Academic journal article China Perspectives

Institutional Change in China's Sustainable Urban Development: A Case Study on Urban Renewal and Water Environmental Management

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Institutional Change in China's Sustainable Urban Development: A Case Study on Urban Renewal and Water Environmental Management

Article excerpt


In 1992, the Rio Conference heralded a departure from traditional approaches to the management of natural resources, calling for the establishment of planning and management policies harmonising environmental, economic, and social goals.(1) During the last quarter century, a wide consensus has emerged over this approach, leading in many countries to extensive processes of spatial, legislative, and administrative integration, as well as to greater engagement of societal actors in decisionmaking. These processes have been largely inspired by a logic of integrated territorial management, whereby synergies are sought to meet different demands, interests, and development scenarios related to a spatially defined area, resulting in the harmonisation of different jurisdictions based on its natural characteristics.(2)

The management of water bodies in densely inhabited regions has been one of the major fields of development in this respect. Water exemplifies the complexity of integrated territorial management: it is a limited and yet vital resource, subject to competing demands, and exposed to multiple sources of pollution. Moreover, despite the unity of the water cycle, water bodies almost invariably fall under different legislative and administrative jurisdictions. Internationally, recent years have witnessed a robust trend towards the establishment of watershed management systems, in order to overcome jurisdictional barriers hampering sustainable management of water resources.(3) One of the main examples is provided by Europe, where transboundary watersheds have long been an important policy concern. In 2000, the EU adopted the Water Framework Directive (WFD), establishing a Community unified system of water management, based on watersheds and on the principle of the unity of the water cycle.(4)

In China, complexities inherent in water management are even more pronounced than in countries of old industrialisation. Due to the tumultuous, multifaceted, and uneven process of growth of its industry and economy, in China several issues related to water pollution have emerged almost simultaneously. Fragmentation of state authorities, overlapping of jurisdictional attributions, and conflicts of interest among government bodies have so far jeopardised the country's efforts towards a coordinated and effective governance of the sector.(5) In fact, at least 13 central government agencies have responsibilities in China's water management.(6) Against such background, urbanisation is seen both as a possible threat - due to the increasing demand for water and point-source pollution - as well as a positive driver of change, thanks to its potential in promoting new visions for sustainable development, fostering institutional integration, and attracting investment for technological innovation.

The development of environmental management strategies coupled with urban renewal processes has gained increasing attention worldwide, as a response to environmental and socio-economic issues affecting urban regions. This trend has been particularly notable in the case of water management.^ China is no exception in this regard.(8) Over the last decade, the concept of sustainable development has gained momentum within China's urban planning. (9) This has occurred as a by-product of several issues brought about by urbanisation, including environmental degradation, socio-economic disparities, and marginalisation of vulnerable groups.(10) Cities where pressing concerns of water pollution control and remediation intersect with wider objectives of urban renewal have been at the forefront in testing institutional innovations for integrated territorial management.(11) The rationale informing these experimentations has been the integration of environment and development in decision-making, based on the recognition that a clean and healthy environment is a precondition to durable economic growth.

Since the early 2000s, the pursue of a development model in tune with the needs of urban(ising) community(ies) has been subject to special political attention, being framed ideologically through the concept of yiren weiben, generally translated as a "human-centred" approach or "putting people first. …

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