China is urbanising faster than any other country in history. It now has 120 cities with over one million people and 36 cities with over two million. By 2030 there will be one billion people living in China’s cities. Building projects have been fast-tracked on a massive scale to accommodate the change.
Now, however, China is looking at more sustainable cities. From architects to eco-cities, Australia has something to learn from China’s solutions.
In the last 20 years China’s urbanisation has become synonymous with inequity. Poor farmers left the countryside for jobs, air conditioning, private cars and supermarkets full of goods – only to end up as a new urban underclass. There is a growing awareness of the trauma China’s urban boom created.
Now a younger generation of urban dwellers are asking for better living standards. They want a better quality of life, and the sort of environmental programs they’ve seen in Sydney, Seoul, Singapore or Tokyo.
There are some promising developments attempting to rethink China’s cities. Architect Wang Shu highlights the trend. Wang profoundly disagrees with China’s rush to urbanisation, which he criticises through his projects. Instead of demolishing existing buildings, he argues for reuse. By adapting and regenerating buildings Wang saves energy and materials, and maintains the cities’ identities.
The Chinese government has caught on. There are now new benchmarks for environmental standards. Agricultural land is being protected from urban sprawl. Most intriguing are “eco-cities” projects proposed for Qingdao, Tianjin and near Chengdu and Wanzhuang.
The principal behind eco-cities is living within the means of the environment and resources. Eco-cities strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions by producing energy through renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass, and using low carbon public transport. Resources are conserved through waste management such as natural bio-filtration of storm water. There are even plans to grow food and plant new green areas within the boundaries of the city. The ambitious ultimate goal of these cities is self-sufficiency.
Eco-cities can be new cities, built from the ground up, or redesigns of existing cities like Chengdu. These are government initiatives where private developers are sold parcels of land according to a master plan. However more and more communities are being included in discussions. This grass-roots participation in the process is something very new to China.
From China to Australia
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb recently noted that “the most pressing concerns for Australian researchers were responding to a changing planet and the challenges of the Asian Century,” and stated that “we need to be in there right now seeking solutions to some of these challenges”.
This goes far beyond the conventional thinking of aesthetics and functional city form. It is about long-term sustainability of urban settlements. In this way we can increase the resilience and durability of cities against heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding. Some of the thinking around high-density precincts in China could translate to Australia and inform new approaches for increasing inner-city density and reducing urban sprawl.
Urbanisation in Asian societies involves hundreds of millions of people, many times that of Australia’s population. The scale and pace of urban growth in China is a defining feature for many countries in the 21st century, with profound implications for people everywhere. China’s ever-growing energy consumption now means that it accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse emissions.
The upside is that China now has more researchers than any other country. With this shift to a knowledge-based economy and the global centre of gravity shifting to the Asia-Pacific, this is Australia’s chance to learn from sustainability efforts in China.
Professor Steffen Lehmann is a German-born architect, urbanist and educator. He is the Chair Professor of Sustainable Design, and Director of the Research Centre for Sustainable Design and Behaviour, at the University of South Australia.