China Regional Urbanization Trends: 2014 Edition

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shared with us their new study on “China’s Urban Dreams 2014” – an update on the country’s urbanization program. With all the uncertainty about China’s property sector in the news recently, this in depth analysis gives some clarity to the often murky topic of Chinese development.

While Western media tends to paint China with one large brushstroke when discussing the country’s property sector, the reality is that real estate markets vary greatly from region to region. China, like the U.S., is a large, diverse country with many different cities and regions with varying strengths and weaknesses. If there is one takeaway from the EIU study, it’s that not all regions are created equally, and going forward, there are bound to be winners and losers.

Before we delve into the details of regional urbanization trends, let’s take a look at where China as a nation stands today. The country’s urbanization ratio is right around 50%, pretty much on target with the Chinese government’s projections. China’s per capita GDP is still relatively low- above India and Nigeria but below Brazil, Russia, and South Africa. Of course, China’s enormous population is a contributing factor to this being the case.

By 2020, the Chinese Government wants to bump up urbanization to 60%.  This will require another 100 million people in cities. It is important to keep in mind though, that this will not only be a result of migrants explicitly “moving” to the city, but urban boundaries continuing to expand into the surrounding countryside. As cities grow in China they annex the land around them, transforming once rural land into urban real estate.

Another key factor in meeting urbanization targets is household registration (hukou) reform, which would help afford migrants a form of permanent residence status in a given city.

Where will these 100 million new urban residents live in 2020 and beyond? According to the EIU study, Guangdong Province will pick up the lion’s share of new urban development. This is not surprising given that the Pearl River Delta region is already the most urbanized in the entire world and is further developing in a manner to help better integrate the region as a whole.

Central province Henan is also urbanizing rapidly, as is the Beijing-adjacent province of Hebei. Yet both of these provinces won’t reach the urban populations projected for coastal provinces Shandong and Jiangsu.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is projected that the direct-controlled municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin will have the highest rates of urbanization by 2030. The Central Government has made it a priority to integrate Beijing, Tianjin and the adjacent province of Hebei into one large mega-region of 100 million people called “Jing-Jin-Ji“. The aim here is to take pressure off of Beijing, which suffers from traffic gridlock, pollution and astronomical housing prices.

Along with the announcement of the formation of the Jing-Jin-Ji mega-region was a move by Hebei Provincial officials announcing that some of Beijing’s Central Government functions will move to the city of Baoding, 150 km southeast Beijing. Although specifics have yet to be articulated, this is a clear indication that the China plans to decentralize its government functions.

WEB - Victoria Lai - Access China - Demographics.inddOverall it looks as if the coastal areas of China will continue to urbanize at high rates while inland regions lag a bit behind. Although there is a wave of manufacturing moving from coastal areas to inland provinces, there still appears to be a logistical advantage being on the coast. To see where China is heading, perhaps it is best to look at the Pearl River Delta, which has led the way since initial economic reform and continues to lead the way today.

Why is Zaha Hadid Being Copied in China?

Zaha_copied in ChinaZaha Hadid’s Wangjing SOHO design (left). Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century design (right). Image from AFP.

Earlier this year, the architecture world was in shock after a story made the rounds that a Zaha Hadid designed project in Beijing is being pirated by a developer in Chongqing. What’s surprising about this story is not the actual copying of Hadid’s design but the reaction from the design media, as if this is the first incidence of architectural piracy in China.

Of course this is not the case as building designs are routinely copied in China. However, what makes this instance unique is that while Hadid’s design (Wangjing SOHO) is still under construction, the copied version (Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century) is set to complete first. Pan Shiyi, Board Chairman of SOHO China, Hadid’s client, has not kept quiet about his disapproval, and is now taking legal action against the developers in Chongqing.

This situation brings up the reoccurring discussion about authenticity (or lack thereof) in China. It is no secret that China ‘learns by imitation’ in everything from product design to software development. In the realm of architecture, it is not uncommon to come across functioning replicas of famous buildings from history (like the Chrysler Building, Sydney Opera House, or the entire Austrian Village of Hallstatt) in China’s cities.

Hadid’s office speculates that perhaps someone got hold of their plans for Wangjing SOHO to produce the copy. Yet having seen Chinese architects in action, it would not be far-fetched to speculate that the designers of Chongqing Meiquan 22nd Century saw nothing more than a computer rendering of Hadid’s project on the internet to generate something of similar likeness.

Architects around the world learn from other architects. Websites like ArchDaily are a great resource for architects to promote their work and for other architects to get inspired. Like professional writers, there is an unspoken ethical code among architects about borrowing from other designers: re-using certain ideas or building elements is ok, even flattering at times, but outright plagiarism is never ok.

This code of design ethics doesn’t exist (yet) in China. As is often the case, copying a famous design from another architect can be a good strategy in getting approval from a Chinese client or local government official. In response to the accusation of copying, developer Chongqing Meiquan even said “never meant to copy, only want to surpass.”

This response is very telling of where the value of architectural design lies today in China. While it could be argued that China is still in its “learning phase” of development, it is starting to become clear that the country’s ambitions lie much further beyond not only being the ‘biggest’ but the ‘best’ – even if that means using dishonorable means to get there.

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.

Go West Project at the Chengdu Biennale

I had the privilege of sitting in on a round-table discussion led by the ‘Go West Project‘ at the Chengdu Biennale this past weekend. Go West Project is an independent think-thank based in Shanghai founded by two Dutch nationals, Michiel Hulshof, a journalist, and Daan Roggeveen, an architect. For the past two years, Hulshof and Roggeveen traveled around the country documenting the phenomenon of urbanization in China’s lesser-known cities (hence the name ‘Go West‘).

Their research culminated in a recently released book titled How the City Moved to Mr. Sun. The title refers to one of the several personal narratives they encountered in their travels. Mr. Sun, a corn farmer in a village on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, saw his land seized by authorities nearly 20 years ago. Like many of the other villagers, he used the compensation money to develop his own 4-storey ‘mixed-use’ building complete with retail space on the ground floor, living space on the 2nd and 3rd floors and a small group of guestrooms for migrant workers on the 4th floor. On the roof, Mr. Sun created an organic garden to continue doing what he knew how to do best.

Inevitably, the pace of urbanization caught up to Mr. Sun once again, and after about a 10 year run of profitability, his self-developed building was razed by bulldozers. He reluctantly gave in and accepted compensation and now lives with his wife in a modern high-rise residential tower block where ‘he doesn’t know any of the neighbors’.

Mr. Sun’s story is one of several Hulshof and Roggeveen document in their book. In addition to Shijiazhuang, they visit 12 other cities in China’s interior including Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Hohhot and Kashgar, among others. Each city focuses on a different aspect of urbanization in China, and in Chengdu they chose to focus on cultural development.

And cultural development in Chengdu is what we focused on at the Biennale discussion. Hulshof and Roggeveen were interested in hearing from the people in attendance, mostly artists, designers and musicians from Chengdu’s local arts scene, what they thought of promoting ‘special arts zones’. As preposterous as this idea sounds, given that artists typically establish themselves from the ‘bottom-up’, China has already established designated arts zones throughout various cities in China.

This is perhaps no surprise as China’s approach to development in virtually every sphere comes from the ‘top-down’. As a matter of fact, the Chengdu Biennale coincides with the opening up of the new East Music Park, a re-used industrial zone that is also the site of the event. Spearheaded by the local government, the East Music Park is a new area full of bars, clubs, restaurants and gallery space intended to promote the arts in Chengdu.

Of course, the profit motive behind the creation of such arts districts is not hidden. Yet regardless of this commercial aspect, most Chinese artists agree that anytime the government is on board to promote culture it is a positive thing. China’s top-down development model excels at creating the ‘hardware’ of cities:  roads, bridges, public transit, buildings, etc…but when it comes to the development of ‘software,’ or the cultural side of cities, governments have a harder time of deciding the best route to take.

That is why in the case of Chengdu, the local government looked to the artists themselves for consultation on how to proceed. In their book, Hulshof and Roggeveen mention the story of local painter Luo Fahui, once a renegade who had to move around the country to avoid run-ins with government authorities, who later was literally given free gallery space developed by the local government to pursue his artwork. Change of fortune indeed.

As China’s development model continues to evolve, the ‘software’ of cities becomes increasingly important. And as more Chinese citizens realize that there is more to life than the acquisition of money, they will demand more ‘meaningful’ experiences, including patronage of the arts. This is the conclusion we reached at the Biennale round-table and the conclusion Hulshof and Roggeveen reached after their travels around China.

China is at a crossroads now. Next year will see a nationwide change in leadership and with analysts predicting the end to China’s growth model, the country is looking to new ways to continue economic evolution. That is why Hulshof and Roggeveen’s work is timely. To see where China is, and where it is going, I highly recommend their book.

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.

Shifting Real Estate Development Priorities

Last week I had a chance to chat with Russell Flannery, the Shanghai bureau chief for Forbes magazine, at a conference I spoke at in Luoyang, Henan Province. I talked to him about the shift in real estate development focus in China from residential to the retail and commercial sectors. Below is a reproduction of the interview from Forbes:

Shopping Malls Become China Real Estate Hot Spot As Economy Shifts

Shopping malls are becoming a China real estate hot spot as government efforts to ease housing prices reduce interest among developers in building apartment complexes.

So says Adam Mayer, a USC-educated senior project architect based in the western Chinese city of Chengdu for Cendes, a Singapore-founded architecture firm with projects in more than 20 Chinese cities.   Rapid growth in Chinese retail spending, he says,  “represents a shift of the Chinese economy from one of production to a more domestic, consumer-oriented market.”

I talked to Mayer on the sidelines of a conference about the business outlook in central China held yesterday in Luoyang, one of China’s ancient hubs. The event was being organized by Forbes China, the licensed Chinese-language edition of Forbes magazine, and the city government, and attracted speakers from IBM and GE. Excerpts follow.

 Q. China’s government seems to be slowing down the pace of the real estate industry right now. To what extent do you feel any of that in your own company?

A. We do see it in the sense that there’s a shift away from such rapid development of residential property. Not all residential types, though, just, specifically, the high-rise clustered residential you see in all cities across China. The shift is more toward villas, which in the U.S. we would call detached houses. These are not intended to be primary residences. Rather, they are intended and marketed towards wealthy individuals who want a second home or a vacation home that’s outside the city.

What we’re seeing now is a huge growth in the retail sector in the design and developments of shopping malls, especially in Chengdu where we have a lot of work, and also in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. We’ve been seeing a lot of mixed-used developments in the planning phases now. These are typically 4-5 storey retail shopping malls (that) in architectural terms we call a podium. These are usually high density sites. They have high floor to area ratios, which are zoning numbers that tell you how much square meters you can build on that site. These are usually in center city areas, and also around the second or third ring roads that are developing out from the center, typically around transit hubs where there might be a subway station. There are retail podiums with office towers, or it could be a hotel tower and also some residential tower on top.

Q. What’s driving that investment?

A.  I think it’s really more about retail. The developers are maximizing the FAR (floor to area ratio), and that’s why they’re building towers on top, but the retail really represents a shift of the Chinese economy from one of production to a more domestic, consumer oriented market. So we see real estate developers really pushing hard (on) the retail development.

Q.  In the old days, Chinese developers were making plenty of money just by building those tall residential buildings and selling them out quickly. Now, those same builders appear to be increasingly interested in commercial property. Do you see signs of that?

A. For sure. If developers are only in the residential sector, they definitely need to diversify. Also, when it comes to geographical development, (there’s a) shift of development of China moving from the coast inward (and) west. We see that happening to even further west than Chengdu, and, if you can imagine, into Urumqi and Xinjiang Province.

Forbes: Shopping Malls Become China Real Estate Hot Spot As Economy Shifts

Population’s Role in an Urbanizing China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economist: Comparing Chinese Provinces With Countries

Chengdu and Chongqing Leading the Way in Hukou Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China Daily: Chongqing Turns Into Red Capital

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

Urbanizing Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

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

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

Urbanising Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

By Adam Nathaniel Mayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lan Kwai Fong Entertainment District Opens in Chengdu

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

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

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

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

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

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

A provocative image of young woman sipping a martini greets clubgoers

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

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

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

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

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

China Linking Southeast Asia with High-Speed Rail

Kunming, Yunnan Province:   China’s Gateway to Southeast Asia

China receives a lot of well-deserved recognition for its expanding high-speed passenger rail system. Now China’s rail ambitions are extending well beyond its borders into neighboring countries. This April, construction is to begin on a rail line linking southern Yunnan province with the country of Laos to the south.

With cash in hand and the ability to build such a rail line, China is paying for the majority of the construction cost while Laos will only be responsible for 30% of the cost. This is yet another example of China exercising its policy of ‘infrastructure diplomacy’- that is, helping other developing nations pay for and build new infrastructure to promote favorable relations and gain access to natural resources.

China can now be seen practicing this form of infrastructure diplomacy in everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia and even South America. Yet nowhere are the implications of this approach to foreign policy more manifest than in Southeast Asia. This is not only due to the close proximity of the region to China’s southern border, but because Southeast Asian nations are about to undergo their own development transformations and China is looking to establish a  key role in the process.

China’s ambitions are so high in Southeast Asia in fact that the country hopes to someday link via rail all the way from Beijing to Singapore. Plans are also underway to connect China to Cambodia and Thailand. Much to the dismay of human-rights activists, China also has very good relations with Myanmar despite that countries questionable leadership.

Vietnam is a unique case in that their sense of autonomy is especially strong in the region. In particular, Vietnam does not shy away from criticizing China over overextending its claim over the adjacent South China Sea. Territorial disputes could arise, but chances are likely that Vietnam and China will find a way to work together that will mutually benefit one another.

In China, Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, stands to gain tremendously from the growing ties with Southeast Asia. A city of about 3 million people, Kunming is already China’s gateway to the region and boasts a diverse array of minority cultures with historical ties to countries to the south. Though long relegated to 3rd tier status, Kunming is on the rise to become what will be an important international business and transportation hub for China and all of Southeast Asia.

GoKunming: Trans-Laos Railway Construction to Start in April

Monsters & Critics: Construction on Laos’ High-Speed Rail Set to Start in April

Kashgar: New SEZ in Xinjiang

Photo courtesy of Nicolas Marino

One rising city to be on the look out for in the next decade of China development is little-known Kashgar in the country’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region. At just under a half a million people, Kashgar (in Chinese known as ?? or ka shi) sits at the far western part of China near the borders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, making it a strategic gateway to Central Asia.

As a matter of fact, Kashgar has more in common culturally with its post-Soviet neighbors to the west than is does with what is historically thought of as China. Once an important outpost on the Northern Silk Road, today the city is dominated by the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority of Turkic origin.

This might not be the case for much longer.

The Chinese Central Government in May of last year designated Kashgar as a new ‘Special Economic Zone’ (SEZ), the  country’s first in more than 15 years. The Special Economic Zones of China are cities that have more liberal policies towards trade and investment than the rest of the country. Shenzhen, China’s most famous SEZ, has proved to be an enormous success.

Kashgar is worlds away from Shenzhen though. Whereas the latter benefited hugely from its proximity to Hong Kong and access to the sea, the former is in an almost completely opposite geographic situation: landlocked and separated from the prosperous eastern seaboard by the vast Taklamakan Desert.

Another challenge facing Kashgar is the possibility of ethnic tensions between the local Uyghurs and the incoming Han majority. With the designation of the city as an SEZ, investment and businesses from the east will be flooding the city inevitably posing a threat to the preservation of the local culture.

On a more positive note, with Kashgar becoming an SEZ, there is the potential for the city to revisit its once prominent position as a strategic trading point between East and Central Asia. From a foreign policy point of view, it is also encouraging that Beijing is taking interest in Central Asia, a troubled region that could use a bit of economic reform to help lift its people up.

For more information about Kashgar’s significance as a new SEZ, I recommend an excellent September 2010 piece from Newsweek that examines the prospects for this remote city.

Newsweek: A New Shenzhen

Chengdu’s First Subway Line Set to Open

Entry shell to the new Chengdu underground metro

October 1st, 2010 will be a momentous day in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. On this day, the city will inaugurate its first subway line: Line 1. This is significant not only because road traffic is getting increasingly worse in the city and more alternatives for getting around town are much-needed, but also because it represents to the citizens of Chengdu a rite of passage into modern China.

Line 1 of the Chengdu Metro traverses a north-south axis through the middle of the city, reaching from the older neighborhoods in the north to the newly developed high-technology zones in the south. In the center is the Tianfu Square station, where Line 1 and Line 2 are set to converge in the future making it a critical transfer hub.

I had the privilege of getting a first look at the new metro line two weeks ago when the city was running trial operations. The experience left me highly impressed. The design of the subway stations are minimal and functional- not too different from the look of metro systems already in place in other Chinese cities. The same can also be said about the subway trains.

Just as encouraging was the reaction of the local Chengdu people who were lucky enough to win tickets to ride Line 1 before its official opening. The smiles and flashing camera bulbs told the story of a citizenry genuinely elated and proud to see this kind of new development in their city.

Some locals are disappointed with what they see as a less than inspiring design of the line’s central stop at Tianfu Square. One of my colleagues described the sunken plaza in the middle of the square  that leads to the underground metro station as huo guo (hot pot).

Originally conceived as a modern plaza by the Pei Partnership, the scheme was eventually shelved for a design that relates more closely to local Chengdu culture. In the sunken plaza, faux-rock formations with waterfalls pay homage to the natural surroundings outside the city. On the walls of the plaza, photographs of old Chengdu tell the story of a tea-drinking culture that still continues on today.

Aesthetic critiques aside, the subway is a huge accomplishment for the city and only the beginning of what will be a comprehensive metro system, thus making mobility around Chengdu ever more convenient and efficient.

See additional coverage of the new metro Line 1 from local Chengdu blogs:

Chengdu Living: Chengdu Subway: Day One Photos

GoChengdoo: Panda Express: Chengdu Metro Line 1 Opens for Free Sneak Peeks

Development in the Far West: Bumpy Road Ahead

Uyghur people in Xinjiang. Photo courtesy of Nicolas Marino

One advantage of China’s top-down approach to urban development is the lack of organized resistance to new projects. Aside from the occasional story of a  lone-ranger hold out protesting imminent demolition of property, China is a nation almost completely devoid of NIMBYs (not in my backyard). This is due largely in part to the collectivist nature of China’s ethnic majority.

That majority is of course the Han people, who comprise more than 90% of China’s overall population. There is a very strong self-identification among the Han, which begets an unspoken but omnipresent social unification. This spirit has been one of the driving forces behind China’s rapid and successful urban development.

Yet as momentum shifts  westward, the outlook for peaceful development looks more uncertain. Whereas the east coast of China consists mainly of Han people, the interior areas are more mixed ethnically. The far west autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang are majority-minority populations.

Xinjiang Autonomous region- which is home to the Uyghur people, a  Turkic Muslim minority- is currently experiencing a significant migration of Han people from the eastern provinces as a result of the central government’s ‘Go West’ campaign. Cities in this vast and resource-rich region in China’s northwest corner are developing quickly. Unfortunately, Uyghur’s and other  local minorities feel as if they are being left out of the new prosperity.

Frustrations boiled over last year when riots broke out in the Xinjiang capital city of Urumqi. The violence pitted the Uyghurs against the Han, leaving nearly 200 people dead. Fortunately, there has not been any flare ups since then but as a New York Times article said recently, ‘resentment is simmering‘.

Urumqi and other cities in the west of China will undoubtedly continue to move full steam ahead with development. Urbanization and modernization need not be a threat to local culture though. Rather, it should reinforce long-standing traditions as prosperity eventually leads to diversity appreciation. The major challenge here will be a social one- including non-Han minorities in with the huge changes taking place.

The New York Times: Resentment Simmers in Western Chinese Region