Q&A With Author of “The People’s Republic of Chemicals”

PRC cover

Nothing threatens the stability of China’s economic miracle more than the hazardous levels of pollution generated by rapid development. The rise of the private automobile, unregulated toxic factories, and the widespread use of coal-burning as an energy source have all contributed to environmental degradation across China’s cities. While in the past, these issues were swept under the rug in favor of economic growth at all costs, the rise in living standards means that China’s leadership can no longer ignore the concerns of the people they serve.

China is now at a crucial turning point where economic goals must be balanced with considerations for the environment going forward. This is not an easy problem to tackle and the solution will require a global effort.

The new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals serves as an excellent starting point in understanding how China’s pollution problem got so out of hand in the first place and what can be done to stop it (or at least slow it down). The book’s co-authors, William Kelly and Chip Jacobs, are appropriate storytellers having together written the 2008 book Smogtown about the rise and fall of pollution in mid-century Los Angeles.

William took the time to answer some questions for us about their new book:

Adam Mayer (AM): As you observe in your previous book, Smogtown, Los Angeles has done a good job of cleaning up its air in a relatively short amount of time. Aside from the rise of use of catalytic converters for cars, how much does this have to do with the fact that L.A. is no longer a manufacturing powerhouse for the aerospace industry? Using L.A. as an example to learn from, how can China move away from manufacturing to services without sending shockwaves through its economy?

William Kelly (WK): In history, sixty years seems like a short time, but for those who lived it in Los Angeles it seemed like forever, especially for the roughly 10 percent of the population that suffers from asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases. And bear in mind the air in Los Angeles is still unhealthful, though much less so than even in the 1990s.

Aerospace really was a fairly minor source of air pollution in Los Angeles and its downsizing had more to do with the end of the Cold War, consolidation in the industry and the rise of Airbus and other competitors around the world. However, like virtually every other source of air pollution it was regulated and required to follow best practices and use the cleanest technology available. The fact is that around 1990, the LA area needed to cut emissions about 80 percent to meet health standards and to do that all sources had to be controlled. So the effort went far beyond the catalytic converter which was first required in the 1970s.

But without digressing, China can learn much from Los Angeles and California, but replacing manufacturing with services is not the answer. Instead, cleaning up the sources of energy in China is the key task that will bring the biggest environmental improvements, as well as much better control and treatment of waste byproducts from manufacturing that also pollute water, soil, and air.

The tragic thing we’re seeing now is that with the U.S. pushing the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, we may replicate what happened environmentally in China in the 1990s in Vietnam, Malaysia, and other underdeveloped nations by helping to set up manufacturing that will be all coal powered. The coal plants in those nations already are being built in anticipation of the trade agreement.

AM: One of the more recent developments in China is the proliferation of citizen protests against new chemical factories. In your research, did you find this phenomenon to be widespread? How is the government (both local governments and the central government) reacting to these protests?

WK: The protests have been widespread, persistent, and often violent. The reason stems from fear of releases, particularly potentially catastrophic releases from chemical plants, but at the root is distrust of the public officials charged with regulating these plants.

Here’s a fact Americans might find hard to believe. In a nation with more than three times as many people as in the U.S., the Chinese equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fewer people than work at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a few hundred. That’s in a nation that covers more land area than the U.S. too. Obviously that’s inadequate.

So as a result, the enforcement of standards largely falls on local and provincial government personnel, who are under the thumb of local and provincial Communist Party officials who are constantly wined and dined, if not controlled by industrialists. The common people know this, so they feel left to their own devices when these plants come to town.

The key to gaining trust here is for the national government to build up its capacity to enforce environmental laws and standards and for the national government to exert more control over provincial and local party officials by making their compensation and promotion contingent on environmental as well as economic performance.

AM: Perhaps most detrimental to China’s air quality is the widespread use of coal-burning as a power source. Given China’s growing demand for energy, and the cheap cost of coal as a resource, what are the necessary steps that the country needs to take to incentivize cleaner sources of energy? Is this already happening? If so, how?

WK: First, coal is the biggest cause of air pollution in China, particularly the terrible particle pollution we see in the pictures.

Solving the problem, therefore, is easy as ABC, anything but coal. Fortunately, China’s historic strength is in bringing technologies to scale, from the canals and roads of the dynastic days, to the great outpouring of digital devices we see today.

Now the nation is successfully turning to solar and wind power, where it’s become a leading nation both in manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, and also deploying them in its grid. Indeed, China is the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer.

Now, it’s beginning to do the same by turning to advanced batteries to store intermittent renewable power so it will be there at night and when the air is still. Coupled with the energy efficiency inherent in denser, urban living in small quarters we can hardly fathom in the U.S., China could be the next nation after Germany to get huge amounts of energy from renewable sources. In fact, it’s happening most energy analysts agree.

All that the Chinese have to do is follow Deng’s advice, to “be brave” and “walk with faster steps” when it comes to moving to renewable energy and to drop further development of coal.

AM: Looking ahead, do you think that urbanization will eventually lead to a better environment in China? In other words, once the new cities are built and the infrastructure is in place, will we look back on the last 3 decades as a small sacrifice paid for what could ultimately be a sustainable urban future with an intelligent grid, efficient public transit and green buildings? Or has the pace and scale of urbanization taken a toll on the environment that can never be rectified?

WK: When it comes to what China is doing with public transit, housing, and amenities for its people, one could argue it puts the U.S. to shame. In many ways, we have much to learn.

Clearly, even the casual visitor can see China is making a lot of the right moves on transportation and urbanization, moves that are setting it on a path when it’s fully developed toward much lower emissions per capita than in the U.S.

The danger is, however, that continuing to rely on coal to build out its cities will do irreparable harm to the world’s atmosphere by pushing up carbon levels to the point that triggers runaway global warming. The Chinese leadership ultimately is coming to grips with this, but needs to embark on a crash program to transition to clean energy.

Given their great communitarian tradition and amazing technical ingenuity—remember they had vastly superior technology to Europe even at the time of Marco Polo—the Chinese are fully capable of doing this, in fact leading the world on it. The ability is there, all they need to do is muster the resolve.

Many thanks to William Kelly for taking the time to answer these questions for us. Please be sure to read their new book The People’s Republic of Chemicals.

Urban Creative Culture, Air Quality and the Tragedy of Beijing


Like many foreign travelers and working expats who arrive to China, Beijing was my first port of entry into the country. Leaving Capital Airport I was struck by the massive scale of the city, overwhelmed by the repetitive concrete towers standing like regimented rows of soldiers in the skyline. Beijing’s urban form is undoubtedly inspired by the Soviet-era tendency towards grandiose urban planning schemes, but as I would come to learn the story on the ground painted a different, much more vibrant picture of urban life.

Beijing is not a city that one can fully appreciate in the matter of just a few days visiting the famous historical sites. In the space between gigantic attractions like The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and Summer Palace, a modern grassroots culture thrives. Underground rock clubs, artist studios and independent coffee shops coexist in what’s left of old hutong neighborhoods as well as reclaimed industrial spaces on the periphery of the city center.

The notion of a burgeoning arts scene would seem to run counter to what many outside China still think of the city: that is, the seat of an oppressive Communist government devoted to quashing all personal freedoms. Although Chairman Mao’s portrait still looks ominously over Tiananmen Square, the perception of Beijing as a cultural desert couldn’t be further from the truth.

Arts and culture are engrained in the city’s urban DNA. Beijingers are rightly proud of their city’s long history as a cultural center, and its young creative residents continue that tradition today. Just as the infinite looping ring roads that surround the city conjure up images of Ouroboros (the serpent eating its own tail), so is the city itself in constant cyclical reinvention mode. The tremendous social and economic changes provide a fertile ground for artistic inspiration and creative freedom.

Yet there is one factor that undermines Beijing’s aspirations as a global urban creative center, and it is not the threat of government oppression. Rather, it is the layer of hazardous grey smog that envelopes the city on a regular basis.

When I first visited Beijing 2006 air pollution was already a problem, but not at quite the level it is now. When I returned to Beijing in 2009, this time moving to China for work, I noticed the pollution had become markedly worse. Thousands more cars were added to the roads and urban development was pushing out past the city’s distant 6th Ring Road. Today, the pollution levels are worse than they’ve ever been, with the density of PM2.5 particles reaching as high as 671 micrograms (or 26 times the level considered safe by the World Health Organization).

As someone with the fortune of being born in a country that is already developed and has established emission standards, I’ve been hesitant to criticize China regarding their development aspirations. Throwing stones from afar would be nothing less than hypocritical, as most developed countries also went through a “dirty phase” during rapid industrial expansion. Thus, the general tone of this blog is supportive of China’s urban development and the economic benefits it has created for the Chinese people.

Yet China’s environmental crisis is a serious threat to that process- and Beijing is ground zero for the country’s challenges. Beijing’s air pollution is a health problem for everyone in the city, regardless of class or economic status. It is an economic problem as much as it is a social problem: if the city’s residents can’t breathe clean air then urban life cannot continue to thrive. Pollution is also a real threat to urbanization, as crisis levels could prompt people to revert back to rural living despite economic opportunities offered by the city.

Encouragingly, the Chinese government has fully acknowledged that pollution is a problem and is taking proactive steps to address the issue. This includes everything from limiting the amount of automobiles on the road at any given time to decommissioning coal-fire power plants near the city.

Yet this is not enough- there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way China and other developing countries urbanize and grow their economies. This includes embracing more ecologically sensitive technologies in power generation and transportation. To incentivize using these new technologies, China is testing out a pilot cap-and-trade program in 7 cities (including Beijing). If successful, China will roll out a nationwide cap-and-trade program by 2016.

In the meantime Beijing residents will have to do what they can to stay healthy in the current environmental conditions. Sadly, until the air is cleaned up, Beijing may have to put on hold its aspiration as a global center of arts and culture, despite the exciting activity happening at the grassroots level.

China World’s Largest Wind Energy Market

Infographic Courtesy of Statista

Organic Farming in China: Chengdu’s Anlong Village

With the ongoing spate of food safety scandals, Chinese consumers are rightly weary of the source and quality of their food. Unfortunately, food quality regulatory bodies in China remain unreliable and direct access to fresh food sources is limited for an increasingly urbanized populace. This is one of the great contradictions of China’s urban development: a country which for most of its history was majority agriculturally based is on the fast track to be one of the most urbanized nations in the world.

Status conscious Chinese urbanites would rather not associate with anything related to farming, as it evokes the recent memory of rural peasant life. For many upwardly mobile city dwellers, international restaurant chains like KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut are considered the best options for upper-class ‘healthy’ dining (that is, food with high caloric content).

The urban growth of China is a boon to these chains as more American consumers shun them in favor of a more organic, natural diet. The shift in American consumer preferences is reflected in the success of supermarket chain Whole Foods, local farmers markets, and the growing popularity of the Slow Food movement.

Given China’s new-found love affair with processed food and growing ambivalence about the role of agriculture, I was confident there was probably not much interest in organic farming. That was until I visited Anlong Village- a wholly organic, zero waste farm 50 km northwest of central Chengdu. With a full-time population of 3,000 residents, Anlong Village is sponsored by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA), a local non-profit NGO.

Anlong Village was initially set-up in an effort to help clean up the Funan River, which flows into central Chengdu

Anlong Village is CURA’s flagship project, and unlike other purported ‘eco-cities’ under development in China, lives up to its claim of being 100% sustainable. The partnership was established in 2003 as an effort to help clean up the adjacent Funan River, which flows through central Chengdu, after it was discovered that most of the river pollutants come from agricultural runoff upstream.

Anlong helps abate this problem by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and instead using natural methods to fight agricultural pests. These methods include surrounding plots with mint (a natural pesticide) and planting garden plots with a variety of different species (so if one crop succumbs to disease, it does not destroy the entire plot). This not only avoids dumping unnatural chemical waste into the river, but ensures that the farm’s soil is nurtured over the long-term.

The village also features a comprehensive composting system. Composting toilets turn waste into organic fertilizer and animal waste is recycled into concrete pits treated with anaerobic digestive microorganisms that convert it into methane gas used for heating and cooking. Plant waste is also re-used as organic fertilizer.

Organic waste is mixed together in large pits and composted naturally before being re-used as fertilizer

Throughout the village, greywater is treated in a series of specialized ponds that naturally remove pollutants. Treated greywater can then be re-used for agricultural irrigation. Constructed wetlands adjacent to the Funan River also treat greywater, assuring that potentially harmful waste water is filtered before entering the river.

Constructed wetlands treat greywater, naturally removing pollutants

Despite the initial apprehension of local government officials, Anlong Village is a tremendous success. Of the few plots available to non-Anlong residents (primarily health conscious families living in the city who tend to their crops on the weekend), demand outstrips supply.

Demand is also great for the organic produce grown in Anlong. This is in large part due to Chinese consumer mistrust of the validity of produce labeled ‘organic’ in large Chengdu supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or Isetan. Anlong, on the other hand, offers a trustworthy source.

Unfortunately, at this point there are very limited formal distribution channels for purchasing organic produce grown in the village. Farmers frequently venture to the city to sell their crops, but usually only those ‘in-the-know’ will know when and where exchange points are. To make it a bit easier for consumers, CURA is currently in the process of training Anlong farmers how to use microblogging sites to announce the time and location of exchange points.

An outdoor dining hall in Anlong Village. The 100% organic & vegetarian lunch I ate here ranks up as one of the best meals I’ve eaten in China

In its relatively short history as a 100% organic farm, Anlong Village is already a benchmark for other aspiring sustainable farms around China. Yet like in the U.S., there is ongoing debate about the scalability of such a model. Considering the high markup on price compared to commercially farmed crops (produce grown in Anlong can be two to three times the cost of commercially farmed produce), many argue that this method of farming is not practical to feed a nation with such a huge population as China.

In spite of this debate, and given China’s struggle with pollution as it continues to develop, Anlong Village is a blessing and a valuable reminder that practical steps can be taken to protect its environment.

Building a Greener Capital

Prosper Center, Beijing’s First LEED Gold Certified Building

The following is a guest post by Daniel Garst, a Beijing-based American writer. This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2011 China Daily Metro edition.

Nothing concentrates the mind of economic planners quite like political instability in key overseas energy suppliers.  China’s new Five Year Plan therefore not only mandates further reductions in the energy used in generating economic output, but also sets, for the first time, overall consumption goals.

Making buildings here more energy efficient will be one key element in achieving these goals.  A January 7, 2011 National Geographic News story states that the building sector absorbs 30% of China’s energy, a threefold increase since 1980.

Beijing has recently made notable progress in reducing energy waste in this area.  A thirty percent wholesale subsidy program encourages the purchase of efficient light bulbs, while local authorities have aggressively pushed a coal-to-electricity project in hutong neighborhoods.

This program both lowers sulfur emissions and energy use, as the electric heaters are more efficient and have adjustable thermostats; some models even have thermostats pre-programmed to use less electricity during peak day hours and store it up at night.  Rooftop solar water heaters are also now a common sight in Beijing’s hutongs.

Moreover, a Ministry of Construction crackdown has raised the compliance rate with the construction code calling for new Beijing buildings to use 65% less energy than their 1980s predecessors to over 90%.

However, even with this success, Li Bingren, chief economist at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, notes in a September 21, 2010 China Daily story that heating energy consumption in buildings here will still substantially exceed those in the west.

Fortunately, lots of room still exists for further efficiency gains.  For example, heat for most residential buildings is still supplied by coal-fired boilers pumping hot water into radiators, so dwellers cannot lower or turn off the heat when it warms up or they’re out of the house.

An October 2010 University of Nottingham China Policy Institute paper on energy consumption in Chinese buildings states that 7% of the heat here is wasted when people open their windows because they have no way of controlling it themselves.

As incomes continue rising in the capital, Beijingers will demand larger flats with more lighting and electrical gadgets.  This makes it imperative for new buildings to allow residents—China’s 2008 Energy Conservation Law mandates that they be charged according to the amount of heat used—to control interior temperatures.

Subsidies could also be given to residents adopting thermal technology products that automatically allocate heat to rooms with different temperature demands.

Lastly, Beijing can be much more aggressive in retrofitting not just siheyuans, but other residential units as well.  The National Geographic News article cited earlier notes that Harbin has spent 1.1 million RMB to improve wall insulation and roofing in 2 million square meters of residential buildings.

Many high-rise commercial buildings also waste energy.  The University of Nottingham paper notes that while such structures take up just 4% of the floor space of Chinese construction, they account for 22% of the building sector’s energy use, thanks to poor design, especially badly insulated windows.

Unfortunately, as a leading Tsinghua University Professor quoted in an April 3, 2006 story on the Science Ministry headquarters, the granddaddy of Beijing’s “green” office buildings, puts it, “local governments just want fancy post-modern designs you can brag about.”

But the newly completed Parkview Green building on the Dongdaqiao Lu, which sports a slanting environmental shield resembling a giant greenhouse, shows that such structures can be very green.  In 2010, it was the first Chinese building to win the prestigious MIPIM Asia “Green Building” award.  And just down the Guanghua Lu stands the Prosper Center, Beijing’s first LEED Gold certified building awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council.

While both these buildings were expensive build and are costly to lease, Beijing’s first U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council certified green building, the Science Ministry headquarters, demonstrates that green construction can be less expensive in the short- as well long-run.  According to the Christian Science Monitor article on this structure, by avoiding the use of expensive materials, like marble, it cost $700 per square meter to build vs. the $850-1000 per square meter for other government buildings.

Of course Beijing’s construction industry still lacks a green material supply chain and expertise.  However, these things will develop as more of these buildings are constructed.  And since most factories have already been moved from the capital, Beijing will have to go green in building to do its part in helping China conserve energy.

Deindustrializing Beijing: Images from the Decommissioned China National Steel Factory

Beijing’s poor air quality is a well-documented phenomenon, yet what is often not considered is the fact is that the municipality has taken steps in recent years to deindustrialize and move its polluting factories outside the city to neighboring provinces (mainly Hebei Province). Unfortunately the closure of factories doesn’t seem to have done much to abate Beijing’s air quality problems as an increasing number of private automobiles continue to clog the city’s roads. That being said, Beijing did try its best to at least keep its air clean for the two weeks of the Summer Olympics back in 2008.

One of the most high-profile examples of this effort was the permanent closure of the China National Steel Factory in western Beijing- one of the largest steel mills in the country. My friend and Beijing resident Daniel Garst, an American writer, recently had the opportunity to visit the decommissioned factory and take some nice shots of the slowly decaying complex.

As the future remains uncertain for the former steel factory, it presently serves as a reminder of Beijing’s industrial past and is a prime location for shooting photography and filming commercials. Perhaps the factory will be reused in the future as a commercial/entertainment district as developers take advantage of the ‘industrial chic’ aesthetic to redevelop other decommissioned factories around the country.

For now, please enjoy the following images of the abandoned complex.

Speculation: China’s Proposed Eco-Cities

A piece I wrote about China’s proposed eco-cities appeared recently in the  inaugural issue of Dwell Asia magazine. The article takes a look at two proposed eco-cities, Dongtan in Shanghai and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin, examining the implications of the ideas presented in both proposals.

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

Today’s urban development zeitgeist suggests that cities should move towards sustainable models of living to combat climate change and reduce resource consumption. Of course, how to achieve that is a subject of ongoing debate among design and planning professionals. Unfortunately, branding new developments as ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ is often a loaded attempt to satisfy marketing and public relations needs for developers and government officials.

Nowhere is the use of greenwashing strategies more common than in China, where new cities practically arise overnight. Many new developments, particularly large-scale residential communities consisting of repetitive tower blocks, with names like Authentic Gardens and Spring Flower Court, claim to be environmentally friendly, but have little in the way of sustainable design strategies aside from a few patches of green space.

There are few problems with this mode of development. For one, new residential projects often take up entire city blocks, turning their back on public streets and discouraging a mix of uses and walkability. Secondly, tower blocks are often built cheaply without proper insulation or sealed windows, leading to more energy consumption for heating and cooling. With the demand for new residential units so strong, there is generally no incentive for property developers to spend extra on things that would save energy in the long run.

The need to make new residential developments sound greener than they actually are reflects a deep contradiction between China’s traditional love of nature and its current state of hyper-urbanisation. As more farmland makes way for expanding cities, promoting a sense of nostalgia ensures that newly developed properties will appeal to first time Chinese homebuyers. Yet a new mode of development is emerging in what might ultimately serve as more appropriate and honest model for China to reconcile its agrarian past with its
urban future.

Enter the eco-city. The eco-city concept, which has gained a wide international audience among planners and environmentalists over the last two decades, aims to build new cities and neighbourhoods in a way that uses the best of sustainable technologies and planning strategies to reduce waste and carbon emissions. Given its current state of development, China is an ideal testing ground for new eco-cities.

Dongtan: A planned Eco-city on Chongming Island in Shanghai

China is lauded for two planned eco-cities in particular: Dongtan, on Chongming Island in Shanghai, and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin. Both eco-cities lie well outside the traditional urban cores of their respective municipalities and seek to become self-sufficient sustainable communities complete with residential, commercial, retail, educational and recreational uses. The way in which these eco-cities differ from other new developments around China is their focus on clean energy, including solar, wind and bio-fuels and urban design promoting sustainable transportation methods such as walking and cycling.

Despite the good intentions of their designers, there is some concern over the viability and appeal of such developments. Some critics argue that Dongtan, which is now indefinitely on hold, is nothing more than a ‘Potemkin Village’ meant to make government officials look good. Others argue that the high initial cost of sustainable technologies means that the cost of living will be too far out of reach for middle-class Chinese urbanites.

Perhaps most misleading about China’s eco-cities is the overall impact they will have on the entire country’s carbon footprint. Together, Dongtan and the Tianjin Eco-City are planned for less than 1 million residents…a drop in the bucket compared to an urbanising population of more than a billion.

Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin

Eco-city hype aside, China is doing much more to develop towards a more sustainable future in ways that will have much greater impact. Construction of transportation infrastructure, including a national high-speed rail system and extensive metro systems in nearly every large city, will help reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, China is already the world leader in renewable energy technology, with enormous investment into wind and solar energy.

Whether or not China’s eco-cities ever come to fruition, there are lessons to be taken from the ideas presented in the plans. Promoting genuine mixed-use neighborhoods and buildings with sustainable technologies such as passive heating and cooling and low-flush toilets are a step in the right direction. Yet given the type of development that is currently en vogue in China (the quickly built, tower block type), perhaps it best to start with the unglamorous basics: wall insulation and properly sealed windows.

Chengdu Enhances Urban Environment With Recreational Paths

It seems that too often talk about China development focuses on ‘hard’ infrastructure projects including roads, bridges, power stations, rail systems, etc.  Yet what is often overlooked in discussions about China’s infrastructure are projects designed to enhance quality of life for city dwellers. I recently discovered one of these new projects in the city where I live, Chengdu.

For months leading up to summer, large portions of the promenade along the Jinjiang River, which runs through the middle of the city, was walled off while new landscape construction took place. Upon completion, the riverside opened up with sleek modern guard rails and wide lanes with brand new pavers and newly planted trees.

As soon as the promenade opened again, I resumed my usual jogging route which runs from the city center to about 5 km south along the river. Besides having a smooth new surface to run on, I also found that when I reached the fenced off area where I usually turn around and head back, the fence was gone. Curious to explore further, I carried on along the river.

I ran through some formerly industrial areas and eventually ended up in Chengdu’s suburban periphery outside of the south section of the 3rd Ring Road where new residential towers sprouted up from the ground among vast swaths of green space. The path continued on along the river but at that point I thought it best to turn around before sunset.

It turns out that the extended path is part of Chengdu’s ambitious plan to add 800 km of recreational path by next year. Keeping in line with its self-proclaimed status as a ‘Modern Garden City’, the city is actively promoting green space that enhances quality of life. Given that Chengdu has a temperate climate, a system of recreational paths linking the city center with its surrounding suburbs  is a worthwhile investment.

Torrential Rains and Flooding in Chengdu

It’s been a rough start to the summer season for provinces in central and southwest China. Torrential rain and floods have affected millions, destroying crops and forcing many to evacuate their homes. Chengdu was largely spared any flooding up until this past Sunday when a heavy storm dumped on the city.

The storm blew out power lines while the flooded streets created traffic chaos throughout the city. My colleague took some photos of the flooding near his apartment in the low-lying southern part of Chengdu.

Some drivers mistakenly judged water levels and got stuck in the middle of flooded streets.

The storm drainage system in this part of the city couldn’t handle the huge quantities of rain that came down in such a short time period – resulting in covers being pushed off the tops of manholes. The girl in the above picture had the misfortune of unknowingly stepping into one of those holes. Luckily a nearby man came and rescued her before anything more serious happened.

Even though Chengdu experienced some flooding, the real damage took place in the more rural parts of Sichuan province. In Yingxiu county, flooding brought down part of a bridge, stranding villagers. Video of the dramatic rescue can be seen here.

China’s Ancient Cities and the Crisis of Branding

UNESCO Heritage Site, Longmen Grottoes Stone Carvings near Luoyang, Henan Province.  Photo by Easytourchina.

In April I had the honor of being invited to sit on a panel at a conference sponsored by Forbes China in Luoyang. The discussions that took place during the event centered around the next 10 years of development in central China. With Luoyang being the host, much of the discussion pertained to the city itself.

Luoyang, a city of about 6 million people, sits in China’s central plains in the northwestern part of Henan Province, 100 kilometers west of the provincial capital Zhengzhou. New buildings dot the skyline, but not at the high density one sees in 1st or 2nd tier Chinese cities. Automobile and pedestrian traffic is light as well. Wide, tree-lined streets with bike lanes and generous sidewalks lend the city a pleasant atmosphere.

What is not immediately clear traversing the streets of Luoyang is the fact that it is one of China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals. Luoyang was a seat of power for several dynasties- most prominently during the Eastern Zhou and Han dynasties, and later the Sui and Tang dynasties.

Today the most important relic left from Luoyang’s imperial past is the Longmen Grottoes- a series of caves and magnificent Buddhist statue carvings stretching nearly 1 kilometer along the Yi River. Begun in the 5th Century A.D. during the Northern Wei Dynasty, much of what is left now was built during the later Tang Dynasty when Buddhism still played a central role in Chinese life.

The Longmen Grottoes became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and since then Luoyang has seen its tourism industry growing steadily. Despite this growth, the city is not on the international radar at the level of Xi’an, another Ancient Capital 300 kilometers to the west.

Like Xi’an, Luoyang’s main draw lies outside the city proper. Yet Xi’an offers much more to the visiting tourist than its famous Terracotta Warriors. The massive historic city wall remains intact and the city center possesses a lively Muslim quarter offering tasty cuisine from the Hui ethnic group.

In contrast, central Luoyang offers little in the way of history aside from a few old neighborhoods with shops specializing in selling Tang-inspired porcelain and lacquerware. Much history actually lies beneath the ground, where Tang dynasty treasures are routinely discovered during the construction of new projects throughout the city.

But how can Luoyang do a better job of positioning itself to not only attract more tourists but business investment as well? What are the city’s strengths that can be played up to give Luoyang a more prominent place on the map?

These are the issues that were deliberated on the panel I took part in at the Forbes China forum. Along with panelists Ge Jianxiong, professor of historical geography at Fudan University, Li Dihua, vice dean of the Graduate School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, and Wu Zhongqing, vice president of Shanghai Yuyuan Tourist Mart,  we discussed how Luoyang can use ‘soft power’ to better place itself for the future.

Both Professor Ge and Professor Li lamented the fact that Luoyang does not give the impression of being an Ancient Capital, having lost most of its historic architecture to various invasions and internal strife. Professor Ge contrasted Luoyang with Kyoto- the ancient capital of Japan (which was incidentely inspired by historic Luoyang during the Tang dynasty)- which retains much of its historic charm.

While acknowledging the value of traditional architecture is an important part of preserving Chinese cultural heritage, there is nothing that can be done to bring back the past. Attempting to rebuild ancient buildings exactly the way they were runs the risk of creating faux-village tourist traps that end up trivializing the past. Rather, Luoyang should focus on its current strengths to attract tourism and investment.

During my turn to speak I suggested that Luoyang already has a tremendous asset with the Longmen Grottoes, and is strategically located not far from two other internationally famous tourist spots- Xi’an and the Shaolin Temple. Luoyang should do a better job of promoting itself as a requisite stop for tourists visiting either or both of these places.

Unfortunately Luoyang has limited air connections, with only one flight per day from Beijing and Shanghai and a flight every other day from Chengdu. Luckily, the city is a stop along the new Zhengzhou-Xi’an high-speed rail line, giving it easy access to both of those cities.

Economically speaking, Luoyang will probably never compete with Zhengzhou, yet it can strengthen ties with Zhengzhou to create a strong central China trading zone. Furthermore, Luoyang should play up its assets such as its pleasant urban environment to attract investment. As cities on China’s eastern seaboard become evermore expensive and out of reach for the aspiring middle class, Luoyang could offer a much lower-cost alternative for Chinese workers looking for a higher quality of life.

As Henan is one of China’s most populous provinces, Luoyang needs to do all it can to retain local workers to help its economy grow. With the interior regions of China beginning to play a more important role in the country’s overall development, now is the time for Luoyang and other central cities to make their mark by promoting their own unique character rather than becoming carbon copies of other, more successful cities.

Land Reclamation and the Future of Hong Kong

Land reclamation is a controversial approach to urban planning wherever water-bound cities are land-strapped for new development. In the U.S., a place like San Francisco is a prime example of a city where much of the adjacent waterfront was ‘reclaimed’ from the bay and land-filled to make room for new buildings.

In Asia, Hong Kong practices land reclamation to accommodate large structures such as its convention center and Chep Lap Kok Airport. A piece from Metropolis magazine takes a closer look at reclamation and urban renewal in Hong Kong and how it is impacting its most prized asset: Victoria Harbor.

Metropolis: From Reclamation to Renewal

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

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.

Beijing Roads Headed Toward Maximum Capacity

2,000 New Cars Hit Beijing Streets Everyday

As the government and cultural center of the country, Beijing is a worthy capital of a rising China. The city’s infectious aspirations have led it to become a prime destination for ambitious Chinese from all parts of the country (and foreigners from all parts of the world). Unfortunately, this has not been without consequences to the city’s transportation network.

The massive growth of Beijing has put undue strain on the city’s roads. And though there has been a proliferation of new roads built in and around the city, the construction has not kept pace with the amount of new car owners.

Beijing’s traffic problem is a well-documented phenomenon in the international press. Most recently, the New York Times laid out the city’s struggles in a piece called ‘Multiplying Drivers Run over Beijing Traffic Plan‘.

The pull of car ownership is very strong for China’s exploding middle class. The promise of access to the ultimate form of personal mobility means that Chinese citizens are not going to see an end to their desire for purchasing new cars.

Car companies are elated. Nowhere but in China have I seen the variety of car makes on the road: manufacturers from the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K. are all represented. And of course let’s not forget China’s domestic brands.

With consumer demand for cars only increasing and automakers more that happy to satisfy this demand, the Chinese government is left to deal with the effects of evermore cars flooding the roads. So far the nonstop road construction and subway expansion has done little to abate the traffic problem.

So what to do next? Regulate.

And that is what Beijing’s government has done. Last month the Beijing municipal government said it would limit new car registration in the city to 240,000 in 2011, about 1/3 the amount of the previous year! How’s that for top-down planning?

Beijing’s government has also implemented various restrictions on driving within the city center on certain days during rush hour times. Outside the city center (and around the entire country), tolls are in place to help maintain new highways and expressways. This is in contrast to the United States, where traffic cures such as congestion pricing and toll roads are still being argued about after years of debate.

One thing is for sure, no amount of government restriction is going to put a stop to the Chinese newly discovered love affair with the personal automobile.

The New York Times: Multiplying Drivers Run Over Beijing Traffic Plan

The Wall Street Journal: Beijing Cracks Down on Car Buyers

City Journal’s Guy Sorman: China Basher

Beijing’s 798 Arts District

While browsing through the front page of the planning website Planetizen the other day, I came across a link to a story from the autumn issue of City Journal titled ‘Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree‘. City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, is one of my favorite publications about urban issues, and usually produces well-reasoned, thought-provoking pieces. And given the topic of this piece, I was excited to read what I thought would be a compelling article about the rise of Asian cities.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The article’s author, Guy Sorman, spends the first half of his piece tearing apart Chinese urbanism by belittling the country’s two largest metropolises Shanghai and Beijing. He continues the latter half by discussing why Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is superior to those cities. Sorman’s argument is rooted in the notion that China’s cities are not dynamic because their residents are not afforded the same ‘freedoms’ as those of Seoul.

Sorman’s position is essentially a political one. He thinks that China’s top-down government approach to urban planning and development means that its cities are  bound to be drab and uninspiring wastelands. For instance, he describes Beijing as ‘not a friendly city’ and a ‘dead city after 8 PM’.

Has Mr. Sorman ever spent more than a few days in Beijing? His comments sound like they are coming from someone who spent his entire time cruising in a Crown Victoria down the showcase boulevard Chang’an Jie peering at the gargantuan government buildings thinking that this is all the city accounts for.

To be sure, Beijing has major challenges to overcome such as traffic and the accompanying air pollution, but to deny that it is one of the most dynamic cities in the Asia (and the world) is totally off base. The city is huge, and with having seen explosive growth over the past three decades, there are myriad nooks and crannies to discover that are teeming with life. He also misses the point that Beijing is China’s cultural capital, with a burgeoning arts and music scene that is redefining Chinese identity for the first time after having been decimated by the Cultural Revolution.

Sorman’s myopic focus on only China’s two largest cities is extraordinarily shortsighted. There are dozens of other booming Chinese cities with millions of people enjoying the rewards of successful economic development and a significantly increased standard of living.

The city I live in, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is a city boasting a population of nearly 5 million people. Dubbed ‘China’s Party Capital’ by the LA Times, people in Chengdu know how to enjoy life, whether it is spending dinner with friends around a fiery hot pot or wiling away  for hours over a cup of tea in one of the several municipal parks. If Mr. Sorman thinks that China’s ‘totalitarian Communist regime’ is an impediment to Chinese urbanites enjoying the good life I challenge him to come to Chengdu for a few days and see that he couldn’t be more off the mark.

Sorman contrasts China’s cities with Seoul, making the case that it is a more ‘bourgeoisie’ and interesting city due to South Korea’s system of government. Yet, as he clearly articulates in the article, the country did not see a democratic government until 1993, before focusing on economic expansion and urban development.

Did it ever occur to him that this is exactly what China is going through precisely at this time? It is a key characteristic of societies around the world that government reform follows on the heels of economic reform, not the other way around. Another misconception abounding in urbanist literature is that promoting so-called ‘creative industries’ will produce successful metropolises. Wrong again! Creativity and leisure also follow on the heels of economic prosperity.

I agree with Sorman that today Seoul is a compelling city full of enterprising and creative people. It is likely that it is in fact a much more livable city today than it was in previous decades when it was undergoing substantial urbanization. But who is he to suggest that China’s cities cannot follow the same path? Instead of being a pessimistic observer, focusing only on the negatives, he should realize that China is changing for the better and its cities will come into their own over time.

City Journal: Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree

Planetizen: The Political History of Asia’s Mega-Cities