It’s been almost 40 years since China’s leaders sat down to seriously plan the country’s cities.
Back in 1978 at the Central Urban Work Conference, officials were more concerned with how to fund these potential hubs of economic growth than live in them.
The resulting car-centric, concrete sprawl, based on a Soviet template, has created huge wealth while turning life for city dwellers into an endurance test.
Last month, central government officials met again after 37 years and pledged to tackle air pollution, traffic gridlock, and a lack of civic resources. In short, to make Chinese cities more livable.
Because more than half of the country’s population now resides in cities, and the government wants 100 million more rural residents to move there by 2020, planning must become more sophisticated, officials say.
Yet even the most passionate of China’s urban experts find it difficult to envision how cities can become better while continuing to grow bigger.
“The laws in this field make it very hard to innovate,” says Jinkui Li, a senior researcher at the China Development Institute, a think tank based in Shenzhen. “Every city is made by the planning authority, under the existing planning management system, according to existing standards. They all share one law. That’s why they are all the same.”
So what will it take to do things differently?
Less than an hour away from populous Shanghai is the eastern city of Jiaxing. With about 1 million residents, it is the kind of place where the central government would like people to move—away from the strained infrastructure of the four megacities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
What they designed—and is now being built—is a multi-purpose complex, with several buildings connected by walkways and containing a hotel, urban farm, restaurant, art gallery, and sport facilities (including a pool), all surrounding a central plaza.
For Roggeveen, Jiaxing Island was an exercise not just in architecture but in small-scale urbanism. “The brief was a clubhouse, but we were able to define the program ourselves, which is very unusual,” he says. (His client was a development company, Jiaxing Huazhang Real Estate.)
Most developments in China are top-down and large-scale, but Roggeveen and his team were able to apply an alternative, human-centered approach to this micro-sized project. With no cars inside it and a square that’s intimate rather than grand, the design is atypical of Chinese residential projects.
“As Jiaxing is a smaller city, so the collaboration with government departments was easier. We also pushed a few boundaries,” Roggeveen notes. “For example, planning rules specify that a certain percentage of land be green space. But as the complex was in the middle of a green field, we put all green on the roofs, which also creates insulation. But officially, roof gardens don’t count as green space.”
Such flexibility and cooperation is rare in city planning, say experts.
“Usually, departments are very siloed,” explains Jasmine Tillu, an urban planner based in Beijing. “There’s no requirement for collaboration, even though you need approval from each one. This happens in the West, too, but in China, I think it’s a lot worse.”
Tillu has been working on retrofitting public spaces with biking and walking networks, which were left out of original city plans. She points out that structural changes at a high level are needed to give policy-makers the flexibility to act within a highly centralized system.
“At the moment, you have leaders saying ‘Make urban planning more sustainable,’ but the actual on-the-ground policies don’t allow for it. For example, a sustainable city needs densely built road networks, but certain road width standards and policies prevent this. So existing policies do not incentivize policy-makers to develop sustainably. They’re caught in a dilemma, of wanting to do good but not being able to.”
Since 1978, the number of Chinese cities has leapt from 193 to 653, but city design that caters for vast numbers of new urban residents largely hasn’t kept up—with one exception.
Shenzhen was the first city in China to pilot market reforms that would turbocharge the country’s economy for successive decades. The former fishing town is now a supercity with 17 million residents.
It contains 320 “urban villages.” Chaotic and mazelike, these neighborhoods are a far cry from the austere tower blocks that form the backbone of most Chinese cities. Yet experts says they are key to developing urban fringes in a livable way.
“An urban village is a low-barrier entry point for those migrants who come to the city with nothing,” explains Tat Lam, CEO of Shanzhai City, a social development incubator. “People come from the countryside, pay little rent and live here for a year, where they make contacts, friends, earn some money ... and then move on to a more expensive place to live. It’s the reason Shenzhen is so popular for migrants.”
Within these urban villages, local government is pioneering projects to help new city dwellers. In Dalang, a migrant area north of the city center where there are 500,000 young factory workers, town officials have developed the “Third Eight Hours” project—referring to the hours left over after work and sleep.
In Dalang, a new facility called the Youth Dream Center puts on cultural and athletic events, as well as education and training. Local NGOs, charities, socially-minded companies, and universities have all been encouraged to partner with the community facility to provide everything from law advice and loans to counseling and education.
Li believes that as Chinese cities grow bigger, they need to take on feedback from residents.
“Chinese city [planners] lack the experience and tradition of inviting citizens to discuss plans, which makes it hard to make sure that city planning is down to earth.”
But for all the obstacles facing China, the country’s positive desire for change is attracting urban experts from abroad.
“I came to China [from New York] because of all this change that’s happening,” Tillu says. “It’s an exciting place for urban planning. In other cities around the world, a lot of infrastructure is already built and determined. But in China there are new cities literally growing overnight.”