment,” Murphy said.

This realization provoked an equal and opposite reaction against what had become China’s standard model of urbanization, and a new type of city building soon arose.

Global innovation lab

The conventional Chinese city was under-planned and hastily constructed, ecologically pernicious, sprawled out and car dependent. But the new wave of cities would be well thought out, more environmentally sound, spatially compact, resource light. They would blend in with the natural environment and focus on local communities with walkable neighbourhoods.

“If you look closer, then many things have changed, and many experiments have been implemented.”

Harry den Hartog
Tongji University

The global climate discussions that culminated in December in Paris with an ultimately round of negotiations known as COP 21 played a part in motivating some of these changes.

“In advance of COP 21, China promised to embark on a new pattern of urbanization, optimizing the urban system and space layout, and integrating the low-carbon development concept in the entire process of urban planning, construction and management,” urban designer Lili Pike pointed out in January.

[See: ‘Green guidelines’ offer roadmap for China’s urbanization]

China’s new urban development initiatives “match the envisioned shift from quantity to quality in most aspects of China’s planned development,” Joost van den Hoek, a China-based urbanist, told me in March. “They focus on improving existing cities and making the new ones more sophisticated.”

“At first sight not much has changed,” said Harry den Hartog, with Tongji University Shanghai‎. “The same building codes limit the outcomes, and simultaneously the ambitions of most local leaders and developers don’t go much further than maximizing profit, regardless of the long-term consequences.”

Still, said den Hartog, “If you look closer, then many things have changed, and many experiments have been implemented.”

Over the past decade, China has been the world’s test site for new and innovative large-scale urban design strategies. China is willing and able to build new, experimental urban environments to an extent that no other country can match.

[See: China to emphasize livable cities, urban planning]

In the coming years, more than half of China’s new developments will likely be branded with labels such as eco, green, low carbon, smart or sponge. China currently has 200 “eco-cities”, 30 central-government-supported “sponge” cities that use and reuse almost all rainwater, and countless other green and “smart” urban design projects already underway.

Some of China’s first forays into experimental urbanization had very publicly fallen short of their initial goals. Still, these new cities were not only tests in urban design but also of implementation, financing and international public-private partnerships. And each of these components has been drastically improved over time.

[See: China’s city planners urged to focus on density]

The development of more-sustainable urban environments in China goes beyond creating new cities. It also includes major initiatives to improve the ones that are already there.

China reinvigorated its government-subsidized affordable-housing programme, building more than 7.7 million units at a cost of USD 236.9 billion last year alone. Eventually this initiative aims to include nearly a quarter of all homes in the country.

A large-scale urban restoration programme also is getting underway. Last year alone this project saw more than six million urban homes fixed up with government money.

Green transportation has been a big part of China’s new urban agenda. The central government currently has a goal of getting five million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. Already, over 20 percent of the country’s buses are electric, and if this pace continues the entire national fleet will be converted within a decade.

This comes alongside large-scale government support for electric cars. That focus includes significant subsidies — as much as USD 20,000 — for purchasing such vehicles as well as USD 16 billion pledged to build a network of charging stations across the country. And all of this is in addition to China having the most bike-sharing programmes in the world.

[See: China orders cities to stop consuming farmland]

Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s Williams explained that China’s new urbanization ethics “is about a more-rounded, comprehensive attitude to sustainability, taking in parks and green spaces but also looking at the triple bottom line of environment, economy and social sustainability.”

Consumer demand has been driving this green revolution in China, as awareness of the pernicious health effects of air soil, and water pollution continues to grow. Foreign food imports have increased more than fourfold over the past decade, organic food production has tripled since 2007, new real estate offerings in eco or low-carbon cities tend to sell out fast, and last year electric vehicle sales quadrupled.

New Urban Agenda’s old hat?

This month, China held the Huangguoshu Forum on Sustainable Tourism and Human Settlements in Guizhou province. The event brought in 180 delegates from 12 countries to discuss issues related to tourism and sustainable urban development, as the Habitat jamboree continues its conference tour around the world.

“It’s my assumption that these [points in the New Urban Agenda] would have been eye-openers in China 25 years ago. Currently, most of these recommendations are implemented or on the way.”

Joost van den Hoek
China-based urbanist

Such conferences, meetings with think tanks, negotiations with governments and exchange of ideas have resulted in a “zero draft” that will form the framework of the New Urban Agenda, the cornerstone of the upcoming Habitat conference. The agenda’s first draft was released in May, followed by a revision in June after a month of political negotiations at U. N. Headquarters in New York.

[See: How are governments responding to the revised draft New Urban Agenda?]

The framework currently contains 17 pages’ worth of recommendations for cities to follow over the next 20 years. These include aims such as:

o   Achieving environmentally sound human settlements, protecting and valuing ecosystems, supporting biodiversity, establishing more efficient land and natural resource usage patterns, and reducing pollution

o   Mitigating the risks of natural disasters

o   Retrofitting existing urban areas

o   Integrating informal settlements

o   Encouraging citizen participation in the urbanization process

o   Reducing socio-economic segregation

o   Preserving cultural heritage

o   Creating compact cities, promoting mixed use neighbourhoods with enhanced commercial use of the ground floor, promoting walkability and cycling, and curbing sprawl

o   Providing more affordable housing

o   Increasing access to public space

o   Designing and implementing better transportation networks

Many of the elements of the New Urban Agenda’s draft are almost identical to the new urbanization guidelines that China’s State Council issued in February. This document, released by the highest echelons of power in the country, was structured as a set of 30 points to guide urbanization over the coming years.

[See: Ahead of New Urban Agenda draft, national reports offer country-specific lens]

Thus while parts of the New Urban Agenda could have caused some consternation in China years ago, this is no longer the case.

“It’s my assumption that these [points in the New Urban Agenda] would have been eye-openers in China 25 years ago,” said urbanist van den Hoek. “Currently, most of these recommendations are implemented or on the way. Many of the practical recommendations on sustainable and resilient urban development or planning and managing spatial development are standing practices in large parts of China, and certainly in all 1st- and 2nd-tier city-regions.”

If the ultimate goal of the New Urban Agenda is to provide direction and momentum to governments around the world to improve their cities and make them more sustainable long into the future, then China is clearly moving in step with the principles to be announced in Quito. There, the country should receive a slightly different reception than it did in Istanbul 20 years ago — and be ready to offer itself up as a leading innovator on sustainable urbanization well into the future.

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Wade Shepard

Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China and is currently working on a book about China’s efforts to build trade ties with Europe and central Asia along the “New Silk Road.”