Building sustainable cities

Updated: 2012-09-27 15:58

By Wei Shen (China Daily)

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Better balanced urbanization is serving as a new platform for practical cooperation between China and the EU

More than half of the world's population now live in cities and more than two-thirds will do so by 2030. The massive rural-urban migration has created one metropolis after another, which has had an enormous impact on the global economy and sustainability.

China's rapid urbanization, with a predicted "urban billion" by 2030, is at the heart of the global debate on urbanization. The European Union and China launched their partnership on sustainable urbanization during the China-EU summit in February to explore different ways in which they can join forces to meet one of 21st century's major challenges.

The first EU-China Mayors' Forum, the flagship event of their urbanization partnership, was held in Brussels on Sept 19-20 and concluded with the signing of a charter signaling the next phase of their joint efforts to promote sustainable cities.

The EU-China Sustainable Urbanization Partnership is designed to bring together stakeholders and initiatives from the political arena as well as business and civil society. While European nations and institutions have not directly experienced the scale and speed of the urban transformation that is taking place in China, they have a lot to offer in terms of expertise in urban development.

Over the past three decades, since economic reforms were launched at the end of 1978, China has witnessed unprecedented urbanization as millions of Chinese citizens have moved from the countryside to cities. Just as in other industrialized and developing countries, urbanization in China is an integral part of its rapid economic growth and industrialization.

At the beginning of 2012, for the first time in China's history, urban residents outnumbered those in the countryside. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in January 2012, the number of urban dwellers was 690.8 million, nearly 51.3 percent of China's total population. And although China is still less urbanized than most developed nations, it already has the world's largest urban population.

Rapid urbanization has been a major driver in boosting China's economic growth and reform. It has been a key element in the last two five-year plans, with the general strategy being to expedite the process while also promoting a more coordinated and balanced approach to narrow the rural-urban divide and reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.

During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), the majority of urbanization targets were achieved, with a higher concentration of the population in China's prefecture-level cities generating more than two-thirds of the country's total GDP in 2009. The overall competitiveness and urban economic strengths were improved through the coordinated development of large metropolitan regions through the clustering of cities. Urbanization is also a main feature of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) with an emphasis on higher quality and inclusive growth.

However, urbanization is also one of the key development challenges facing China. The growing rural-urban migration and physical expansion of cities and metropolitan regions in China have put significant pressure on the consumption of energy, environment, healthcare, public resources and services. Many Chinese cities are now battling with congestion and pollution, while rising real estate prices and a lack of access to affordable social housing have become a source of instability in urban areas.

But the most serious challenge is dealing with the environmental impacts of urbanization. It is worth pointing out that although most of the targets outlined in the 11th Five-Year Plan were met by the end of 2010, the ambitious plan to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent was not achieved, the final reduction being 19.1 percent.

The challenges of China's unprecedented urbanization will not only affect its future growth but also have important implications for other nations. The European Union and its 27 member states have faced or continue to face similar urban management challenges.

The size and pace of China's urban development provide ample opportunities for cooperation and business between China and Europe.

To reach the urbanization targets of the 12th Five-Year Plan, EU-China cooperation will be needed in areas such as water treatment, sewage systems, waste management, green architecture, landscape gardening, gas purification and energy efficiency technology.

The urbanization process in China has gradually shifted from the central government playing a solo role as the top-down driver of urbanization, to a multi-stakeholder process. And during the 11th Five-Year Plan, European companies demonstrated their comparative advantages in a number of industries and services related to urbanization, such as transportation and mobility projects, water treatment and air purification.

The urbanization partnership offers an excellent opportunity for China to learn about European experiences on how to raise the efficiency of urbanization while decreasing the consumption of resources and raising the quality of services.

However, the exchange should be a two-way process. The successful partnership should be based on a sharing of knowledge and technology as well as strong human relations and interactions, people-to-people exchanges and dialogue among scientists, urban planners, government officials and others.

China and Europe can and should share technologies, know-how, managerial and operational expertise on urban planning and management, best practices on urban transportation, and innovative tools for energy efficiency, as well as facilitating commercial exchange on waste management, e-governance and the like. There is also an opportunity to exchange experiences of green architecture and maintenance to maximize the benefits of existing eco-cities. All of these areas have great potential for joint R&D funded by Chinese and European sources.

Last not least, the EU-China partnership will be a valuable tool to aid China in the necessary cultural shift and in acquiring a better understanding of the essence of European green culture. Greening cities not only requires advanced technologies, but also needs cultural understanding and a holistic approach to urban planning.

The author is associate dean for China and professor of International Relations, ESSCA School of Management, Angers, France.