Quality towers over quantity in building cities

Updated: 2012-06-22 16:53

By Harry den Hartog (China Daily)

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Quality towers over quantity in building cities 

Zhang Chengliang / China Daily

China Should Learn From Europe and Lead the Way in Urban Planning

The major problems caused by China's rapid and massive urbanization cannot be going unnoticed.

Emerging "urban headaches", such as questionable building quality, lack of resources, environmental problems and social inequalities, are all too obvious. How can China manage these problems and benefit from European experiences with urban planning and design?

On May 3, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and China's Vice-Premier Li Keqiang signed a Joint Declaration on the EU-China Partnership on Urbanization to stimulate the exchange of knowledge and business opportunities.

Europe's level of urbanization is pretty high, but compared with the Chinese standard it seems rather tame. Nevertheless, Europe's recent urban history is much broader, and there are many common problems to tackle - on efficient land use, for example.

One of the major spatial problems in contemporary Europe is uncontrolled urban growth, or urban sprawl; large areas built up on a very low-density basis, which are neither rural nor urban. In that sense, the extreme compactness of high-rises in Chinese cities seems pretty efficient. However, agricultural land is under threat from cities growing without limits, both in Europe and China.

For centuries the famous painting Qingming Shanghetu (City Life), which was made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), represented urban life in China. Today, the reality is countless high-rises and massive infrastructures. China's urbanization has accelerated, especially over the past decade, since it was declared the engine to stimulate economic growth. "The more people are transformed into new middle-class citizens, the more consumption, the more profit," according to the Ministry of Construction.

Urbanization is also the central theme of China's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15). During the past 15 years, more than 100 million Chinese people migrated from rural to urban areas, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and over the next 20 years, another 350 million people will be on the move.

But a city is more than just a tool to stimulate the GDP. It is obvious that urbanization and modernization have a huge impact on daily life in society and on the natural environment.

In Europe, the process of urbanization started to accelerate after the Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) and reached its peak in the post-war period last century. Urban design became an important profession and new specialists began to research and plan for city development, initially with a top-down approach but later with increasing public participation. It became clear in Europe that a city was a complex system that needs efficient long-term thinking, care, and continuous maintenance.

Therefore, there are plenty of precedents to which Chinese planners can refer, and they provide opportunities for them to work with European experts, in such fields as urban design, energy, water management, environmental care, and provision of healthcare and education. It is, for example, especially important to create better opportunities for migrant workers to help bridge the gap between urban and rural living standards.

It is certainly useful to exchange ideas on administrative reform and urban governance. In a country like the Netherlands, there is a tradition of strong social housing policies. During the past few decades, there has also been a rise in public participation in urban planning and governance. The Netherlands is seen worldwide as exemplary in the field of architecture, urban design and social housing.

For China, there is much to learn regarding care of detail, long-term planning, building on a more human scale, urban-rural links, and about an integrated multidisciplinary approach.

China's housing system definitely would benefit from serious market research to realize targeted housing supply systems. More variation in housing styles is essential, with specific types for specific groups; for Shanghai's ageing population, for example. There is a need to shift from housing as a mass product to a more tailor-made solution. In Europe, there is a wealth of experience in designing for specific groups, and in adaptable housing. People need variety and more options to choose from.

There is also much to learn from Europe in the field of re-use and the renewal of old structures. There is already an awakening in China to the value of cultural heritage, for identity or for tourism.

China needs to go beyond the copying of architectural styles and learn from European technologies, ideas and management systems. It is shocking to see that many buildings in China are already in decay after a few years or even less because of lack of maintenance, the wrong choice of building material, little attention to detail and uncoordinated building processes.

There is an urgent need to shift from quantity to quality. Buildings and cities are more than speculative objects. They are living organs.

It is important to design buildings in relation to their physical and non-physical context. This integrated approach is largely lacking in contemporary China, where individual buildings often seem to bear no relation to their surroundings.

Buildings produce almost half of all CO2 emissions. China could do more to integrate advanced technologies regarding insulation, energy conservation, and also apply modern building standards. By improving existing methods and techniques, it should take the lead in building properly sustainable buildings and durable cities. There must be a way, both to limit the consumption of resources and to raise efficiency, to improve the quality of life for all. Green building technologies and accompanying evaluation systems, such as the "passive house standard", could be implemented, not just for a single housing unit, but for whole cities.

To overcome the effects of climate change, one could combine advanced technologies for integrating recycling and renewable energy systems with those of centuries-old rural traditions, such as converting organic waste into biogas. Scarcity forces us to find new and cleaner energy sources. It is even conceivable that one could create oil-free cities, with cars running on new fuels. That would create a real revolution in urban planning across the world.

A major area of concern is food safety. For the past several decades, many people in Europe have been searching for safer products, such as crops grown on trusted farms, and meat without synthetic hormones or other artificial additives, while developing an advanced food quality-control system. Nowadays, urban agriculture has become an important trend, to re-establish the connection between urban and rural life.

The management of water and air quality is related to this, especially the care of potable water, and supply, cleaning, irrigation and flood- protection systems.

In Europe, where the urbanization was more gradual, the process resulted in serious problems that are difficult to overcome. With China's tenfold speed and scale of urbanization, the accompanying effects will have a global impact.

So, together we should search for new ways. Many experts in Europe are willing to share their knowledge and experience.

China, with its economic power and vigor, is in an ideal position to tackle climate change and realize a low-carbon development. Nowhere on earth has a real eco-city been created. If China can do so, it will set a milestone.

To quote The Guardian's Jonathan Watts: "In the 19th century, Britain and Europe taught the world how to produce. In the 20th, the US taught us how to consume. If China is to lead the world into the 21st century, it must teach us how to sustain."

The author is an independent urban designer and critic, originally from the Netherlands and now living in China. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 06/22/2012 page10)