Alert sounded on no-go areas

Updated: 2013-06-21 09:01

By Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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Alert sounded on no-go areas

Yang Wei, co-chair of the UK-China Eco-cities and Green Building Group, says China is in danger of repeating Britain's mistakes in urbanization. Provided to China Daily

Alert sounded on no-go areas

Chinese urban planners may be making same mistakes as in postwar Britain, expert warns

The development of China's built environment is in danger of repeating mistakes Britain made during its urbanization, says Yang Wei, co-chair of the UK-China Eco-cities and Green Building Group.

The head of the government and industry-supported group says China regrettably seems to be walking in Britain's footsteps toward creating a social divide resulting from inefficient planning of housing and a mismatch between master planning models and social living considerations.

"Britain's mistakes cost it dearly," says Yang, who is also managing director of the Britain-based urban design and master planning company Wei Yang & Partners Ltd. "As China urbanized later, it is in a good position to learn from these lessons, but I fear it may miss the opportunity."

Yang says one mistake Britain made in reconstruction following World War II was to build concentrated areas of government-funded social housing, which caused division between the rich and poor.

"The mass destruction of houses during the war coincided with a population boom after the war, so the pressure on the government to house people was high, and many council-owned houses were built in the 1950s and 60s."

"The unintended consequence was a concentration of low-income, working-class people in areas where council houses clustered. Their children's aspirations became low, as there were no role models for them to look up to in the community."

These high-density areas, which started off as decent neighborhoods with lots of green space, became rundown over the years as property prices remained low. Local governments-received little tax to maintain facilities, and they eventually became identified as poor areas in urban centers.

The British government realized the problem in the 1990s when new legislation was introduced to limit the concentration of social housing.

"Now if you have a community of 5,000 houses, only about 20 or 30 percent can be social housing, and they have to be integrated into the community so only about 20 units are clustered together," Yang says. "They may cost less, but they look the same from the outside."

She says China is now in danger of creating a similar urban social division because many Chinese municipal governments have built or are building high-density apartment blocks to re-house farmers who have sold their land to make way for urban development.

"I once went to see a poor community in Beijing and I was shocked. There was a street of these compensation houses clustered together, and across the street was a cluster of mansions for very rich residents. I think such arrangements will cause problems in the long term for both parties."

Another British mistake Yang believes China could repeat is in having master planning models that do not fit with social development. "Some urban plans may look perfect on paper, but run into social problems when executed," she says.

"In the 60s, urban planners realized that green space was important for people, but at the same time car ownership was rising, so they decided to build cul-de-sacs which contained large amounts of green space inaccessible to cars."

Despite the good intensions, the lack of traffic turned these no-through roads and isolated, "dead-end" recreation sites into unsafe areas for pedestrians, and they were little used.

"The lesson learnt was that green spaces are not judged by their size, but how much people make use of them."

This is something China's urban planners have yet to understand, she says. "China is growing very fast with lots of new roads being built. But Chinese planners need to realize that accessibility does not depend on the width of the roads, but how much access they provide."

The construction of wide roads in Chinese urban centers such as Beijing has not alleviated congestion problems, which are caused mainly by a lack of medium and small-sized roads to divert traffic efficiently across the city, she says.

"This is due to a lack of coherent planning in Beijing. While the big roads are mostly government funded, smaller roads are mostly funded by developers, and sometimes developers did not build the roads they originally planned."

Yang says another example of this mismatch between planning and social needs is the construction of large-scale central business districts, which causes congestion during peak hours in the commuter rush to and from the districts.

She says that a more effective development model for Chinese cities would be to designate several centers within a big city so that residents can live around them and commute to work more easily, with each center being connected using high-speed public transport.

She says this model would also reduce pressure on land use in city centers, so more open space can be devoted to small-scale public parks between business and residential areas.

"I believe the Chinese culture is one close to nature, and it would be great if residents can enjoy public green space on their way to work, even if it's a small one," Yang says. "Being close to the natural environment can significantly improve Chinese urban citizens' quality of life."

She says this concept is akin to the idea of garden city, first developed by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1898, in which self-contained communities live harmoniously with their physical environment.

In recent years, Yang and her colleagues at Wei Yang & Partners have brought this concept to China's Hubei and Hunan provinces, helping local governments in planning new cities and towns. "For us, the key consideration in these projects is to create a coherent plan that accommodates local residents' needs through a holistic approach," she says.

"For example, in one local government an education department official told us there was not enough primary schools in the area, so we worked with them to incorporate a new school in the master planning process," she says.

"We also have considered the availability of public facilities in each new area, so residents can access school, healthcare and other facilities within a walking distance of 400 meters. This brings convenience to residents and reduces their carbon footprint."

As co-chair of the UK-China Eco-cities and Green Building Group, established in 2010, Yang helps many British companies involved in planning, architecture, engineering, urban environment and related fields to do business in China.

She says one advantage British companies have over Chinese ones is their attention to detail, due to stricter planning regulations in Britain.

"When we carry out research, every single tree, or every single nest in a tree, is important, so we do our best to integrate our plans into the natural environment, and this attitude is required in Britain when we carry out environmental impact assessments for every project," she says.

"But China is urbanizing very fast and the country has a shortage of urban planners, so sometimes details are overlooked."

British master planners, architects and engineers also have a more pro-active attitude toward using environmentally friendly technology and materials, she says.

"Britain has a single building standard, which encourages green building, so practitioners think about how to be green by habit. However, China has separate building codes for normal building and green building, so developers who follow the normal building codes are not in the habit of thinking green."

(China Daily 06/21/2013 page19)