Academic journal article China Perspectives

Chinese Urban Planning: Environmentalising a Hyper-Functionalist Machine?

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Chinese Urban Planning: Environmentalising a Hyper-Functionalist Machine?

Article excerpt

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In the three decades since the turning point in 1979 when China began to open up to the market and to the rest of the world, it has experienced double-digit growth and an unprecedented rate of urbanisation. The number of city dwellers stood at 190 million in 1979, representing 20% of the total population; today it stands at 700 million, or 52% of the population,(1) and the number of people living in Chinese cities swells by 15 to 20 million every year. Over the course of the next 15 years, the country's cities are expected to welcome 300 million new inhabitants,(2) equalling the number of houses in the whole of Europe today; in other words, by 2030 there will be a billion urban inhabitants, and the urbanisation level will have risen to 68%.(3) Chinese cities have become powerful production and wealthcreation machines. This phenomenal development has enabled China to become a major world power, and has paved the way for improved living standards for its population, although major social disparities do remain. However, it has also brought increasing pressure to bear on natural environment, and has led to major environmental damage, seriously compromising the quality of living conditions in China for the medium and long term, triggering major threats to the availability and sustainability of natural resources and to the health of the country's population - and even its economy - and basically resulting in a critical situation today.(4)Given this context, in which the equation between accelerated development and urbanisation and protection of the environment has become an acute issue, the question of how cities are planned and built, which largely determines urban metabolism, is a strategic one that represents a major challenge to the state of the environment in China and across the world.

The turning point in urban sustainability proclaimed by the Chinese authorities

The Chinese authorities have been fully aware since 2006 of the serious nature of the environmental challenges: the first official Chinese report on the environment, conducted by SEPA/NBS, was published in 2005, and the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) recommended a new and more balanced development model that gives greater consideration to the environment. (5) At that time, the authorities expedited the construction of a political, institutional, and legal framework for environmental matters. As far as urban planning is concerned, new concepts, laws, programmes, and projects promoting greater consideration for the environment began to see the light of day in 2006.

Two concepts were created with a view to forming the ultimate goal of urban development in China: yongxu chengshi(similar to the Western idea of a "sustainable city") and hexie chengshi ("harmonious city," a concept favoured and backed by the central authorities at the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum organised in Nanjing in 2008(6) because they considered its focus on the idea of seeking social, environmental, and temporal balance and stability to be more deeply rooted in the Chinese way of thinking). A new urban planning law approved in 2008, the "Urban and Rural Planning Law" (chengxiang guihua fa), placed environmental questions at the heart of the aims and principles assigned to territorial planning:(7) careful use of land, improvement of the ecological environment, promotion of the rational and sparing use of energy and natural resources, protection of land suitable for cultivation and natural resources, etc. The environmental objective now also features prominently in urban planning documents at the municipal level, zongti guihua("urban planning guidelines"), in which the essential principles to be adhered to are as follows: sparing use of land and resources, protection of the environment, high economic efficiency, and social harmony.(8)

A number of national programmes have been launched to promote pilot sustainable development cities. …

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