Tag Archives: urban planning

Lessons Of Beijing’s Floods

Photo taken on July 22, 2012 shows the waterlogged Nangangwa section of the Beijing-Hong Kong-Macao expressway in Fengtai District of Beijing, capital of China. The heaviest rain in six decades in the Chinese capital has left 10 people dead, Beijing authorities said Sunday. (Xinhua/Zheng Yong)
The flooding that hit Beijing a week ago (above) was a freak. The rains that caused it were the heaviest in 60 years. Severe weather, certainly, but not beyond the bounds of what a national capital should be prepared to deal with. And certainly not with as heavy a loss of life, 77 dead. It has revealed weaknesses in urban planning, construction, infrastructure and emergency management. “We must seriously reflect on these lessons and always bear them in mind,” Guo Jinlong, Party boss in the city, says. Quite.

Urban flooding is a worsening problem in China (and elsewhere) as global warming, urbanization and industrialization pose a growing triple threat to cities’ natural defences, especially those of cities in developing economies. But beyond the human costs are the economic disruption as transportation, communications networks and electricity supplies, the arteries of modern cities, are put at risk of seizing up. Authorities’s preliminary estimate of the economic cost of the recent floods in Beijing is 2.26 billion yuan ($360 million).

Over the past 30 years, floods have been getting bigger and more frequent around the world but no region has been more affected than the Asia-Pacific and no country in the region more than China. (A list of Asia’s worst floods since 2000 is here.) More than 100 million Chinese have moved from inland areas to flood-prone coastal cities in the past quarter of a century. Yet China has only recently started to shift its emphasis from reacting to urban flooding to preventing it, and, as it happens, at about the same stage in its development as Japan started to do three decades ago. Taiwan and South Korea have also since followed suit.

Floods in cities are both more costly and difficult to manage than those in the countryside. Building adequate main sewers and storm water drains to manage urban rainwater is straightforward enough in greenfield developments. The difficulties lie with older built-up areas. There sewers and storm drains are often old and inadequate, run-offs from hard surfaces absent, ground storage for rainwater scarce and ancient streams that could carry rainwater to rivers and ponds that could help it find its way to acquirers below, filled in. An irony of the Beijing floods is that the aquifer below the city is drier than ever. Redressing these problems are huge engineering tasks that cities cannot complete overnight. But starts have to be made. Beyond that are longer-term policy issues of not allowing development in flood-prone areas, giving local districts within cities the information to make their own local anti-flooding preparations, and making cities greener so they are less encouraging to extreme weather.

From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, including flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion), almost four times as much as that spent during the previous 10 years. Yet nature has provided lakes and floodplains to do the same job. An important part of fighting floods, and one of China’s other perpetual natural disasters, drought, is the protection, restoration and reconnection of lakes, ponds, streams and floodplains so they can do what they do best: take in water when the river is high and give it back when it is low. Rivers and lakes cannot be infinitely sacrificed or bent to man’s will in the name of economic development. Urban planners have only just started to apply the lessons of that. China’s developers will have to be made to, too.

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What It Would Take To Build Greener, More Liveable Cities in China: A Lot

Apartment buildings in Foshan, Guangdong province.   (Photo: China Daily / Meng Zhongde)

This Bystander likes a hypothesis that can spread its wings and take flight. That land-use reform and reform of local government finances are key to developing sustainable, efficient, livable, and competitive cities in China would be one such proposition.

It is not so fanciful an idea. The argument runs thus:

Low-carbon cities need compact urban form and smart spatial development. But related concerns linked to the rapid expansion of cities such as congestion, local pollution, and safety also increase when public transport becomes less competitive as a result of poor spatial growth. Rural agricultural land is over-consumed. Cities expand into areas with higher risks of disasters or higher ecological values. Contingent liabilities increase from off-budget borrowing linked to land expansion. And equity concerns arise over the compensation of rural land users on the urban periphery. Reforms in land-use planning, municipal financial frameworks, and changes in spatial development can address these concerns and promote low-carbon growth.

Its proponents, Axel Baeumler, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Shomik Mehndiratta, are three of the authors of  Sustainable Low-Carbon City Development in China, a new book looking at the development of low-carbon cities in China. It is published by the World Bank and is a 500+-page miscellany of urban development projects the Bank has been involved with in China and elsewhere. We suspect it has been somewhat hurriedly assembled so that publication could happen early in China’s current five-year plan, which calls for both continued urbanization and a significant lowering of the country’s carbon intensity. Aimed at city officials, the book is a why and some starter ideas type of book. A second edition promised for a couple of years time is intended to be a more detailed how-to manual.

The first edition doesn’t break much if any new ground. Its value lies in pulling together so many disparate aspects of sustainable urban development that have to be connected for success. For example:

  • Encouraging a cleaner and greener supply of electricity;
  • Continuing the gains of industrial energy efficiency;
  • Promoting residential energy efficiency and building district heating;
  • Better land-use planning and compact city development;
  • Supporting low-carbon transport–walking, cycling, and various forms of public transport;
  • Reducing emissions from private vehicles;
  • Tempering current rates of growth in waste generation, including water and wastewater;
  • Preserving and reusing existing buildings;
  • Promoting urban agriculture and forestry;
  • Developing information and communication technologies, such as smart grids.

If coordinating all those isn’t challenge enough for city officials–and just think of how many ministries, administrations, agencies, departments and offices they cut across–there is also the perennial question of the country’s scale. China is set to add an estimated 350 million residents to its cities over the next 20 years–and that after three decades of unprecedented urbanization, modernization, and economic development. Some 13 million people move from the countryside to the city each year, putting sustained pressure on all forms of public services: energy, water, transport and waste.

At the same time, China has set itself ambitious goals to reduce the carbon and energy intensity of the economy and to transition to low-carbon growth. The current five-year plan, which runs to 2015, sets a target of creating of 45 million jobs in urban areas. It also contains, for the first time, an explicit target to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of China’s GDP. A 17% cut is the goal by the end of 2015, as a milestone on the road to a  40%–45% reduction by 2020.

China’s cities will have to lead the way if these goals are to achieved. They have a sufficiently high degree of autonomy, and, as the authors note, they are “politically, financially, and administratively organized to act quickly and to realize national policy goals”. The true secret to why China’s so-called state capitalism has delivered three decades of double digit economic growth is that its city officials’ career advancement (promotion to a more powerful level of connections) depends on delivering local economic growth. Collectively on a city basis they are given a fairly free hand by central government to create raw GDP growth regardless of the environmental and social cost (up to the point it threatens the Party’s legitimacy to rule). As a market-based incentive it is pretty red in tooth and claw. But it has worked.

If China is to achieve its twin goals of larger but greener cities, it will have to change the incentives dangled before city officials. That, in turn, means dismantling the underlying mechanism that now allows them to work so effectively–the link between land use, finance, and urban sprawl.

Local governments are overdependent on land development for revenue, and particularly on sales of collectively owned rural land to property developers. As a result many Chinese cities have more than doubled their built-up area in no more than 10 years. Changing how cities finance themselves needs to be rethought fundamentally. That means tax reform, better direct access to debt and capital markets for cities, and new ways to facilitate fiscal transfers from higher levels of government.

Bits of that, such as greater municipal bond issuance, are starting to happen. But a lot of stars will have to fall into alignment for it all to come together so the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. A lot of vested interests are challenged. They will have ample opportunity to frustrate the process. Not only will it require new sets of both administrative and market-based incentives to encourage the development of low-carbon cities, with the market-based ones becoming increasingly more important, it will also require an administrative culture that facilitates cooperation across what are now largely independent fiefdoms.

It will also require one more thing. Residents who want to live in more liveable, energy-efficient cities like, and are prepared to be active in creating them.

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Some China Cities Slowly Getting Greener

Urbanization and industrialization is a filthy business. Industry pollutes. More of it just pollutes more. As nation after nation has gone through the industrialization phase of rapid development, each has had to trade-off the benefits of growth and their environmental costs. China is no exception, but it puts great store on being green. We are directed to a new article published by McKinsey & Co., the firm of management consultants, which asks the question, how green are China’s cities. Its answer? The country’s push for sustainable urban development shows mixed results. As a whole, China’s cities don’t meet global benchmarks for sustainability, but things are getting better and there are examples of successes for the laggards to follow.

The article is based on a paper first published last year by a joint team from the firm, Tsinghua University and New York’s Columbia University. Its Urban Sustainability Index uses data from 2004-2008 and covers 112 cities in China. It groups 18 indicators in to five categories, from the provision of basic needs such as clean water to political and policy commitment to sustainability.

The commonalities among the successful cities were “an unwavering focus on industrial restructuring, designing sensible transit systems and green space, pushing improvements through standards, monitoring and pricing, and exploring ways to make industries more resource efficient.” As might be expected, the successes also “displayed a clear, long-standing commitment to achieving their sustainable ‘vision”… “engineered a large degree of cooperation among relevant departments, for instance between those responsible for environmental protection and urban planning”…and “maintained commitment to their overall goals through several changes in leadership”.

The greenest cities do well across all these measures. Some examples: Tianjin has been consolidating heavy industry away from urban centers, a taking advantage of the moves to make fewer but larger new plants more energy efficient. Shenyang has now got almost all its heavy industry out of its center and is redeveloping the brownfields left behind as residential districts. Qingdao, arguably China’s greenest city, has pushed redevelopment projects to follow mass transit routes, increasing bus ridership at the expense of more heavily polluting private vehicles. Kunming is a pioneer in giving buses priority on roads. Nanning has developed  three greenbelts along the Yongjiang river as part of the creation of urban woodlands and green areas to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. Shandong province officials publicly identified the region’s 1,000 biggest polluters and set aggressive waste reduction targets for each of them.

We don’t underestimate the difficulty of implementing green policies, especially in a country where they require considerable coordination between often competing bureaucracies and in which the yardsticks of success against which local officials are measured (and promoted) have been ones of economic growth. Improving the quality of urban life is an objective of the new five-year plan and a high policy priority for the leadership. Gains are being made. The overwhelming majority of the 18 indicators in the Urban Sustainability Index show improvement during the study period. Yet the relatively limited amount of success stories so far among 112 cities also tells its own story.

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