Recent Urban Development in China
Watching the development of Chinese cities since first visiting in 1996 has been a rather frustrating pastime. Initially during that period sporadic ad-hock growth appeared with little control in terms of size, scale, location or appearance. Tall and shiny, scattered buildings rapidly appeared, of poor design, construction quality and function and these have offered very little to the quality of China’s cities. Ad-hock growth has been replaced by more rapid development based on quickly drawn up city zoning plans. Unfortunately the quality or suitability of these plans is debatable since the fast-track approach has led to a decided lack of deep consideration of all the potential needs of new city dwellers and has demonstrated a superficial understanding of the future requirements of growing 21stC cities. Planning by zoning has long been recognised by many professionals in the west as an outdated and ultimately unsuccessful tool in city development since it fails to seriously address the fundamentals of the richness and diversity that city life needs. Whilst China has been rapidly urbanising on such outmoded concepts, overseas planning approaches have become far more varied with a focus on increasing the health and lifestyle of the population including the social and physical concerns along with reducing energy and water consumption. They include concepts such as new urbanism, traditional neighbourhood development, conservation development, transport oriented development, shared space and green infrastructure planning. Unfortunately China’s rush to develop has not heeded the lessons of other countries and is rapidly repeating errors seen in the past but on an unprecedentedly large scale. Much of the building stock developed within the last 10 years will have an unacceptably short lifespan, perhaps only 20 years. The next phase of development must achieve far higher expectations.
Main problems with current urban development in China
Today we are frequently seeing all the mistakes that have dominated international city growth being repeated in China. These can be put into four categories which are discussed in detail below:-
1. Failure to provide quality, affordable housing and diverse communities including mixed income, age and education structure.
Every citizen deserves the opportunity to have high quality housing regardless of income. Modern cities need to offer housing at a range of price points whilst considering access to transportation and schools as part of the equation. Housing development needs to be balanced with job creation however we have witnessed massive development of substantial and isolated edge of town residential areas, unaffordable to much of the existing population let alone the new workforce arriving from countryside areas. Such housing development has provided few new jobs in the local area thus creating the need for distant travel to work yet they have not been developed with suitable transport connections and nearly all are totally reliant on car access. New residential developments have been focused on extremely limited target markets, usually middle to high income white collar workers. As we know affordable low income housing has been extremely restricted and government is now, somewhat belatedly addressing this. However provision of low cost housing needs to be of high quality as well as being located within the fabric of diverse income neighbourhoods. The creation of low income, isolated, out of town residential areas is dangerous in itself, leading to poor social environments with lack of work, recreation, education and healthcare opportunities for the masses, leading eventually to the so called “ghetto” areas.
New communities should provide opportunities for diversity in both age structure, from young to old and income structure from basic providers to heads of enterprise. They should offer quality housing at a full range of types and affordability; balance housing development with job creation by integrating a mix of uses including schools, housing, offices and retail and ensure that access to transportation and schools is part of the equation. They need to provide a full spectrum of education faculties to meet the needs of all the population and need to focus their form on the benefits of creating places of unique character （genius loci）, where health and well being are the primary concerns of the local community.
2. Failure to provide integrated public transport systems and policies.
Without exception Chinese city planning has been based on zoned planning policy focused primarily on road traffic circulation concepts. If cities are to be created in which people must truly live, work, be healthy and happy, rather than merely compete and survive, then the needs of road users must be subservient to the needs of the community. This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing city growth today. Streets were traditionally the focus of the surrounding community, a place where kids could play safely, people could informally meet and talk, street tradesmen could work. Through traffic moved slowly, be it bicycle, pedestrian or horse and cart. The motor car has completely changed our cities and the function of the streets which, now given predominantly to cars, have stopped functioning in their social role and instead act as barriers to pedestrian connectivity and social exchange, essentials in a dynamic city. Furthermore the rapid and massive increases in car usage in the latter 20th Century have made American and European cities come to a standstill, especially in the tight traditional urban form of Europe’s towns which are totally unsuitable to fast traffic flows. We are already seeing the same in China’s first line cities as car ownership bourgeons. Attempts by cities such Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to implement “licence plate” restrictions simply exacerbate the problem as owners double up on cars. Soft measures such as encouraging car pooling and journey sharing web sites (such as www.pinche365.cn ) have yet to be even considered or simple fiscal tax measures to restrict car ownership implemented.
Overseas, the last decades have seen a complete re-evaluation of the benefits of the motor vehicle in overseas cites and after years of implementing street widening and traffic engineering schemes at vast cost to the taxpayer, it has been realised that building more roads encourages more traffic volume, which causes further congestion whilst decreasing the value, character and liveability of our cities. Strong movements now prevail in which streets are increasingly restricted to fast moving traffic and the priority returning to pedestrian and cycle use, both in the inner cities and in suburban residential areas. Shared Space http://shared-space.org is a European project that aims to develop new policies and new methods for an integral approach of the planning of public space for which man and his surroundings are taken as the basis rather than the motor car. The philosophy at the base of the new policy is implemented in seven pilot projects in: Province of Fryslân (Lead Partner, the Netherlands), Municipality of Emmen (the Netherlands), Municipality of Haren (the Netherlands), Municipality of Ejby (Denmark), Municipality of Bohmte (Germany), Suffolk County Council (United Kingdom) and Municipality of Oostend (Belgium).
Current city planning in China needs to urgently focus on implementing a hierarchy of interconnected transport modes and discouraging as much as possible the ownership and use of motor vehicles. This flies in the face of the thinking of the new created middle classes, who’s first desire is to own a motor vehicle. When unsatisfactory alternative transport options are in place this becomes quite a reasonable requirement, however China’s cities need to be designed for the next generation in such a way as to cope with the expected and massive influx of the rural population who cannot be expected to own a car. Estimates suggest that 70% of the worlds population will be urbanised by 2050.
This new urban population needs to have efficient, economic and sustainable multi-tiered public transport systems in place if cities are to continue to function. These should focus on connecting high speed rail links with local train connections, LRT and subway, bus and taxi lanes, cycle taxis as well as dedicated cyclepaths and pedestrian walkways. Most importantly these cities should be designed to minimise the distances people need to travel from their living to their working places. Mixed use communities become the first step in reducing transport conflicts and decreasing carbon emissions by providing places of industry, commerce, education and residence amongst each other at walking distance.
3. Failure to appreciate and protect the value of local culture, environmental and historical resources.
Heritage is important to current and future generations. When communities work together to identify and conserve their heritage they can reflect on the past and build stronger bonds for the future. Keeping these assets enables the community to experience again and again the pleasures they offer. Once lost, they are gone forever. No record or photograph can ever substitute for an actual place. As we know the last century was responsible for the loss of untold cultural artefacts, historic buildings and local traditions in China. Beyond that however society has also lost the ability to actually understand the benefits of their heritage and identify what is valuable. Today’s generation wants everything “modern” and fails to comprehend that a lack of diversity and quality as well as the rejection of existing resources endemic in a disposable society is totally unacceptable in today’s world, let alone tomorrows. What’s fashionable this season is usually “out” next season. We urgently need to culture a society of adaptability, protection and maintenance through education at grass roots levels.
The reasons for protecting the heritage of a place may be aesthetic, economic, historic, ethical, environmental, legal or even personal. A community may want to protect existing resources because:
The key process for planning to include heritage place management emphasises the importance of:
Following this process will ensure that all key people are involved in identifying heritage places, and that conservation strategies result in actions to protect the significance of places.
4. Failure to provide sufficient connected and diverse city green space.
Green space needs to be connected. In the same way that highways, electricity grids and telecommunications need to be networked, unconnected green spaces are of limited value. There are two main reasons for this;, firstly environmental. Green spaces should support ecological habitats. Small remote areas can only maintain small remote “island” habitats where there is no ecological movement and the habitat cannot evolve. These are highly vulnerable to change and potential impacts. Secondly, in the same way that green space provides ecological movement so it is able to provide valuable social movement in the form of recreational spaces. Interlinked areas create opportunities for more varied recreational opportunities, social contact and movement.
Green space needs to provide a variety of habitat and diversity. Too much of the green space in Chinese cities is either “public park’ which is highly maintained, poor in diversity and sterile in type of use or merely roadside tree planting which has limited ecological and few recreational benefits. Opportunities for linked inner city green space should include agricultural allotments, temporary use of undeveloped sites or sites awaiting new development, private gardens, natural habitats including wetland, natural grassland and woodland, playing fields, cemeteries, country parks and water bodies.
Green Infrastructure Planning is now common in local government in North America, Europe and Australia. Green Infrastructure can be said to consist of a network of multifunctional greenspace that contributes to the high quality natural and built environment that is required for new and existing communities in the future. It consists of both public and private assets, with and without public access and links both urban and rural locations. Its role is to shape or direct where growth will go in order to protect essential ecological processes and systems; to preserve working landscapes and resource based industries as well as performing environmental services such as managing stormwater, recharging groundwater, reducing the urban heat island and cleaning both air and water.
Well designed and integrated Green Infrastructure can promote a sense of community and place and help reduce crime, fear of crime and anti-social behaviour as well as promote opportunities for community involvement and cultural diversity. It can provide opportunities for exercise, sport, active recreation and improve health as a result of increased physical activity such as walking and cycling. Improvements in environmental quality can facilitate better air and water quality and contribute to improved drainage and flood control. It is essential in helping to protect, recreate or rehabilitate landscapes, historic sites or habitats lost or damaged by previous development. In planning for Green Infrastructure it is important to consider the following points :-
A new concept for Chinese city planning
By heeding the lessons of previous overseas planning models and considering contemporary ideology it should be possible to arrive at a new vision for urbanising China’s cities over the next decades. This should be pioneering rather than responsive and should address the serious issues anticipated in China’s unique position. Today's best efforts to create new city growth should go beyond best design and planning practice to address additional topics such as:-
community enrichment, social equity, regionalism, affordability and education.
New Objectives for China’s Urbanisation
Planning for new city growth needs to throw away the traditional models and think “out of the box”. Each city needs primarily to evaluate the value of what it already has and implement policies of protection of those heritage and natural assets. Following on it couple this with a strategy of green infrastructure and water rationalisation using the existing resources of the city that have been developed over long period to guide and frame future development. It should be remembered that both wastewater and stormwater are resources and not nuisances. An efficient and integrated mass transport system and soft transport solutions are fundamental rather than encouraging motor car ownership through road development and car parking provision. It needs to plan districts of mixed use development where people of all social and economic background can live, learn and work within walking distance of these transport nodes.
The following objectives should form the basis of decision making and education policy. Through the creation of new communities within our cities it should be possible to raise the broader regional economy. Behaviour modification needs to come first through people’s values, building operation and community ethos :-
Creation of unique culture within the community that is honoured and held by every resident;
Provision of high quality housing, regardless of income to every resident;
Provision of opportunities for every community member to meet their baseline financial and employment needs;
Reduction of consumption of potable water and improvement in the retention and use of stormwater;
Vision and Values
It is of paramount importance to all developing cities that a clear vision for the identity and development of the city is developed at the first stage which will anticipate the needs of the future generations and represents the voices and interests of all the citizens of the city . A desperate need to sufficiently raise public awareness and educate all community members about the values of conservation of energy, materials, culture and the environment are the starting point.
The Vision: Sustainable Planning
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Managing Wet Weather with Green Infrastructure