Costs of suburban sprawl

Updated: 2012-11-09 10:01

By He Qisong (China Daily)

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Without checks and balances, urbanization will have negative impact on sustainable development

Though rapid urban construction in China has given the economy a much-needed impetus, it has also led to erosion of several economic and social benefits that have significant bearing on the sustainable development of cities.

Urban planning problems broadly fall into two categories. The mass land purchases in suburban areas has led to waste of resources and migration of farmers.

The policy push for urbanization, a boon for the real estate sector as economic development zones sprout up all over China, has triggered speculation, resulting in high land and housing prices. Project feasibility studies or planning documents rarely dwell on these factors before or after mass purchases.

Generally, after such land purchases, landless farmers often turn to secondary and tertiary industries for employment, becoming a part of urbanization.

According to regulations, rural land cannot directly put on the primary real estate market, and it can only be acquired by the state at a relatively low price. Fee retention at administrative levels sometimes makes the compensation too low for farmers to proceed with productive investments, let alone using it for long-term social security or health care services. All these will have negative impact on urbanization.

In some cases of blind pursuit of urban transformation, some ancient buildings and historical structures have vanished. On these sites now stand high-density, high-volume commercial housing and roads.

The cultural context of these original buildings, roads and historical sites has been lost forever. Take the ancient city of Suzhou for example. To build a main road across the downtown, some ancient streets, alleys, stone bridges and buildings disappeared.

At the same time, in some cases, there is no reasonable planning, with many typical buildings often surrounded by groups of "matchbox" dwellings with no cultural roots. Such construction has led to loss of skylines and landscape for some cities.

Despite the trend for regional integration, some cities often work separately. To compete with each other, they ignore the need to integrate their own city planning into the big context of economic globalization and regional integration.

As a result, they have the same industrial structure. But without the regional support, a single city often lacks the development stamina, something that is not conducive to the overall development of a region and an impediment to overall strength.

There is also the issue of image building that these projects seek to achieve. To demonstrate their achievements, some cities, even smaller ones, have built large pieces of lawns and high-rise buildings. Some of them even have several plazas.

With China suffering from a serious water shortage, it would have been ideal to use lawn-watering funds for some other projects. Some cities also bought expensive, big and ancient trees from faraway forests to improve their urban green coverage ratio.

Though the move did temporarily transform the city into a lush garden, many of these trees soon died as they were incapable of adapting to the local environment, thereby causing a great deal of waste.

City planning in these cities often sport the same look, with a central business district, squares, pedestrian pathways, ring roads, university cities and development zones. Medium-sized cities copy from big cities, while small cities copy from medium-sized ones.

Cities like products made from the same pipeline, and their uniqueness is almost non-existent.

The root of the above problems can be found in the urban planning system, which includes three aspects: preparation and approval; implementation and management; supervision and inspection. I think at present, there are four major areas that need improvement:

The administrative judgment from officials often veers toward urban planning as they seek value achievements during their administration period. The number of projects they have built is what they are concerned about.

Coupled with a vague understanding of the importance of urban planning, they believe that as long as economic development keeps up, city planning is not a big issue.

Lack of sufficient planning management and supervision has made city planning work look like plasticine.

Urban planning decisions are often made in a closed system. The planning process from preparation, revision to approval is sometimes a synchronized operation of the administrative departments. Its existence is often limited to a small circle of officials, experts and relevant staff.

The power of authority is often greater than the intellectual authority in planning decisions. Interaction between officials and experts during the decision-making process is sometimes not sufficient.

Public participation in urban planning is sometimes non-existent.

The author is a lecturer at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of China Daily.

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page7)