Tetris and the Challenge of Curbing Chinese Sprawl

Chinese SprawlWhile Chinese cities are growing at an unprecedented pace, much of this growth isn’t what most city planners would consider “smart” — that is, growth that is efficient, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. Instead, most Chinese cities are experiencing high levels of sprawl. This has led both Chinese and international pundits to focus on the issue of Chinese sprawl, with some even asking why Chinese cities haven’t learned lessons from American cities. Is sprawl a sign that Chinese leaders don’t know what they’re doing?

In theory, sprawl can be limited by good planning. In practice, sprawl is an exceedingly challenging phenomenon to stop. Though there are numerous complex reasons for the growth of Chinese sprawl, there are three systemic factors driving Chinese cities’ expansive growth: unprecedented Chinese growth, local government budget dependence on land sales, and the importance of GDP growth in the Chinese political promotion system.

Unprecedented Chinese Growth

In a way, building cities is a lot like playing a game of Tetris — waves of incoming population and development fall like Tetris blocks. In theory, a player wants to pack in the shapes as tightly as possible, limiting gaps and completing as many full lines as possible. And that’s the strategy most players use at the beginning of a Tetris game when the pace is slow.

As the pace of the game increases, perfectly combining these blocks becomes a lot harder. The need to place blocks smartly is superseded by the need to respond quickly; players begin to haphazardly drop blocks to avoid disaster and keep playing as the pace of the game increases.

If you watch someone playing Tetris and they’re almost out of room to stack new blocks, it doesn’t necessarily mean the player didn’t have a strategy; it just means that they didn’t have time to respond, or didn’t correctly anticipate which pieces would actually appear.

City planners in major Chinese cities are playing a high-speed game of planning Tetris. They’re trying to place the metaphorical pieces as quickly and logically as possible. Like a Tetris player, they don’t always know which pieces will come next.

In a vacuum, some moves may look peculiar, but Chinese planners and local officials are often doing their best to keep “the game” going. In a game of Tetris, this means stacking blocks higher and less efficiently than you’d like; in Chinese cities, this means pushing development further away from the center of the city.

As of now, there isn’t an equivalent to a maximum number of rows in Tetris, so it makes sense to keep building Chinese cities outward. In this way, Chinese sprawl isn’t “dumb” growth; it is perhaps just “as smart as growth conditions will allow.”

Chinese Cities Depend on Growth

Cities throughout the world derive financial benefits from growth; however, tax structures benefit each place in different ways. One underrated but exceedingly important factor in the growth in Chinese cities is their land tax structure.

In many places (including the United States), cities have financial incentives for smart, compact development, particularly for property taxes. The higher quality of development, the higher the assessed value of the land that it sits on, and the higher level of property tax that a municipality collects from the property owner. These taxes are collected on an ongoing basis, giving municipalities strong incentives to provide quality services to these areas to keep them from losing value (and thus decreasing property tax collections).

Unlike places like the U.S., the Chinese government owns all land within its borders; to raise money, local Chinese governments divide up parcels of land and sell development rights to developers and investors. There is no post-development property tax. Therefore, Chinese cities receive a majority of their financial gain from growth at the beginning of the development process.

The money received from selling these development rights often make up close to 30% of a city’s income, so city officials face a tough decision: do they encourage smart, compact growth that limits the amount of land they sell, or do they chase short-term cash infusions by selling development rights to land further from the city center? Even if you’re a huge proponent of environmental protection, it is easy to understand why this is a hard choice for local officials.

The Chinese land tax structure also creates perverse incentives to investors to build in unnecessary places. In places with high property taxes, investors are discouraged from holding property for a long time, as they are required to continually pay taxes on this property. Over numerous years, tax payments add up and cut into overall profit when these developments are sold. In China, however, investors (particularly those with low financing costs) can sit back and (theoretically) wait for demand to pick back up again. While investors wait, buildings with unsold space sit empty; some pundits have speculated that this has fueled the growth of Chinese ghost cities.

Politics

The structure of the Chinese political system also encourages unchecked growth that results in sprawl. This is because the Chinese political system works a lot like the farm system in Major League Baseball, with most officials beginning at lower levels (county & city) and moving to higher levels (provincial and central). Officials with strong track records (and strong guanxi) have the best chance to rise within the party to higher levels of government with greater amounts of power.

Though there are numerous ways to measure success for Chinese officials, traditionally the most important has been economic growth. Infrastructure investment and real estate development are major components of local GDP growth. Furthermore, spending on environmental improvements over transportation infrastructure has been found to have negative effects on promotion odds.

Encouraging smart, compact growth becomes a risky decision. If smart growth policies slow cities’ growth, they not only endanger municipal budgets but also jeopardize political careers. In this light, Chinese sprawl isn’t the result of incompetent technocrats who don’t know what they’re doing; instead, it’s the result of Chinese politicians recognizing the importance of this growth in progressing their political career.

There is reason for hope. Since coming into power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pushed for reform in the Chinese political promotion system. Major news organizations like Bloomberg are reporting that “going green” is now as important of a metric as GDP growth for rising party officials. It’s still too early, however, to tell whether these reforms will have a meaningful effect on the Chinese political system.

So why are Chinese cities sprawling? It is not because local, provincial, and national officials don’t recognize that current growth patterns aren’t environmentally or financially sustainable. Instead, the financial and political incentives built into the Chinese system favor fast, “dumb” growth rather than slower, “smart” growth. The challenge of accommodating a large inflow of rural migrants is exacerbating these pressures.

Local government officials didn’t write the unofficial rules that dictate city growth. Sprawl isn’t necessarily a sign that they don’t know what they’re doing; rather, it’s potentially a sign that the “rules of the game” push them towards unsustainable policies. Chinese sprawl is not inevitable; rather, to push Chinese development towards a more sustainable path, officials at all levels of government will have to consider how they can reform the “rules of the game” to encourage smart, sustainable growth.

Are Chinese Subway Systems the New American Interstate?

Beijing-Subway_enBeijing Subway Map

It is virtually impossible not to marvel at China’s new subway systems after spending some time in a city like Beijing or Shanghai. The relatively new subway systems allow for convenient and affordable (albeit crowded) way to travel around these cities. These infrastructure investments will certainly leave a lasting impact on Chinese cities for years to come, but what will this legacy be?

On one hand, this massive commitment to public transportation could be interpreted as China learning the lessons from American sprawl, suburbia, and private car ownership. On the other, we could be looking at the development of sprawl with Chinese characteristics, with subway systems playing the same role as the American interstate.

Urban planners generally consider sprawl to be bad- but why? Above all else, sprawl is environmentally and economically wasteful. By spreading out where people live, sprawl leads to infrastructure redundancy and the conversion of undeveloped land — land that could be used for agriculture or simply natural environment preservation (which provides a wealth of environmental services like improving air and water quality) — into developed land. Additionally, the further people live from where they work and play, the more likely they are to travel to those places by carbon-intensive modes of transportation (primarily the private automobile).

Sprawl is the major defining characteristic of 20th century American growth.While there are numerous reasons why this is the case (including Federal housing policy that encouraged home ownership), one theory that helps urban planners understand sprawl and suburbanization is the bid rent theory. At the heart of this theory is the idea that choosing where to live or set up a business is about balancing access to lots of people and rent prices; land users’ willingness to pay rent is dependent on their need for access to the central business district (i.e. downtown).

Pre-Interstate GraphsFigures 1 & 2. Bid-Rent Graph (left) and its Effect on City Structure (right)

Commercial services and retail (the blue line on the graph in Figure 1) benefit the most from close proximity to downtown, its density, and its high concentrations of people; therefore, commercial and retail entities are willing to pay the highest levels of rent, and the areas closest to downtown are generally dominated by commercial businesses.

Manufacturing and large retail (the green line) benefits some from access to people who work in factories and buy goods, but it also requires a greater area of land to set up production facilities; therefore, manufacturers and larger businesses often locate outside of expensive downtown areas but still somewhat close to the center.

Finally, though living in the center of a city is very convenient, housing prices (i.e. rent) are quite high. Residential uses (the red line) are generally seen to benefit the least from access to downtown, so people therefore are willing to live further away from the city center. The further one move out of the city center, the lower housing prices become; therefore, the outer regions of cities are usually dominated by residential development. When the lines on the graph are translated into a two-dimensional map, the city is divided into concentric zones. The spatial distribution of commercial, manufacturing, and residential areas under the bid rent theory can be seen in Figure 2.

Though the bid rent theory has its own limitations, it still provides a helpful way to understand American cities. In addition to the obvious information on willingness to pay rent for access to downtown by sector, bid rent graphs contain another important piece of information about consumer preference: the point at which each line crosses the x-axis (or where the rent becomes 0). The residential line is particularly important, as it shows the distance away from downtown where developing residential land becomes impractical (i.e. the land is worthless); in practice, this represents the outer boundary of cities.

Before the development of interstates, city size was greatly limited by travel time. Even though land exists beyond where the residential line reaches the x-axis, additional non-financial costs (particularly commute time) made living in these areas impractical. The American interstate system had a profound effect on the slope of the residential line on the bid-rent curve. Interstates, with higher speed limits and limited stops, significantly reduced travel times from employment in city centers to housing miles away, thus reducing the non-financial cost of living far away from downtown. As the residential line became flatter, and the x-intercept moved further away from downtown (see Figures 3 & 4); this means that previously impractical land became a viable option for some individuals. Cities, once limited in size by travel time, were able to expand far further than they were before interstates. Fifty years later, interstates have allowed cities like Atlanta and Houston to sprawl to incredible levels.

Post-Interstate GraphsFigures 3 & 4. Pre & Post-Interstate Bid-Rent Lines (left) and its Effect on City Structure (right)

It’s easy to dismiss sprawling Chinese cities as inevitable, due to the large size of the population in an average Chinese city. However, the same factors that led to American sprawl (particularly a strong desire for homeownership) are also very important parts of Chinese culture. If homeownership is a significant priority yet housing prices remain unaffordable, the only option is to move further away from the city center.

If an individual’s only transportation options are buses, bikes, or even cars, non-financial costs like travel time would effectively limit the size of Chinese cities; however, land further from the center becomes more attractive when citizens have access to high-speed  transportation options like subway.

Much like interstates did to their American counterparts, Chinese subways will flatten the residential bid-rent curve and allow for Chinese cities to grow increasingly expansive. Though this may not seem like a major problem, increasing the distance from downtown to city borders by 25% means increasing the total developed area by 65%. That’s a huge amount of land that could be used for other purposes like farming and environmental services.

There is a very compelling case for building these subways. The most compelling case is that China’s major cities are inevitably going to continue to grow. If Chinese cities do not develop extensive transportation infrastructure, then they may pay a major price in the future as they battle traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and high real estate prices (due to limited housing supply).

Alternatively, one could also argue that outward urban growth is not inevitable; in its place, cities would either become increasingly dense or people would just choose to move to smaller, less expensive cities. Some urban planners argue that American cities are reaching “peak sprawl” due to suburban developments reaching reasonable limits on individual travel time from job centers; is it possible that Chinese cities would reach the same point?

By increasing the area where city residents can reasonably commute to the city center, local governments are making land that was previously unappealing due to its distance from the city center more appealing (i.e. inducing demand). Rather than reducing traffic congestion, it could instead be enabling more people to move to these cities than would otherwise be feasible. This would put significant stress on existing infrastructure, encourage redundant infrastructure, and decreases green space surrounding cities.

Building these major subway systems can also pose major systemic issues to Chinese cities over the upcoming years and decades. Over the past decade, China has been grappling with high real estate prices. In the short-term, the government decreases the necessity of dealing with high real estate prices in city centers by increasing the overall supply of developable land through subways. Long term, as individual purchasing power increases and more people buy cars, more individuals may transition from public transit like subways to personal cars.

Chinese cities face problems that are unprecedented in both size and scale. Planning cities under these conditions is extremely challenging, and building massive transportation infrastructure is a logical way to manage the challenges that come with massive growth.

It’s easy to marvel at the sheer size and speed of growth of Chinese transportation systems. That said, the growth of Chinese subway systems isn’t necessarily a sign that China is fighting off American-style sprawl and suburbia; rather, it may setting the foundation for sprawl with Chinese characteristics.

China In Africa: An Interview With Go West Project

African Union Building A local looks up at the new African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The complex was funded entirely by Chinese money. Photo Credit: Go West Proejct

In 2009, China surpassed the U.S. to become Africa’s single largest trading partner. Yet the burgeoning relationship between China and Africa is no ordinary trading arrangement. Rather than colonizing the continent as Western powers did in the past century, China is trading infrastructure development and urbanization expertise for access to Africa’s vast natural resources. This re-balancing of trade has yet to be studied in depth as it is probably too early to tell what the impact of China’s involvement in Africa will have on the broader world’s economy.

What we can observe is the immediate impact China is having on Africa’s urban development. Luckily we have Dutch researchers Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen of the emerging cities think-tank Go West Project to explain to us what is happening on the ground.

I first met Hulshof (a journalist) and Roggeveen (an architect) at the 2011 Chengdu Biennale where they presented their research on China’s developing western metropolises (hence the name of their think-tank). Their research culminated in the book How the City Moved to Mr. Sun – China’s New Megacities (2011), which looks beyond the so-called 1st Tier cities of Beijing and Shanghai to tell the story of urbanization in the country’s heartland.

Now Hulshof and Roggeveen are looking even further, beyond China’s borders, to study what the Chinese urbanization experiment means for Africa’s cities. They were kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us about their initial research:

Adam Mayer (AM): Please give us a summary about your research in Africa and what interested you about studying China’s impacts on the continent.

Go West Project (GWP): In our book “How the City Moved to Mr Sun” we described the mechanisms behind the emergence of megacities in Central- and West-China. We are currently working on a new study into China’s involvement in African urbanization. Given the growing impact of China in the world, and the strong ties between China and Africa, one could think of the physical impact that China has in Africa.

It seems the Chinese are already exporting parts of their urban model to Africa: new “Special Economic Zones” in Zambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia, Chinese residential models in Angola or Kenya and Chinese roads, airports and railways all over Africa. There’s also a new approach of “soft power” with Chinese-led African newspapers and television stations, Chinese language schools, university grants for African students and professionals, and Chinese medical aid projects in Africa. We think this phenomenon deserves an unprejudiced look as to what this means for the development and the future of African cities.

AM: What are those impacts that China’s economic development has had on Africa? Are there certain regions or countries in Africa that have benefited more from China’s business interest in the continent?

GWP: These impacts are both tangible and non-tangible. On the tangible side, China constructs roads, railroads, ports, airports, but also telecommunications structures, fiber optic networks, dams and even satellites. It builds schools and offices and has even given the African Union their headquarters as a present. On the non-tangible side, there are grants for students, increased influence of the media – CCTV has already 80 journalists in their Nairobi office! – and Confucius institutes. Of course, the countries with resources are very attractive to go to for the Chinese – but not only them Royal Dutch Shell is already for decades involved in Nigeria.

AM: China is trading its development and urbanization know-how to certain countries in Africa in exchange for resources- What are some prominent examples of infrastructure or building projects built by the Chinese in Africa?

GWP: The most symbolic one is the structure of the African Union building: a 200 million dollar gift from China to Africa. The building was designed in China (by the Tongji Architecture Planning and Design Institute), built with Chinese materials, by a team of half Chinese and half local workers. In Nairobi, we came across the Great Wall apartments on Beijing road, a development by a Chinese real estate developer. The most amazing example is of course the new towns of Kilamba Kiaxi in Angola, where CITIC developed and built 750 highrise apartment blocks.

 Kilamba_KiaxiKilamba Kiaxi in Luanda, Angola

WorkersAfrican & Chinese Construction Workers. Photo Credit: Go West Project

AM: One criticism of China’s venture into Africa is their use of imported Chinese labor to construct new cities rather than using local labor which would help job creation in the region. In your research did you find this to be an issue?

GWP: This is only partly true, and differs strongly from country to country and from project to project. More and more, the Chinese are aware of the fact that hiring locals improves the engagement of a project. What you see very often is a construction site (or a factory for that matter) with Chinese site supervisors, and local laborers.

A way to have local people profit more is not to hire Chines companies, but local companies for construction jobs. However, local companies can often not compete with Chinese ones in speed, price and quality.

AM: Based on studying China’s influence in Africa, do you feel that China is setting a new standard for developing county’s around the world that aspire to urbanize and grow their economies?

GWP: Africa’s urbanization is staggering. Africa’s urban population, which was 395 million in 2010, will be no less than 1.2 billion in 2050. That means Africa’s cities will have to accommodate an extra 40,000 people every day for the coming 15 years. If there’s one country in the world that has experience with such an enormous rural to urban transformation, it is China.

However, implementation of Chinese strategies on African soil seems so far hardly possible due to differences in political and economical structures.

Therefore, we think that the impact of Chinese presence in Africa will depend very much on the local conditions, and will strongly differ from country to country and city to city.

Michiel Hulshof is partner at Tertium, an Amsterdam based office for strategic communication. Daan Roggeveen is the founder of MORE Architecture, Shanghai and Curator at the University of Hong Kong/Shanghai Study Centre.

Be on the lookout for further research on this topic as Go West Project is currently preparing a theme issue of the magazine Urban China, with contributions by Brechtje Spreeuwers (NL), Huang Zhengli (CN), Njeri Cerere (KE) and Paulo Moreira (PT).

MTR Island Line Extension Set to Change Hong Kong’s Western District

Blue Dot = Current Western Extent of MTR Hong Kong Island Line (Sheung Wan)       Red Dot = Terminus of Island Line Western Extension To Open in 2014 (Kennedy Town)

Infrastructure development continues in Hong Kong as the city’s Metro Transit Railway (MTR) extends its underground Island Line into the city’s Western District. Beginning construction in 2009, the western extension of the Island Line (dubbed the ‘West Island Line’) is set to open in 2014. The Island Line currently ends at Sheung Wan, one stop west of Central (Hong Kong’s central business district), but the extension will add three new stops, including Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong University, and terminating at Kennedy Town.

MTR Station Under Construction On Pok Fu Lam Rd. Across from Hong Kong University

The West Island Line is unique because of uphill/downhill conditions at the Sai Ying Pun and Hong Kong University Stations. At both stations, MTR plans show station exits at various elevations, with high-speed vertical lifts transporting passengers from deep within the subway tunnel up to the Mid-Levels area (see this link for clear sectional diagrams of how this works). The Sai Ying Pun Staiton will have exits at three different elevations: Queen’s Road West, First St./Second St., and Bonham Road.

The extension will also be huge boon for students who commute to HKU. The university’s campus, situated on a steep hill and not easily accessible as a pedestrian, will be served by an exit directly across from the entrance at Pok Fu Lam Road.

The Island Line Western Extension Will Benefit Students Who Commute to HKU

The Belcher’s, a High-Rise Residential Development in the Western District

Because Hong Kong’s Western District is not well served by public transport, rents and property prices have traditionally been lower than other parts of the island with better access to the MTR. Aside from the Belcher’s, a high-rise residential development completed in 2001 that sits atop a shopping mall, the Western District still retains a marked ‘mom and pop’ low-key atmosphere.

It is hard to predict how this will change in 2014 when the West Island Line opens. Property developers  real estate investors have already taken note, but with most of the area already built up with an aging housing stock, there is not much new open space for development.

Whatever future changes come to the neighborhood though, the MTR extension is a positive development for Hong Kong as it continues to serve as  a model of public transportation efficiency for cities around the world.

Kennedy Town. MTR Construction in the Background

Guangzhou’s New Central Business District: Zhujiang New Town

Guangzhou’s New CBD (highlighted in red) sits north of the Pearl River and east of the Old City in what not long ago was agricultural land

Recently I visited Zhujiang New Town, Guangzhou’s newly built central business district (CBD). While Guangzhou itself is hardly a new city (its status as an international trading port goes back centuries), the CBD is brand new, built on what used to be agricultural land well outside of the historic city core. Though thanks to the city’s expanding underground metro and freeway system, Zhujiang New Town doesn’t seem so far away.

Currently Zhujiang New Town is best known as the site for the Guangzhou Opera House and many of the athletic venues for the 2010 Asian Games. One unique aspect about Guangzhou’s CBD compared with others around China is its marriage of cultural buildings with commercial office towers. In this regard, Zhujiang New Town is not much different from the planned ‘downtowns’ of sprawling 20th Century American cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Houston.

The iconic Canton Tower sits across the river, just south of the new CBD

View looking north at towers going up in the CBD

Aerial map of Guangzhou CBD

Adjacent to the Pearl River to the north is the site of Zhujiang New Town’s new cultural venues linked by a paved plaza. Directly north of that begins a park stretching four long blocks lined with brand new office towers. Underneath the park, a metro line runs the length of the CBD. This particular line of the Guangzhou metro system has no driver (so far this is the only instance of this I’ve seen in China!).

While the cultural venues were bustling with life when I was there, many of the completed office buildings were for the most part unoccupied and the park was a no-man’s land. This is not to say that the towers won’t be occupied very soon, as the finishing touches were just being put on. It will be interesting to see how this sparkling new CBD fills itself up in the coming months and years ahead.

1. Guangzhou Opera House

2. Guangdong Museum

3. Guangzhou Library

4. IFC Tower

5. New Commercial Office Buildings

6. Agricultural Bank of China Building

7. The Pearl River Tower

8. More Commercial Office Towers Under Construction

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.

High-Speed Train Derails in Zhejiang Province

In a gigantic blow to the credibility and safety of China’s high-speed rail network, a train traveling from Zhejiang’s provincial capital of Hangzhou to the seaside city of Wenzhou derailed Saturday evening. Details at this point are still developing, but so far reports have said that the train was struck by lightning and then subsequently hit by another train, leading to two of the train’s cars falling from a bridge. So far, 16 passengers are reported dead and 89 injured.

Having ridden on several of China’s new high-speed trains myself makes seeing the wreckage of this accident all that much more surreal. Whether the accident is due to some sort of track or train defect is yet to be determined. If the train was in fact struck by lightning, this could turn out to be a freak accident. If not, then surely there will be further inquiry into the quality of the fly ash which acts as a critical component of the track foundation mixture.

Whatever the cause of the crash, this incident marks a turning point in China’s high-speed rail program. From now on, questions about safety compromises are bound to come to the forefront of the discussion.

I will keep you posted with updates as more information becomes available.

UPDATE:

The death toll is now up to 35, with 210 more injured. It turns out that lighting did strike the first train, D3115 en route from Hangzhou to Fuzhou, causing the train to lose power and come to a stop. Shortly after, D3115 was struck from behind by another train, D301 en route from Beijing to Fuzhou. The crashed caused the first four cars of D301 to derail and fall 20 meters off the viaduct.

Rescue efforts are encouraging, with bystanders and uninjured passengers having offered up immediate assistance before rescue crews arrived at the scene. Hundreds of Wenzhou residents have also donated blood to local hospitals ensuring that blood supply is sufficient for injured passengers.

Whenever tragic transportation accidents happen at this scale, people are quick to assign blame. Already many commentators are pointing to the alleged shoddy quality of the tracks as a reason for this accident. Some even go further suggesting that this is a result of a Chinese culture that doesn’t value quality or safety, pointing to the rampant corruption and food scandals.

At this point it seems that the accident was not a result of shoddy tracks but a miscommunication problem. As soon as train D3115 came to a stop, train D301 and all other trains on that line going in the same direction should’ve been alerted. It’s possible that the lighting strike, which caused D3115 to lose power, also caused it to fall off radar.

Whatever the ultimate cause of the crash, the incident is bound to add fire to the critical voices of high-speed rail development in China.

China Surges Ahead While Ideological Battles Hinder the U.S.

Public policy, stripped to its basics, is a choice among value alternatives. What one person will vehemently contend is the correct policy and another will say is wrongheaded will not depend on empirical measurement, but on the person’s values, philosophy, and ideology.” – John Kasarda

While in the above quote Kasarda, business professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of the book Aerotropolis, refers to individual values, the same rule is also applicable to groups and institutions. This is certainly the case in the United States where the government  is in the midst of tense negotiations over the so-called ‘debt ceiling’. America’s two main political factions, Republicans and Democrats, are currently at a loss of coming to a consensus due to ideological hangups.

Republicans, who favor severe austerity by cutting social programs yet oppose any sort of tax increases, are unwilling to compromise. The Republicans’ flawed ideological-based approach to solving America’s  economic turmoil comes at perhaps one of the worst times in the country’s history with unemployment at an all-time high and millions losing social benefits. Even Vice President Joe Biden recently told Republican lawmakers that their “intransigence over taxes is a matter of ideology not economics“.

The Republicans’ approach to economic recovery is almost perfectly antithetical to what the Chinese government did in their response to the global downturn in 2008. It isn’t that the Chinese government ‘raised taxes’ or increased spending on ‘entitlements’- what they did do was stimulate their domestic economy through ordering banks to lend and beef up spending on national infrastructure and urban development. This ensured that the country kept on pace with modernization and kept its huge population busy and employed even while export manufacturing slowed.

China’s strategy in dealing with economic problems is inherently pragmatic and non-ideological. This may come as a shock to those in the west who still see China as representing a Marxist-based Communist ideology (also see “America’s Dangerously Out-of-Date View of China“). In fact it was Deng Xiaoping, China’s great reformer who famously said that “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.”

It is important for those in western countries to understand that if it seems there is still residue of Maoist ideology lingering in China today it is merely rhetorical in nature- used by some in China’s leadership to appease dissatisfaction with class disparity and encourage a collective sense of meaning into its people. Don’t be fooled into thinking that China is in danger of reverting back to a time when intellectuals were forced to labor in the countryside or misinformed ideological-based policies resulted in famines.

Some commentators also predict that China has a ‘Sword of Damocles’ lingering over its head due to over-investment in fixed assets. Their predictions rest on the hope that once China’s economy crashes, it will once and for all prove the victory of the ‘free-market’ ideology over China’s ‘centrally planned’ model. Don’t bet on it.

Using ideology as a means to argue about which economic or political ‘system’ is superior is a relic of Cold-War mentality and completely irrelevant in today’s world. China knows this and other developing nations are starting to pick up on it. Unfortunately many in the west, and especially the United States, still feel they can justify moral superiority with their ‘system’. While in the past falling back on its narrative of ‘land of the free’ has worked for America, paying lip-service to a feigned moral superiority no longer holds as much weight.

Robert Herbold, former chief operating officer of Microsoft, picks up on this notion and writes a wake up call to the U.S. in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “China vs. America: Which is the Developing Country?” Like many other executives and high-fliers who spend some time in China, Herbold is amazed by the country’s achievements and dismayed by America’s comparative lack of ambition . He concludes his piece by writing:

Let’s face it—we are getting beaten because the U.S. government can’t seem to make big improvements. Issues quickly get polarized, and then further polarized by the media, which needs extreme viewpoints to draw attention and increase audience size. The autocratic Chinese leadership gets things done fast (currently the autocrats seem to be highly effective).

Perhaps more discouraging than Herbold’s observations is the WSJ comments section, with most commenters overwhelmingly disagreeing with his assessment and some even resorting to ad hominem attacks. Despite what these anonymous commenters think, the facts are facts: China is moving ahead while the U.S. is falling behind. Herbold is spot on to call out the polarization of the U.S. government as being the primary reason this is the case.

Polarization within the U.S. government stems from the ideological preoccupation of both the dominant political parties. For instance, Republican lawmakers use the threatening rhetorical meme of ‘socialism‘ to argue their position for fiscal austerity. If taxes are raised and money is spent on public services (or even much-needed improvements to public infrastructure), the Republican theory goes, then the U.S. becomes a socialist state.

The Democrat side for its part has largely turned its back on small business and blue-collar workers: the party’s traditional backbone. Instead, the Democrats have succumbed  to interests that work to stifle productive industry: namely the environmental lobby. While pandering to idealistic greens and the ‘knowledge-work will save us‘ cohort, the Democrats have more or less forgotten about the middle-class.

China and the rest of the developing world is not going to wait for America to get its house in order. It would be wise for leaders in both parties to acknowledge this cold hard reality and put aside ideological talking points during this moment of fiscal crisis in America. Unfortunately, that might be too much to ask in a culture which puts so much emphasis on election cycles and side-show campaigning.

World’s Longest Sea Bridge Opens in Qingdao

To mark the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party two weeks ago, the seaside city of Qingdao in Shandong province opened its new Jiaozhou Bay bridge. At 42.4 km, it is the longest sea bridge in the world. The bridge links historic Qingdao with the city’s industrial zone Huangdao.

On the same day, a 9.47 km undersea tunnel also opened linking the two sides together. As Steve Dickinson of the China Law Blog points out: “The completion of the bridge and tunnel fulfills the long term dream of the Qingdao government to fully integrate the two shores of the Jiaozhou Bay.

Dickinson goes onto wonder about the possible redundancy of not one but two links across the bay given the high public expenditures of both these projects. At the end of his post, which is titled Qingdao’s New Bridge As Symbol of China Infrastructure‘, he says:

“Nobody is even sure why either the bridge and the tunnel were built, much less the two of them. The bridge seems to be mostly aimed at connection by highway for goods from the ports and airport and tradezones. The tunnel does not provide access to any of this. The high toll for the tunnel means that it will not be used for normal surface transport (private cars and taxis). So why was it built? No one has ever been able to provide me with an explanation. Why was the bridge built at the WIDEST part of the bay? Why was it built when it only provides a 10 minute improvement in travel time? Why was it built with no attention to access and exit? Why were the connecting highways not improved? Who knows.”

Dickinson touches upon what is potentially the most contentious issue about China’s infrastructure: the seldom examined cost/benefit analysis of these new projects. At this point the world knows that China can ‘get it done’ when it comes to building large-scale infrastructure projects. There is no lack of political will or labor to undertake such ambitious plans. Yet lost in the speed of getting these new projects built is a rigorous analysis of the ultimate benefits for what could turn out to be a series of boondoggles.

That is not to suggest that this is not to be expected, especially given that China is a still a developing country. Surely, many of the infrastructure projects will have tremendous benefit now and in the future. I also posit that to some extent China’s leaders are aware of potential labor shortages in the future. As China’s aspiring middle-class urban dwellers move up the value chain, and as the one-child policy begins to take a toll on the country’s youthful demographics, cheap labor will become more scarce.

Given this reality, China appears to be taking an approach that puts speed and ambition above all other considerations, waiting to deal with the details later on.  In a sense, this is a cultural phenomenon: creating an environment of rapid growth to ensure social stability and avoid the internal chaos that is still all too near in memory.

Beijing to Shanghai High-Speed Rail Opens

Photo by bennettdesign

China’s ambitious high-speed rail program inaugurated perhaps its most important line yesterday: Beijing to Shanghai. The train made its debut on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party with Premier Wen Jiabao onboard declaring the line ‘in operation’.

The trip linking China’s two largest cities takes just under 5 hours and scheduled trains will make stops along the way in Tianjin, Jinan and Nanjing.

AFP Infographic

Linking China’s government/cultural center with its commercial/financial hub is a milestone on the path towards creating a connected nation. Airlines will certainly be hurt by the line, but because China’s air traffic is already at capacity, the train should help ease the strain on Beijing and Shanghai’s airports.

Freedom of choice when it comes to transportation options is paramount to social and economic mobility. Thanks to the multitude of options Chinese citizens will be afforded when traveling around the country, overall quality of life should be improve significantly.

Shaun Rein Gets It

As more economists jump on the China bubble bandwagon, reliable information about the country’s state of development is becoming more difficult to come by. Anecdotes about empty buildings, empty trains, and just all around emptiness abound from China bears. I have no idea where these observations come from given the overwhelming falsity of some of these claims.

Neither does Shaun Rein over at Forbes. In a piece titled “Nouriel Roubini Is All Wrong About China“, Rein takes the famed economist to task by picking apart Roubini’s observations about ’empty trains’ and ’empty roads’ between Shanghai and Hangzhou.

There are many problems facing China at the moment, but over investment in infrastructure is definitely not one of them. If anything, China can’t build roads, airports and new rail lines fast enough. As Rein astutely points out, “China’s projects improve business efficiency, and they are needed in that still developing economy.

It is great to see another China observer who is able to make empirical observations about the country without ideological blinders on.

Forbes: Nouriel Roubini Is All Wrong About China

Another Misinformed Commentary on China’s High-Speed Rail

As we’ve pointed out here on China Urban Development, there is no lack of misinformation about China in the Western media. This has been the case for many years and will likely continue into the future. Predicting the collapse of China has even become a career for some pundits.

I started this site to offer a fresh perspective differing from most Western writers in that I actually live in China and work in an industry directly related to the country’s development. I have no illusions that China will transform itself to be more ‘democratic’ like the West, nor do I think that the West needs to copy China’s top-down development model to compete economically. What works in one culture will not necessarily work in another.

That being said, some of the negative commentary about China’s ambitions  is due at least in part to a poverty of ambition in the West. The latest example of this is an article from Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Lane visited China for a few days recently and became an expert on the country’s high-speed rail system after taking a trip on the line from Beijing to Tianjin (a city he self-admittedly had never heard of).

Lane’s commentary reflects a common misunderstanding about China and its ambitions. He applies the same argument  to China as detractors of high-speed rail in the U.S. when he states:

“The fact is that China’s train wreck was eminently foreseeable. High-speed rail is a capital-intensive undertaking that requires huge borrowing upfront to finance tracks, locomotives and cars, followed by years in which ticket revenue covers debt service — if all goes well.”

Lane comes from the libertarian point of view  in that he insists every new piece of infrastructure must turn a quick profit, or else it is a waste of taxpayer money. To be sure, the position against high-speed rail holds some weight in the U.S. where the low-density nature of most of its urban landscape may not justify the high public expenditure of high-speed rail.

Yet China is building high-speed rail under a completely different set of circumstances. For one, China is still urbanizing substantially, creating a growing demand for high-speed intercity rail network. In addition, the country’s domestic air travel market continues to expand upon an already strained network.

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of Lane’s piece is the story he cherry-picked  of a 17-year old migrant girl he meets on a bus returning from Tianjin back to Beijing. Learning that she has never heard of the high-speed train and that she wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket, Lane concludes from this one example that high-speed rail is out of reach financially for the majority of Chinese people.

Reading that a 17-year old girl is not able to afford a high-speed train ticket in China is not surprising. What is surprising is that Lane ignores the growing reality of a Chinese middle-class that will gladly pay for the convenience and efficiency of high-speed rail. I would even be willing to bet that after a few years in the workforce, the 17-year old migrant girl would be able to afford a ticket if she so chooses to use the high-speed line as a means of transport in the future.

In the end, Lane says that China should envy the U.S. for not investing in high-speed rail. This is a laughable conclusion. Lane misses the bigger picture (more likely due to his ideological short-sightedness rather than his short visit to China) about the country’s ambitions.

China’s leaders don’t care if high-speed rail will ever be ‘profitable’. Were the aqueducts that supported cities in the Roman Empire turning a quick profit? How about the U.S Interstate Highway System? Gas and automobile taxes barely covers it these days as more highways turn into toll roads in America.

Great infrastructure projects throughout history are not built for quick profit but rather to strengthen economies and enhance the quality of life for people. In the long-run, China’s high-speed rail system will do just this as it unites the country’s urban areas, making mobility more convenient for its people.

The Washington Post: China’s Train Wreck

How China’s Megacities Have Avoided Problems of Other Developing Cities

Urbanist media can’t seem to get enough of the megacity these days. Much of the commentary surrounding this topic is disconcertingly celebratory about these leviathans despite such phenomena as overcrowding, high levels of congestion and sprawling slums.

Yet absent from most of the commentary is any mention cities in China. This is perhaps due in large part to the lack of serious social problems in comparison to its developing city counterparts in other countries. If a megacity is defined as a city with a population of more than 10 million, then China is home to 5 megacities: Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Dongguan. As the country continues to urbanize, more Chinese cities are bound to join the ranks of these megacities.

How has China been able to avoid the pitfalls facing other developing megacities? No one is denying that Chinese cities don’t have problems including unequal income distribution, pollution and growing traffic congestion. Yet China’s megacities seem to have largely avoided social dangers such as violent crime, disease and slum proliferation that plague urban areas of other developing countries.

Following I have identified five points as to how China’s cities have avoided these issues:

1. Construction of New Housing Units

Western media continues to bawl over the amount of new residential construction in China, calling it the ‘biggest bubble ever‘. I have pointed out before how this might be an overestimation of the problem and that the housing market is actually more stable than many think. One thing is clear: the ample construction of new housing units in cities across China remains the essential component leading the way in the country’s development. The ability to provide modern accommodations for millions of aspiring urban dwellers has also directly prevented the proliferation of slums and large-scale shantytowns.

2. Development of Public Transportation

The ability to move efficiently through an urban area is paramount to opportunity and quality of life. When one thinks of megacities such as Jakarta or Mexico City, automobile gridlock often comes to mind. Beijing might have its traffic problems as well, but China’s development of public transportation, including extensive underground subway networks, ensures citizens will have other options to move around besides motor vehicles. The more connected by different forms of a transportation a city is, the more opportunity people have to live where they want and have access to a wider geographic range of job options.

3. Land-Use and Zoning Flexibility

The often-overlooked reality of zoning and land-use regulations plays a much greater role in the shaping the character of megacities then it is given credit for. Mumbai’s draconian 1.33 floor-to-area ratio (FAR) throughout most of the city means that it is limited to construction of low-rise buildings, leading to the growth of overcrowded sprawling slums. Chinese cities, in contrast, allow for high FAR, promoting construction of high-rise buildings that leave room for ample green space.

Furthermore, Chinese cities are not limited by ‘urban growth boundaries’ and allow development to occur on newly annexed land outside of traditional urban cores. Even traditionally ‘dense’ cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong allow for new development outside of their traditional centers: the Pudong New Area in Shanghai and the New Territories in Hong Kong are huge areas that are still largely underdeveloped when compared to their respective downtown areas.

Critically, these nominally suburban or even “exurban” expansions are not mere bedroom community; they are frequently attached to areas of intense commercial, industrial and technical development. In many cities, including Chengdu, where I reside, most of the new economic growth takes place in such communities.

4. Providing Economic Incentives with Special Trade Zones

As China enters its third decade of rapid development, competition is heating up between its cities for domestic and foreign investment. The winners will ultimately be cities that are most business friendly and offer incentives like tax breaks to companies looking to set up operations. Many of China’s cities have gone about this by establishing special ‘economic and trade zones’, usually outside of traditional urban cores. As a matter of fact, one of new China’s most economically successful cities, Shenzhen, largely started as a ‘Special Economic Zone’ (SEZ). Special economic and trade zones that are not actual cities, but part of a larger city, thrive because they usually built on more affordable land on urban peripheries, opening up more investment for construction of state-of-the-art manufacturing and R&D facilities.

5. Willingness to Learn from Outside Experts

When it comes to political issues at the Central Government level, it is clear that China does not want to be told how to run its country by outside diplomats and foreign policy experts. Yet at the municipal level, Chinese government and business leaders are earnestly open to listening to experts in planning and development from outside its borders. One only needs to take a look at the countless architecture and urban planning practices from the West, Singapore and even Taiwan who currently work in China. This open exchange of ideas taking place is what allows best practices to come to fruition.

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

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.