Population’s Role in an Urbanizing China

China’s cities would not be urbanizing at their current rate without the help of the country’s huge population. It is a well-known fact that China is the most populous country on earth, yet this is sometimes forgotten in commentary questioning the breakneck pace of physical urban development. Recently, I came across a very clear reminder of just how many people reside in the Middle Kingdom: a great infographic from The Economist that compares the population of Chinese provinces to different countries around the world.

The province I live in, Sichuan, has roughly the same population as the entire nation of Germany. Now, consider that Germany has a handful of well-known big cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg, just to name a few, that spread the population across the country. Sichuan also has many large cities  spread across the province yet compared with  the famous German cities, chances are that no one outside China (or possibly even outside of Sichuan) has heard of them.

The point I am trying to make here is that large population does  not automatically give a city international clout. Although Chengdu, the provincial capital and largest city in Sichuan, has come up on the international radar in recent years (thanks in part to the terrible earthquake back in 2008), the city is still an afterthought compared with more high-profile cities on the east coast like Beijing and Shanghai.

This is not to mention all the 3rd and 4th Tier in the province that are gaining population like Mianyang, Nanchong, Suining, and Ya’an, among several others. Mianyang, for instance, has a population of 5.2 million residents. Nanchong has 7.3 million residents.

It should also be noted that the scope of what defines a ‘city’ in China is generally larger by means of what is actually counted as part of  an urban area compared with other cities around the world. Cities in China are generally defined at the prefecture level, meaning that there could be several smaller ‘towns’ within a given prefecture (city). This arrangement most likely has to do with China’s system of top-down government and keeping a consistent hierarchical line of command from the central government down to the provincial, prefecture and even village level.

Another interesting part of The Economist infographic is the comparison of Chinese provinces with different countries in terms of per capita GDP.

What this tells us is that despite China’s number two spot on the list of world’s largest economies, from a per capita basis, the country still has a lot of developing to do. Tibet has the same GDP per capita as Congo-Brazzaville, Shanxi the same as Namibia and Henan the same as El Salvador! Granted ,these are poor provinces in comparison to their eastern neighbors, yet offhand one would not expect these numbers from the world’s second largest economy.

Oftentimes, China’s leaders will loudly declare that China is still a ‘developing country’ when accused of not being a responsible player regarding issues such as carbon emissions or human rights. They may have a point.

Though China has come a long way in lifting millions out of poverty into the middle class over the 30+ years since reform and opening, the transformation is far from complete. The country will continue to urbanize well into the future, fueled by its enormous and ambitious population.

The Economist: Comparing Chinese Provinces With Countries

China’s Air Traffic Glut and the Case for High-Speed Rail

Recently there has been an increase in questions raised about China’s unrelenting ambitions to connect the country with high-speed rail. Some commentators question whether the new lines will meet projected capacity, others argue that ticket prices are out of reach for China’s  workers, and there is even concern over the safety of the tracks.

Yet given the benefit of the doubt, there is no question that expanding high-speed rail needs to remain a top priority in developing a comprehensive national transportation network. It isn’t as if China has invested only in high-speed rail at the expense of other forms of transportation infrastructure such as roads and airports- in fact the country has been busy building both in addition to focusing on trains.

Developing high-speed passenger rail makes a lot of sense in China given the large population of the country’s urban areas. Intercity lines between large cities that are too close to be serviced by frequent commercial flights, such as Guangzhou-Shenzhen, Beijing-Tianjin, and Chengdu-Chongqing, are always packed with passengers. I know because I have been on each of these lines several times. Commentators who argue that no one is riding China’s new trains because the cost of tickets is too high should try taking a trip on one of these new lines sometime.

For cities that are further apart, the argument against high-speed rail connections might have a bit more merit. After all, what is the justification for building high-speed rail lines between Chinese cities that are far apart when the cost of flying would be about the same and the travel time less? The answer is simple: convenience.

Anyone who flies frequently within China knows that long delays are not uncommon. Most often this is not due to weather problems but attributable to a massive amount of air traffic. In fact, domestic flight delays last year were the worst in 5 years. Part of this has to do with the fact that many of the country’s airports are undersized and haven’t kept up with the huge increase in domestic air travel in the past decades.

For instance, in Chengdu, the city where I live, the airport has only one runway which means that planes often have to queue up for long periods before being permitted to takeoff. Although the airport is now expanding and a brand new airport is planned in another location outside the city, the air traffic problem doesn’t appear to be letting up in the near future.

Long distance high-speed rail offers a truly viable alternative to air travel in China. When the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line opens this year, travel time between the cities (which are about 1300 km or 800 miles apart) will be just under 4 hours. Comparably, a flight between the two cities is roughly 2 hours. Factor in security lines, potential delays, and baggage claim, and the total travel time approaches something similar to that of taking the train.

Detractors of China’s high-speed rail ambitions seem to always forget one important factor: the sheer size of the country’s population. Critics often point to the relatively high price of high-speed train tickets in arguing that this form of transportation is out of reach for millions of Chinese citizens. Yet what they consistently fail to acknowledge the rapidly growing ranks of the middle class. According to Baizhu Chen, an economics professor at the University of Southern California, China is expected to see a 14% annual rise in wages over the next 5-10 years. Who is to say that these new members of the Chinese middle-class are not going to be filling up the high-speed trains in the future?

Around the world, ease of mobility is paramount to freedom of choice regarding employment and lifestyle options. China critics who would like to see the country become more ‘free’ should applaud the country’s effort to promote many forms of mobility for its citizens. In the future, connecting China’s urban areas with high-speed rail is likely to pay dividends in terms of economic prosperity and quality of life for the Chinese people.

CNN Go: Chinese Airlines Need to Buy a Watch

Forbes: China Faces Years of Double-Digit Wage Increases

Foster + Partners Wins Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Master Plan Competition

Although famous as an international trading and banking center, Hong Kong, save for a strong culinary tradition, lacks in the culture department. The city is just simply not know as an arts destination. That reputation could be changing soon as southwest tip of Kowloon is redeveloped into a large cultural district.

The West Kowloon Cultural District seeks to fill the void of a lacking arts scene in the Special Administrative Region. While undertakings by city governments around the world looking to create large-scale arts or culture districts sometimes come off as desperate attempts to prevent decline and irrelevance, Hong Kong has not such problem of reverting to a backwater anytime soon.

Yet one has to wonder if this is not an attempt by the SAR to distinguish itself as a more refined cultural destination than its Mainland China first-tier city counterparts.

If anything, the West Kowloon Cultural District PR department has done a good job so far of generating international interest with a highly publicized competition for the master plan of the project. World renowned British architecture firm Foster + Partners was recently selected as the winner. Foster + Partners beat out proposals from Rocco Design Architects Limited and OMA/Rem Koolhaas.

Foster + Partners is no stranger to Hong Kong, having been behind the design of the iconic HSBC Building and the city’s masterful Chek Lap Kok Airport. The firm’s concept for the West Kowloon master plan is guided by a desire to create a ‘City Park‘ filled with greenery. Proposed buildings include an Expo Center, Opera House, Chinese Theater, Art School, Theater School, Modern Art Museum, and Concert Hall. Although the buildings for the project are yet to be designed, Foster’s master plan scheme promotes the idea of a minimally refined unifying architectural aesthetic.

The China Urban Development Blog will keep an eye on the ongoing developments for this potentially game-changing project for Hong Kong.

Bustler: Foster + Partners Selected to Design Master Plan for West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong

Chengdu and Chongqing Leading the Way in Hukou Reform

The hukou system, or household registration system, is a method of accounting for the country’s population by requiring each citizen to officially register his or her place of residence.

Possessing an urban hukou in a large city means that one is an official ‘resident’ of that city and eligible to receive benefits such as  access to medical insurance and education as well as the right to purchase property. This poses a problem for the floating population of rural migrants to cities who are not afforded similar benefits due to their lack of an official urban hukou.

Given the difficulty rural migrants have in obtaining an urban hukou, most have no incentive to settle in a city once their period of work is finished. This means that until the system is reformed, rural migrants will always have one foot in the big city and one foot back in the village.

When China first opened up 30 years ago, opportunity was limited to places like the Pearl River Delta, where access to overseas markets made it the logical place to begin economic reform. As economic growth and prosperity has spread from the coastal regions to the interior, migrants from the western part of China have less incentive to head all the way to coastal areas to look for work. In fact, the Pearl River Delta has even seen a migrant worker shortage recently.

The expansion of economic growth throughout China has been of great benefit to interior cities like Chengdu and Chongqing- both large cities surrounded by vast rural areas. The growth of these two cities means that rural migrants from Sichuan and nearby provinces need not go too far in order to find good job opportunities.

Seizing the opportunity to strengthen urban growth, both Chongqing and Chengdu are taking the lead in hukou reform. Chongqing recently pledged to grant 3 million urban hukous to farmers by 2012, and 10 million altogether by 2020! Chengdu has initiated a pilot program to unify rural and urban hukous, granting access to urban unemployment benefits for migrant workers.

It is clear that hukou reform is the key to long-term successful urbanization of China’s cities. While economic reforms first emerged in China’s coastal areas, could social reforms arise from the country’s great cities on the interior?

China Daily: Chongqing Turns Into Red Capital

Chengdu Living: Chengdu’s Pilot Program to Abolish the Hukou

Urbanizing Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

An article I wrote about the sustainable development in China’s cities was recently published in the Winter 2010/2011 Issue of the British Chamber of Commerce South West China Magazine “Face“. The piece examines the historical context under which China’s cities are currently developing and looks at some of the important decisions being made  by civic leaders, arguing that they will ultimately prove to be beneficial in the long-run.

For the readers of the China Urban Development Blog, here is a reproduction of the original piece:

Urbanising Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

By Adam Nathaniel Mayer

China is urbanizing at a time when world opinion regarding climate change means that those involved in city building cannot afford to ignore sustainable solutions to development. Fortunately, China is at a stage in its modernization where leaders have the ability to make decisions that will have far-reaching effects on the environment and quality of life in its cities. This presents a unique opportunity for China to create a new paradigm for efficient cities in  the 21st century.

China receives its share of criticism from the international press about the environmental quality of its cities. Yet while criticism certainly has its place, it is important to keep in mind that the cities in the developed world which went from pre-industrial communities to manufacturing centers and ultimately post-industrial metropolises did not get there overnight. One needs only to recall James Joyce’s Dublin or Charles Dickens’ London to bring to mind the growing pains that cities in the industrialized West went through during their own evolution.

China is following the same urbanization pattern seen in the West, yet at what the late British geographer David Drakakis-Smith called ‘a speed unprecedented in human history’. Drakakis-Smith also noted that China added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe in the entire nineteenth century!

And there is still a long way to go. It is projected that by 2015, the rural and urban populations of China will each stand at 50%. By 2025, the urban population is set to make up 75% of China’s total population. Thus, the future success of China depends largely on how well the country’s cities sustain economic growth and absorb the continuing influx of rural migrants.

So far, China has done a good job of transitioning relatively smoothly from a rural to urban nation. Not only have China’s urban areas grown economically and expanded physically, they are also striving to meet highly functional levels of sustainability. Lisa Hoffman, Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma, attributes this in large part to the openness of China’s leaders to learning from what she refers to as ‘proven models sustainable urban practices’. That is, as she clarifies, municipal officials in China will often visit sites and invite planners, politicians, technicians and businesses to teach them how to be ‘green’.

In practice, this means that rather than setting guidelines arbitrarily for land use planning (also known as ‘zoning’), municipal leaders are open to hearing from architects and urban planners before coming to a decision about what should be built and where. Recommendations are typically manifested in what are known as ‘master plans’ or ‘design studies’ of large swaths of a city.

This flexibility in zoning means that China’s cities are adaptable to  emerging international urban planning trends. Most of these trends are guided by an earnest desire to create cities that are high in density, walkable and served by efficient public transportation. Other, albeit less glamorous aims include effective waste management, crime reduction and the ‘greening’ or beautification of important streets.

In Chengdu, guided by the Garden City concept, the local government has successfully initiated two street beautification projects – on Binjiang Lu along the river that flows through the city’s downtown area, and Renmin Nan Lu, a primary north-south boulevard that bisects the city. In both cases, efforts were taken to update building facades, plant trees, and design lighting schemes that enliven the night-time atmosphere of the streets.

As in Chengdu, underground subway systems are being built in nearly every large Chinese city in anticipation of continued urbanization. High population density means that mixed-use projects around subway transit hubs have a high probability of becoming lively urban spaces in the future. Mixed-use developments are tightly packed projects that feature a mixture of retail, commercial office, hotel and residential uses. In order to reach high densities, most new mixed-use projects consist of high-rise buildings rising out of lower retail ‘podiums’.

Many of these projects are being built not in city centers, but in outlying districts on previously undeveloped land. Today, the construction sites outside the 3rd or 4th ring roads of many Chinese cities might not look like much, and may even look like physical signs of an impending real estate bubble bust, but in fact what is happening is smart urban planning for the future. Transport links such as new roads and subway lines make this kind of expanding growth possible.

China’s cities are following a similar process as cities in the developed world. Many of the largest cities have already seen their heavy industry move outside of central areas. As China’s economy continues to grow and wages inevitably increase, manufacturing will eventually move to other developing countries. At this point, it will be up to China’s leaders to shift the economy from one largely based on heavy industry to a post-industrial economy focused more on knowledge-work and creating new technologies.

By the time this happens, China will be thankful that it invested so much into building its infrastructure and developing its cities to accommodate unprecedented urban growth. In the future, it is highly likely that China’s cities will no longer be following other models, but rather be the new standard by which cities in the developing world shape themselves.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a Senior Project Architect at Cendes Architecture in their Chengdu office.

Lan Kwai Fong Entertainment District Opens in Chengdu

Lan Kwai Fong, the trendy bar district in Hong Kong, has been the island’s premier nightlife spot for the better part of three decades. Developed by Canadian investor Allan Zeman, the small collection of hilly streets above Hong Kong’s Central is an energetic zone of debauchery.

Not long ago, Chengdu, a city well-known for its love of leisure, recruited Zeman and his brand of cosmopolitan nightlife to collaborate on opening a Lan Kwai Fong location in the provincial capital. Given the city’s reputation, Zeman readily agreed and chose a site next to the Funan River in the city’s burgeoning Central Business District.

LKF Chengdu sits along the bank of the Funan River in downtown

LKF Chengdu officially opened at the end of last year. Unlike LKF Hong Kong, which made use of an existing neighborhood, LKF Chengdu is a completely newly built complex. Consisting of a series of pavilion buildings, linked by a snaking roof, the development features high-end restaurants, coffee houses, bars, clubs and a few retail shops catering to the consumption of luxury goods such as wine and cigars.

A snaking, polycarbonate roof covers the complex, unifying the buildings

Unlike the businesses in LKF Hong Kong which cater to the tastes of Western expatriates living and working in the city, LKF Chengdu is geared towards local  Chinese tastes and preferences. This was a conscious decision by Zeman to appeal to local consumers. As such, the bars and clubs in LKF Chengdu are not ‘pubs’ like one would find in Hong Kong, but rather more in line with existing Chengdu nightlife hot spots in decor and atmosphere.

A provocative image of young woman sipping a martini greets clubgoers

That being said, there are a few overseas chains operating in LKF Chengdu such as Starbucks and Tony Roma’s. Lei Garden, an upscale Hong Kong restaurant chain also has a location in the complex.

Strange sculptures dot the  grounds, adding a quirky air to the complex

Based on a few personal outings to the new complex, LKF Chengdu doesn’t seem to be living up to its ambitions in terms of becoming the top nightlife spot in the city. Not only does it have to compete with the neighboring club district Jiu Yan Qiao, the businesses in the complex may be too far out of reach price-wise for the majority of Chengdu’s young party-goers.

This is not to suggest that LKF Chengdu will not become one of the city’s hottest spots for nightlife in the future. In the overall scope of development of Chengdu’s Central Business District, Lan Kwai Fong’s arrival is a bit early. A high-end residential complex next door is still under construction as are several office towers, and a metro line with a stop only one block away is not slated to open for another year.

Though it seems now that LKF Chengdu isn’t meeting expectations, in a few years time Allan Zeman’s investment foresight may once again prove to be right on target.