Capitalizing on Foothills: Restoring the Relationship between People and Land

By Yu, Kongjian | Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Capitalizing on Foothills: Restoring the Relationship between People and Land


Yu, Kongjian, Harvard International Review


In the past 30 years, China has successfully urbanized 500 million of its total population--1.3 billion. China's urbanization has come at the cost of losing some of its most fertile land, polluting 75 percent of its surface water, and tearing down most of its old cities because of its unwise spatial strategy for urban development. China's urbanization is on an unsustainable track. During the next 30 years, another half billion new immigrants will need to settle in hundreds or even thousands of new cities, but where should the government build these cities? In this paper, I argue that instead of continuing the current urbanization and development track of expanding cities in the coastal deltas and flood plains and attracting immigrants to these cities, China should pursue an alternative regional and local strategy of building new cities on the foothills at the edges of the major plains and basins.

In many respects, especially in terms of economic progress, China's 30 years of unstoppable development driven by rapid urbanization has been a huge success, establishing China as the second most powerful economy in the world. But it has failed in some more fundamental aspects, particularly with regards to grain security, as the government must feed a projected 1.5 billion Chinese population by 2040, and establish environmental sustainibility for both the urban and rural areas. It is an unsustainable trend that China must reverse. A time period of 30 years is sufficient for us to reflect on the mistakes China has made and the lessons that we can learn from those mistakes. While we cannot change the past, such observations can help shape a better future for China by providing a direction for China to follow in the future. This is also useful for other Asian countries such as India, considering that China is only halfway in its urbanization process and a few steps ahead of many other developing countries. I should note that these lessons are taken from the perspective of a city planner, primarily looking at the physical aspects of urbanization in China, rather than its political, social, or economic aspects.

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Unsustainable Strategy for Urban Development

In 1978, the Chinese government made a dramatic shift in its industrialization and development strategy. Moving away from Chairman Mao Zedong's "Third Front" strategy, which favored inland development to increase national security, China's new top leader Deng Xiaoping's open policy and coastal development strategy gave priority to the fertile and flat coastal flood plains, with the aim of attracting foreign investments to these areas. This complete reversal in policy immediately redirected the immigration wave from the remote mountainous inland to the coastal cities. This drastic change ended the movement of "up to the mountains and down to the villages." From 1962 to 1980, 18 million urban youth, a considerable number given that the urbanized population was only 134 million in 1980, were sent to remote, rural areas. By 1980, most of them had returned to their home cities, just as the massive immigration movement toward the coastal cities and existing big cities began. The impetus for building new cities in choice locations was tremendous, as illustrated by Shenzhen, a new city that in 30 years grew from a small town of 30,000 residents in 1980 to a new city that grew to 13 million people. However, Shenzhen is a rare case, as the momentum for building these cities dwindled. The Chinese city planners were simply not prepared for this explosive energy of urbanization that had accumulated for decades. Thus, they missed the opportunity to plan and organize wisely the spatial patterns for urbanization that could have avoided many of the problems China faces today. Instead of planning new cities at more sustainable locations and regions, the rapid urbanization process simply occurred in existing cities, by converting agricultural land into industrial enterprises and development zones. …

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