Growth Challenges

Planning for Sustainable Rapid Urbanisation

As one of the world’s great emerging economies of modern times, the Chinese population is at a critical juncture in terms of where and how they live. Vast numbers of Chinese citizens are migrating to cities seeking greater job opportunities, income, and a higher quality of life. The urban population is projected to grow by 300 million by 2025.[1]  

This urbanization is happening at an unprecedented speed and scale, fueled by a booming economy. Car ownership is on the rise indeed China has already passed the United States as the largest car market in the world. [2] The demand for housing created by the massive influx of population into urban areas has fueled a residential construction boom. This is in part is motivated by the “3 must haves” for young Chinese: a car, home and money.

Rapid urbanization in China poses daunting challenges in terms of demand for energy and pressure on the environment and climate. Choices made now will have an immense impact on the long-term viability of Chinese cities. China faces a choice between creating cities that are livable, efficient and environmental friendly through a new approach or to continue with dated planning ideas from earlier eras of urbanization that reinforce auto use, reduce quality of life for the pedestrian, isolate residential communities, and compromise the environment.

The main design criteria for active, vibrant urban communities is to design around the pedestrian, bike and transit, not the car – in other words, design using narrow streets and small blocks, with active, useful and interesting edges. However, such a development model is essentially the antithesis to China’s current urban development model, known as the ‘Superblock Model.’ Such a model is based on a network of wide arterial streets with large development blocks, placing emphasis on moving cars efficiently, often at the expense of pedestrian safety and bike movement. The congestion, air quality, and greenhouse gas impacts of such intense auto use are massive. To counter the problems of wider streets, building setbacks further separate uses and distance pedestrians. This combination hinders the pedestrian environment, bike safety and reduces ‘walkability,’ affecting retail activity and public transit usage. Developers in China have also built large numbers of rapidly constructed, near-identical housing projects, leaving low-quality buildings and short-sited area layouts, which increase congestion problems.

The key to changing China’s current urban development model is to reconfigure the land-use, urban design, and circulation systems of city planning in a comprehensive and interconnected manner. This can be achieved through changes to the city level master planning and regulatory planning process which provides statutory guidelines to developers on how development can occur at the macro and micro level, guiding future infrastructure investment and land development in the city. Local governments generally finance city-level master planning and regulatory detailed planning and local design institutes conduct the technical work. Therefore, the government officials and engineers, planners and designers that make up the design institutes play a critical role in integrating new “sustainability” principles into Chinese urban development.

While the term sustainability (可继续发展 - literally ‘able to continue development’) has indeed become a popular in China (roughly 90% of Chinese municipal-level cities have proposed to develop sustainable “eco-city” projects) there remains lack of clarity on how to technically integrate these principles into current planning practice, says Yang Jiang, Senior Program Specialist at the China Sustainable Transport Center. “You see many projects labeled with ‘sustainable’ as the title, but if you review the projects in greater detail, you see that definitions vary – ‘sustainable’ might only mean more trees or green buildings.” Lack of expertise in these areas across the country is one of the largest barriers to implementing sustainable approaches to urban development in China.

Universities in China can serve as one important focal point to move integrated urban sustainability principles forward. Many universities also serve as the training base for local governments, with professors providing services to real projects in the field. Several universities in China are currently working in collaboration with academics abroad to conduct research and develop a deeper understanding of how to integrate sustainability principles into the urban Chinese context. Some examples of American – Chinese partnerships include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – Tsinghua University and Portland State University – Chengdu University and both University of California, Los Angeles – Peking University and Ohio State University’s Center for Automotive Research and Hefei University of Technology, whose partnerships fall under the “EcoPartnerships”  framework of the U.S.-China Ten-Year Framework for Cooperation on Energy and Environment program.

If the up-and-coming generation of planners, architects, engineers and policymakers can turn the tide away from the old planning model to promote innovative and successful local practices, this can accelerate the move towards more efficient and truly “sustainable” cities throughout China. If this can be achieved it may serve as a model for other countries. Advocates say this is now literally a race against the clock – if land use master plans and capacity gaps are not addressed quickly enough – many new cities will be built before China can avoid the lock-in of energy inefficient buildings, poorly designed transit systems, and roadways catered to private car use. Given China’s scale and both its rapid urbanization and industrialization, collaboration toward an implementable model of sustainable cities in China is important not only for China, but for the world.

[1] “China’s urbanization rate to further boom” China Daily, May 4, 2012.


[2] “China Ends U.S.’s Reign as Largest Auto Market” Bloomberg News, January 11, 2010. 


[1] “China’s urbanization rate to further boom” China Daily, May 4, 2012.

[2] “China Ends U.S.’s Reign as Largest Auto Market” Bloomberg News, January 11, 2010.

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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