Viewpoint: The Role of Urban Planning in China's Sustainable Development

By Ng, Mee Kam | The Town Planning Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Viewpoint: The Role of Urban Planning in China's Sustainable Development


Ng, Mee Kam, The Town Planning Review


Sustainable development has become China's national development strategy since 1994. As the 2003 figures suggested, the 5,658 'development zones' provide a total of 35,000 square kilometres of investment areas, which is greater than the total planned built-up areas within existing cities. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that 43 per cent of these investment areas are left vacant (Zou, 2004, 4). These figures reveal just how difficult it is to pursue sustainable urban development in the transitional economy of China.

The quest for globalisation has been a driving force for China to restructure her 'inefficient' socialist cityscape in order to spur economic growth. Back in the 1950s, founders of the centrally planned economy had shunned the capitalist system and its accompanying cityscape. Urban spaces were filled with self-contained 'cellular' work units that had few horizontal connections at the city level. Hardly any market mechanisms or economic incentives were kept to boost productivity, and resources were no longer put to 'optimum uses' in a market sense. Compared with the miraculous growth of the 'four little dragons' in Asia in the 1970s, the unique development trajectory shaped by the Chinese version of a centrally planned economy bequeathed a crumpling economy and a demoralised society.

Against this background, the country's leaders decided to adopt an open door policy and experiment with 'market reforms' to rejuvenate the sluggish economy in late 1978. Economic reforms, carried out after the open door policy, have brought dramatic economic growth in China. From 1980 to 1990, China's GNP (gross national product) and national income registered an annual growth rate of 9 per cent and 8.7 per cent respectively (State Council, 1994, 21). However, economic growth has taken place at the expense of the natural environment, encroaching and contaminating agricultural land, destroying ecosystems, and causing serious pollution and waste disposal problems. Realising that these problems would create tremendous challenges for the country's future development, the Chinese government has actively participated in the international debates on sustainable development. Indeed, China was among the first nations to produce a national Agenda 21 in March 1994 to 'find a path for development, wherein considerations of population, economy, society, natural resources, and environment are coordinated as a whole' (State Council, 1994, 1).

As a developing country, the Chinese government believes that 'the precondition for sustainable development is development' (State Council, 1994, 4). 'Sustainable development' is to ensure rational utilisation of natural resources and protection of the environment when pursuing rapid economic growth (State Council, 1994, 4). To the Chinese, 'the premise of sustainable development is economic growth, the foundation is environmental protection and the goal is improving and raising the quality of life' (Liu, 2001, xx-xxi). The idea is 'to resolve population, resource and environmental problems through development' (Liu, 2001, xiv). This growth-centred interpretation of sustainable development is rather different from the mainstream understanding of sustainable development in the wider international arena.

When it first appeared, the term sustainable development was the antithesis of the twentieth century's conventional understanding of 'modernity' which is symbolised by 'industrialisation' and 'urbanisation'. Advocates of sustainable development challenge the popular one-dimensional economic growth model that uses economic indicators, such as GDP, to measure development. Instead, the concept outlines two fundamental principles - the need to use ecological resources ethically and the importance of ensuring inter-generational and intra-generational equities in the course of resource utilisation (Ng, 2002). 'Science and technology' alone cannot help to achieve these goals because while humankind has experienced rapid technological advances and governed itself with increasingly complex institutional arrangements, we are, ironically, building a risk society that 'is blind and deaf to consequences and dangers' of an advanced industrial society (Beck, 1999).

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