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Toward sustainable urbanisation in China

As its construction boom continues apace, China should not embrace the large and the foreign, argues Jiang Gaoming. Smaller, more sustainable cities will mean that precious natural resources won’t be lost forever.

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China’s large-scale urbanisation dates back to late 1980s, when Beijing still had fields and natural wetlands. Since the 1980s, urbanisation has accelerated, with the number of cities in China’s central and coastal regions leaping from 315 to 521 from 1988 to 2000. Cities are expanding at an even faster rate than their populations. Urban land increased by 8% from 2000 to 2003, while the urban population grew by only half that figure. And now the country has become a giant building site, with almost 770 square kilometers of land being built on annually -- a figure that increases by almost 6% annually.
 
This urban explosion is linked to an unfortunate quest for large, foreign-style cities. Cities, plazas, roads, houses – the bigger and more foreign they are, the better, whether they are needed or not. Cities are swallowing up their surroundings – particularly Beijing, which is expanding by 20 square kilometers per year and showing no sign of slowing. Economically backward cities build huge plazas, cities with no congestion build eight-lane highways, all for the sake of appearance. The trend for spacious accommodation started with Beijing officials, with the standard living area for a departmental cadre rocketing from 70 or 80 square meters to over 200. There is even competition over who has the biggest office. And buildings are built in foreign styles, leaving us with non-descript cookie-cutter cities.

This construction makes an undeniable contribution to GDP, but the ecological and social issues it causes have been ignored. The current urbanisation rate is about 40%. If China is to achieve moderate levels of development, this will rise to 60% – encroaching on even more land and using even more resources. If China’s urbanisation is to be sustainable, the country must halt excessive expansion and resolve the issues discussed below.

Urbanisation in China continues apace

photo by Yuek Hahn

 

Big cities or small towns?

China’s urbanization is focused on expanding its cities – there are lots of people, so you enlarge the city – and that expansion then attracts more people. This unlimited expansion causes more pollution, congestion and poor living conditions, threatening the natural and rural environment.

Urbanisation in China is different to that of developed countries. The nature of the population flow is different. When rapid urbanisation started in 1960s America, the country had a population of only 23 million. But China’s urbanisation has been a quick expansion of residential areas and transport infrastructure to envelop populations. In the next 25 years, 850 million rural residents will be relocated to the cities. The use of resources is also different. Materials for the United Kingdom’s urbanisation were supplied by its colonies worldwide, but China must rely on its own (non-renewable) sand, soil, stone and steel.

And so this rapid expansion is not feasible for China. We need smaller cities with a range of employers to attract rural labour. Green belts similar to those surrounding England’s cities should be used to protect the environment and limit urban expansion. 

 

Solid, practical cities – not showpieces

The desire for the foreign is widespread. Traditional Chinese architecture is frowned upon, with US and European styles preferred. (Even the statues are bare-arsed Greeks.) Municipal leaders think it reflects better on them, and the city planners know where the money comes from. And in this rush for Roman plazas and European streets, China’s own traditional culture is lost and our cities all come to look the same.

Dreams of western lifestyles see the rich spending their money on large apartments or villas, which are eating up China’s parks and scenic areas. The well-known Fragrant Hills in Beijing are now surrounded by housing. Despite astronomical prices, supply can’t keep up with demand. Many are purchased merely as status symbols by people too busy to live there; they sit empty, as in a ghost town.

These problems permeate China’s urbanisation and are causing excessive expansion and massive waste of land and resources. Green areas and natural habitats are shrinking and the cities are losing their individuality. Urbanisation requires practical infrastructure and smaller housing. The government has recently taken steps in this direction, but their effect remains to be seen.

Cranes on the Beijing skyline show China's rapid urbanisation

photo by  EddieG.se

 

How long will non-renewable resources last?

One direct result of urban expansion is the massive consumption of non-renewable resources. Villages surrounding cities are being replaced with high-rises. This “fast-food” approach to urbanisation is destroying villages and consuming precious non-renewable materials.

Management of China’s waterways is chaotic, with contractors able to dredge sand at little or no cost. An excavator hired at CHY 200 an hour [$25] can scoop up a tonne of sand in no time – sand which then no longer helps to control floods and to filter water. Many natural waterways are disappearing, along with the wetland vegetation on their banks.

Rock and soil face a similar fate. Entire mountains are carved up for sale. Boulders weighing a tonne are sold off by the roadside. Granite and marble are processed into artworks to be sold abroad, and clay is fired into bricks for buildings.

And yet the buildings China is throwing up today are of poor quality, built with demolition and rebuilding in mind, further depleting building materials. If this continues, our supply of sand, then clay and finally stone, will be depleted.

This is our last chance to preserve these materials. We need quality buildings made to last. We need to consider the use of renewable or reclaimed building materials – for example, banning the use of clay bricks in favour of those manufactured from coal ash. Only in this way can we leave some of these non-renewable materials for future generations.

Homepage photo by Vagrantant 

The author: Jiang Gaoming is a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany and a doctoral candidate tutor, vice secretary-general of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation’s China-MAB (Man and the Biosphere) Committee and member of the UNESCO MAB Urban Group. He is recognised for his introduction of the concepts of urban vegetation and using natural forces to restore China’s ecosystems.

 

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

切中时弊

中国的城市化简直就是一窝蜂,基本不经头脑思考,一个什么小城区的政府大楼都要搞得象白宫一样气派,一个小小官员的办公面积竟然达到上百平米。我也亲眼见到一些搞城市规划的老专家对此气的七窍生烟,可是有什么用呢,决定还是领导说了算的,反正浪费的是老百姓的血汗钱。

Focus on the current defect

The urbanisation of China without enough consideration is a mess. The government building in a tiny town is as grandiose as the White House. A common officical's office even reaches a hundred square metres. I saw with my own eyes that some experts of city planning foam with rage, but it is just useless. For the decision-makers are our leaders,and the money spent is obtained from us the common people.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

也许国外也走过同样的弯路

蒋先生的建议非常实用。发展中国家总是难免出现急功近利的发展问题,也许国外也走过同样的弯路。不管怎样,中国政府开始认识到这个问题并着手整顿,让我们期待更多的改善吧。

Other countries have faced this same, difficult road

Gaoming Jiang's suggestions are very practical. Its unavoidable that developing countries face problems associated with their rush to develop quickly, but other countries probably faced this difficult road too. Either way, the Chinese government has realised the need to tackle these issues, so let's wait to see improvements.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

还要说一点:发达国家对中国城市化所起的坏作用

中国的经济发展出现了各种各样的问题,大部分是自己的原因,这是毫无疑问的。但也不能否认,西方发达国家在这些弊端问题的造成中起到了不好的作用,城市化也是如此,他们从中国掠夺了大量的自然资源,包括树木、石头及其它。

Developed countries' negative impacts on China's urbanization

Many problems have occurred along with the fast development of the economy in China, but no doubt the majority of them are caused by domestic reasons.

But we could not deny the negative impacts by developed countries to worsen this situation. Urbanization is a good example, as those countries have plundered a large amount of natural resouces from China, such as trees and stones.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

在北京上班太难了

偶在北京上班,每天上班路上2小时,下班路上2小时,那叫一个辛苦啊。估计北京再这么扩展下去,偶们在北京上班每天路上需要8个小时,太恐怖了!

Commuting to work in Beijing is terrible

Going to and from work in Beijing every day involves a two-hour journey each way, which is really tiring. It seems like if Beijing keeps expanding at this rate, going to work will involve an eight-hour commute, how terrible!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

城市化过程中出现的问题其实就是经济发展不平衡的问题

大家都朝大城市挤其实根本原因在于地区发展不平衡,大城市里机会多、保障更到位一些,所以大城市越来越大;别墅越来越多,而很多工薪阶层却一家人挤在三四十平米的房子里,这是人与人之间贫富差距太大的表现。其实说到底城市化过程中出现的问题还是经济发展不平衡的问题。

Inequality is the real urbanisation problem

Urbanisation is rife with unequal development; as the big cities offer lots of opportunities and guaranteed services to residents, the cities have conitinued to grow larger and larger. A sign of China's huge wealth gap is that upscale 'villas' are more and more common, but ordinary workers' families are living in 30-40 square metre flats. In fact when we talk about the problems caused by urbanisation we are really talking about the problems caused by unequal development.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

所以要加强城市设计

要认真考虑二线城市的建设

Improve city planning

We must concertedly think about the construction of small and medium-sized cities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中小城镇的建设需要加强

住在北京的人,往往会惊讶于北京的大,但是看着日渐臃肿的北京地图,我们不禁要问,北京究竟还可以大到什么程度?中国的超大城市规模的膨胀速度相当惊人,随之而来的,就是城市功能的不堪重负和对于各种资源消耗的增加。在伴随着工业化的城市化进程中,大城市似乎越来越成为所有得人向往的地方,相反,对于功能配置更为均衡,相对于环境更加友好的中小城镇的建设却长期不见起色甚至陷于萎缩的境地。如果政府真的能够意识到这个问题,并且加以改善,那么无疑是子孙后代之福。

Strengthen the construction of small and medium-sized towns

People who live in Beijing are often surprised at the city's size, but looking at the ever-expanding map of Beijing, we are not allowed to ask the question - how big can it actually get? China's megacities are swelling at an alarming rate; they cannot accomodate the numbers of people and the increasing strain on resources. As China's large cities have industrialised they have become more attractive to outsiders, depriving small and medium-sized cities which are more environmentally-friendly. If the government were to realise this and take steps to improve the situation, we could improve the fortunes of our future generations.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

城市化的问题真的存在着吗?

这样的问题真的存在着吗?在英国,95%的人口属于城市人口(包括城市和小城镇居民在内),城市化已成为一个必然的变化趋势。在北京,尽管有很多人居住在高层住宅中,但是其城市化规模与伦敦和巴黎相比要小一些。
巨型城市(如墨西哥城等)的形成具有一定特征:在发展到一定规模之后,它向周围扩展的能力会减弱最终停止。其原因是城市规模太大导致交通不便,居民因而纷纷迁移。
在一个特定的时候,城市化就将会达到一个新的平衡。
关于质量低劣的建筑,正如二十世纪五六十年代英国小城镇中的那些建筑(被视为“败笔”),它们的出现具有一定的历史因素(战后的快速发展),它们也最终被质量更好的建筑所取代。对于中国来说,如果能跨越这一浪费的阶段将意义重大,但在城市化急速发展当中,这个阶段又是很难避免的。

Simon Spooner

Is urbanisation really such a problem?

Is this really such a problem? There is inevitable change - in UK 95% of population is urban - in cities or towns. Beijing is still much smaller than London or Paris (though it has much more people living in high rise buildings).

The evidence of mega-cities such as Mexico City and others is that they can grow only to a certain size - then it becomes too hard to move around and too unpleasant - so people move elsewhere and growth slows or stops.

In time a new equilibrium will be found.

As for the poor quality buildings - as with the 1950's and 60's eyesores of British towns - they served a purpose when built (rapid development after war time bombings) intime thay come down to be replaced by better quality. It would be nice for China if they could avoid this wasteful step - but it is rather inevitable in a climate of breakneck growth.

Simon Spooner

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中国的城市化是不可避免的

在那些经济发达的先进国家,他们的都市化率已达到了80%或更高。所以中国不断的加速城市化是不可避免的。但有个问题:怎样才算是个完美的、持续的、高效的、环境优美的和最理想的城市呢?我们需要对此问题有更深层次的研究和调查。许多市民都更喜欢住在一个小点的城市,而不是住在那种挤了百万人口的大城市;但是他们仍然希望得到那些在大城市可以获得的相同的机会和服务。

China's urbanization is inevitable

Developed and ecormically advanced countries have urbanization rates of 80% or more. So China's continuing urbanization is inevitable. The question is: what are the characteristics of an ideal, sustainable, efficient, environmentally-friendly, optimal city? We need much more in-depth studies and investigations into this question. Most citizens will prefer to live in a smaller city than a mega size one with millions of people; but they all want to have access to te same opportunities and services in the megacities.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

平衡的持久的城市发展需要平衡的持久的地区发展

据我所知,在参与这个话题讨论的人中没有人是反对城市化的。(起码上面的两条评论是这样认为的)但是我们的中国朋友写下的评论却会对这25年的不平衡的改革不断的反复的思考。举个例子,很多在北京和上海一年赢利数十亿的大公司的老板可以将他们的子女送去哈佛读书,可是在中国西部却有成百上千万的未接受过正规教育的农民一天的生活费不足1美元,甚至是用不上干净的水,他们的子女很少或不能接受正规教育和医疗保健。这个地区间的发展不平衡是导致中国的城市化不平衡的一个方面。湖南的那些非常贫穷的农民更喜欢搬迁到一些在中国东南部的大城市,在那里他们可以使用更多的设施也能够得到工资较高的苦力工作。但是对于吸引着大多数人的热点城市(北京、上海、广东等),他们不能像其他国家的城市那样运转着。北京不可能像伦敦那样为国家中20%的人提供住所和工作等。直到我们能见到一些具体的行动是为了完成建设“和谐社会”的伟业的-或者说是向中部/西部地区加强投资-然后大多数的迁移者仍然会选择那些最富有繁华的城市。简单来说就是更好的发展平衡会让较富裕的东部省份向相差不多的中部/西部地区的城市提供技术和资金的支持。由中央决定的国家财政调控也应适当考虑。

Balanced, sustainable urban development requires balanced, sustainable regional development

So far as I see, nobody in this debate opposes urbanisation. (The last two comments suggest that this was so.) Rather, the comments left by our Chinese friends were simply raising concerns over striking the imbalances that have occurred during the last 25 years of reform. For example, the heads of corporation in Shanghai/Beijing etc make billions a year and can afford to send their offspring to Harvard while tens of millions of illiterate farmers strung across western China still live on less than $1 per day, have no access to clean water and their children have little or no access to health and education.

It is this imbalance between regions that also causes imbalances in China’s urban growth. Poverty-stricken rural farmers in Hunan naturally prefer to migrate to several large cities in eastern or southern China where there is (arguably) better access to services and higher wages on offer performing unskilled manual labour. But a development model that attracts the majority of the population to several hotspots (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong etc) will not work as it has in other countries. Beijing could not possibly house one fifth of the country’s population as London does for the UK.

Until we see any concrete actions towards the achievement of a “a harmonious society” – in other words serious investment in the central / western regions – then the majority of migrants will continue to target the wealthiest cities. A reasonably straight-forward means of achieving better balance would be for wealthier eastern provinces to link up with western / central counterparts to provide technical and financial assistance. Fiscal transfers – to be determined at central level – should also be considered.

LXY