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China’s Man-Made Cities: Wisdom or Folly?

The country’s plan to build new cities for the newly urbanized is problematic.

China’s Man-Made Cities: Wisdom or Folly?
Credit: Sara Hsu

China continues to wage its “war on pollution,” prosecuting thousands of environmental violators in order to curb flagrant polluting behavior. By contrast, however, its ambitious urbanization agenda continues to pose daunting barriers to environmental sustainability. Recent reports of mountain leveling in Lanzhou and Yan’an and violations of ecological restrictions in constructing eco-cities have revealed that constructing environmentally friendly cities, in an environmentally safe way, is a difficult task

It is a fact that China has a low rate of urbanization relative to its peers. At about 53 percent, China’s urbanization rate is lower than that in Malaysia, Brazil and Russia. This was caused by a predominantly industrial (as opposed to agricultural) focus coupled with strict controls on migration to urban areas, which prevented the growth of large numbers of urban slums in megacities while keeping much of the rural population away from opportunities to obtain better education, better health care, and better jobs. The Chinese leadership now recognizes it is time to allow more rural residents to become urban residents without moving all of them to existing urban areas. Hence, new cities are being built, towns are being converted to cities, and new areas are being built in existing peri-urban regions and urban clusters.

Not all of these new cities are environmentally sound. Although that is a major goal of the current reform agenda, it is easier said than done, and some programs that were already in the works before the declaration of “war on pollution” have proven to be environmentally damaging. Two cases illuminate this challenge.

First, the eyebrow raiser: mountain leveling in Lanzhou. China is right now leveling 700 mountains in Lanzhou to expand cities, and digging out artificial lakes to make the area more attractive to new residents. Mountain leveling and landscape changing has also occurred in Chongqing, Shiyan, Yichang and Yan’an. New land is created to bring in additional revenues to the local government. However, this process has a huge impact on the environment, and has led to dust storms, air and water pollution, erosion, and landslides. In Shiyan, for example, flattening mountains has led to landslides and flooding, and water diversion from rivers into canals has resulted in significant soil erosion. Environmental assessments for these projects have not been carried out, and the construction of these new living areas has already resulted in extensive air pollution due to increased air particulates, especially since local governments have not followed environmental regulations while building up these localities.

Second, the eco cities, an idea that was born in 2007. China has planned to build 200 eco-cities, with many already in the process of being constructed. Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, one hour outside of Tianjin, was opened in 2012 and is expected to be completed by 2020. Hebei’s Caofeidian was started but construction ceased, as investment flagged due to the city’s poor location and unclear development strategy. Scholars such as Yu (2014) have pointed out that China’s low-carbon cities have in practice failed to take into account social development and environmental protection: some eco-cities have even been constructed on sensitive ecological environmental areas. These eco-cities often have large residential blocks and wide roads that will, once occupied, lead to traffic congestion. The cities are expensive to build, and may fail to be properly governed by local governments mainly interested in economic development.

The problem in China’s urbanization approach may be one of encouraging natural, guided growth of cities versus artificially constructing cities. Although not eco-cities per se, the ghost towns that were built during the real estate boom of recent years demonstrate that constructing cities does not necessarily result in creating new population centers: many remain unoccupied due to a lack of available jobs for new residents. At the same time, a well-planned or renovated urban center can be geared toward environmental health in conjunction with other factors, such as social and financial health.

One of the main elements of positive urban planning is ensuring compatibility with environmental goals, including conducting environmental assessments and building cities so that they are not only low-carbon producers but low-resource users overall. Starting the planning process by not constructing on ecologically sensitive grounds is a start. Some separation between central and local government goals must be instilled; moral hazard often leads local government officials to spend funds on projects that can create economic growth either now or later, leaving environmental objectives by the wayside.

China’s ambitious urbanization plan can be positive for the nation’s economic development, but the planning process must consider environmental compatibility. To date, evidence has shown that this is a difficult task for China. To think that, even when attempting to be eco-friendly, with the construction of cities just for that purpose, local governments have ended up destroying protected places, makes one wary of just how well future endeavors will be carried out, especially when they are done rapidly.