Guangzhou: From pell-mell growth to champion of urban innovation

From “old” Canton, a port and backwater of fish farms, Guangzhou transformed itself into a top global manufacturer and trading portal. (Sean Pavone/

Many people have the same question the first time they hear about the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation: Why Guangzhou?

The answer is rooted in the city’s rapid modern-day development. From “old” Canton, a port and backwater of fish farms, it transformed itself from the 1980s onward into a top global manufacturer and trading portal. As early as 2003, Guangzhou’s thousands of factories outstripped Hong Kong, the original Asian factory for the world. Guangzhou’s trade networks became China’s most extensive, reaching across the Eurasian continent and into Africa.

Today Guangzhou is home to 15 million people, part of the massive Pearl River Delta area of such urban giants as Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau. (Cumultatively, the region’s nine largest cities have a population of over 57 million.) Symbolizing Guangzhou’s exuberant growth, its “sculptured” skyline of curved and angled new buildings turns into a multi-colored extravaganza along the banks of the Pearl by night, topped by constantly changing illumination of the Canton Tower (which at 600 meters, for a time was the tallest tower in the world).

But Guangzhou’s constant growth exacted a heavy price in hideous traffic congestion. Zhongshan Avenue — a key artery through central Guangzhou and one of the world’s busiest bus corridors — became a special nightmare of slow-moving buses, cars, trucks jockeying for space. So the U. S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) approached the mayor and suggested reconstructing the center of Zhongshan Avenue for buses only. Three lanes each way of regular traffic would be relegated to the sides.

Despite being home to 15 million people, much of Guangzhou retains a neighborly feel.  (pavel dudek/

The mayor, justifiably suspicious, became convinced after ITDP took him to São Paulo to see a bus-rapid transit system in efficient operation. Soon afterward, work began on Zhongshan Avenue. Despite a storm of public criticism sparked by the congestion during its construction, the system turned out to be a dramatic success. After Bogotá, Guangzhou now has the world’s second largest BRT system.

In another innovation, Guangzhou devised a strategy to maintain an affordable housing supply. The city created a special fund from a percentage of revenues it receives from selling development rights for real estate developments, and earmarked the funds for housing subsidies for the urban poor. The city came to see the value of innovation — coming up with new ideas to solve problems — and especially the value of city-to-city learning.

Thus it was a natural development that Guangzhou in 2011 would make its offer to mount the major international city award program to recognize significant urban innovations across the world, in conjunction with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Metropolis. The process is a complex one, which involves raising significant funds for programs and travel missions, recruiting and managing staff, and arranging complex logistics for the major biennial competition events.

Guangzhou’s bus-rapid transit system is now the world’s second largest after Bogotá. (Benjamin/flickr/cc)

To capture both experience and counsel on its preparations for its first competition round in 2012, Guangzhou turned to a seasoned veteran of the city awards process — Nicholas You. You had recently stepped down from 28 years of service to United Nations agencies, with five years as senior policy and strategic planning adviser for UN-Habitat. In the 1990s, he established a UN Habitat-led Best Practices and Local Leadership Program, later adopted by the city of Dubai.

But over time, You became disillusioned with the static nature of “best practices” awards, believing the very term was backward-looking. “In a world characterized by rapid urbanization and equally rapid change,” You says, “we need a system that looks forward.”

Today, You acts as strategic adviser and manager of significant portions of the Guangzhou Award, working closely with the Guangzhou city staff. Liu Baochun, director general of the Guangzhou Foreign Affairs Office, cites You’s role as critical to “ensuring international professionalism and sustainability” of the award. (Disclosure: You is a member of Citiscope’s Board of Directors.)

In city administrations, there’s always the possibility of political shifts and eclipse of existing programs. But for now, the big city on the Pearl River Delta seems to have moved beyond its trade beachhead to establish a world-leading urban learning initiative — an asset to build on, not relinquish.


Inside the Guangzhou Award for urban innovation

Guangzhou: From pell-mell growth to champion of urban innovation

The short list: 15 finalists for the 2014 Guangzhou Award 

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