Slick cities

Updated: 2013-06-14 09:33

By Cecily Liu in London, Tuo Yannan in Brussels and Yang Yang in Beijing (China Daily)

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Slick cities

Yang Wei, managing director of Wei Yang & Partners Ltd, says one of the challenges for China's rural-urban migration is urban planning. Cecily Liu / China Daily

China is looking to Europe for lessons on urbanization

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China's unprecedented rate of urbanization is opening up a wealth of commercial opportunities for European businesses and institutions that possess technology and expertise developed in the continent's own urbanization process.

Ranging from skills needed to develop China's fast-expanding built environment to social needs such as education and training, European businesses and institutions across the board are set to benefit.

"The Chinese government has realized that European expertise on urbanization is helpful for China and so has opened its doors to welcome European partners," says Mao Qizhi, professor of urban planning and design and associate dean of Tsinghua University's School of Architecture.

Slick cities

"Opportunities are immense, including consumer markets, financial markets, energy markets, and education and training. China is opening up all these markets to encourage European companies to find opportunities."

Mao says one important sector is urban planning, because China is in the process of building many new cities and towns as millions of Chinese move from rural areas to bustling urban centers.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the country's urban population outnumbered rural residents for the first time in 2011, reaching 51.3 percent of the total.

Considering that China's urban population was only 18 percent in 1978 when the country first started to shift from a planned to a market economy, the urbanization rate is particularly rapid and effectively compacts a century-long experience of many European countries into just over 30 years.

"Effective urban planning and financial planning have been fundamental in ensuring the healthy growth of European cities. Europe has also championed many urban planning models, such as the concept of garden cities in England. These are important lessons China need to learn," Mao says.

Another opportunity exists in environmental protection methods and technologies, says Li Xun, secretary-general of the China Society for Urban Studies.

In recent years, China has suffered heavy pollution from the development of industries in and around cities.

The issue of pollution in urban centers was highlighted by the unprecedentedly heavy smog this January, with the level of PM2.5 (a harmful matter) in Beijing being about 36 times in excess of the World Health Organization's recommended standard at its peak, according to the local government's air-quality monitor.

"Europe also experienced heavy pollution in its industrialization and urbanization process, but over time Europe developed good awareness and technology to reduce the environmental impact of development, which is something China should learn from," Li says.

"For example, European countries like Norway, Germany and Iceland have now achieved a model where growth is taking place alongside a reduction in energy consumption."

An example of a learning opportunity is the creation of policies to encourage a low-carbon economy, which the UK champions. Another is passive building, a design method originated in Germany that uses techniques like natural ventilation and natural lighting to reduce energy consumption, Li says.

The development of professional services in urban centers including finance, insurance and real estate also offer great scope, says Peter Daniels, professor of geography at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

"Because Chinese cities are so large, their expansion generates considerable demand for professional services to enhance productivity, innovation and trading.

"The development of professional services has also been integral for the growth of European cities like London, Frankfurt and Paris. Because professional service industries in big Chinese cities are currently less developed than their European counterparts, they have great potential for growth," Daniels says.

History revisited

China's development from a land of villages and rural communities to a largely urban country started mainly in the 1980s, in tandem with the country's rapid industrialization.

Farmers moved to cities in search of a better life, higher wages and more employment opportunities, and this process in turn created growth in surplus cheap labor in cities, which fueled China's manufacturing-led growth.

"For China, urbanization and economic development are like walking on two legs at the same speed," says Sun Laixiang, professor of Chinese business and management at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the UK.

"For China or any other country, urbanization is an inevitable process of development, as an economy's population moves from agriculture to industrial or service sectors, where productivity is higher."

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