Growing pains

By He Liu
0 CommentsPrint E-mail Expo Weekly, July 22, 2010
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Editor's notes: Urbanization creates problems though, it's an unavoidable trend. This series of five stories try to discuss ideal modes for future development of Chinese cities and how people can create better cities in light of the problems faced by them. Following is the first of this series, an interview with Professor Wu Weijia from the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University.

The last three decades have seen the Chinese economy explode in size. As the economy has expanded, so has the rate of urbanization. The country's rapid urbanization has changed the fates and lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese people.

However, the expansion of urban areas comes at a price. For starters, let's look at commute times. The average commute time for Beijing residents is 52 minutes, followed by 48 minutes in Guangzhou and 47 minutes in Shanghai. By contrast, the average commute time for Parisians is only 24 minutes.

China now has about 900 million rural residents; about 145 million of them have left their hometowns to work in cities. The Chinese residence permit system has divided its citizens into two groups; urban residents generally enjoy better health, medical care and education than their rural counterparts. However, rural residents have access to land for farming and housing that is not available to urban dwellers.

Although urbanization has created a number of problems, it is still an unavoidable trend; urbanization comes hand-in-hand with economic and social development, and is an important part of industrialization and modernization.

As the rest of the world grows more and more concerned about a shaky global economy, urbanization is regarded in China as the savior that could pull the Chinese economy out of the fire pit.

The urbanization rate in China stands at 44.9 percent, or 45 percentage points lower than that of developed countries. China's urbanization, which will be a powerful engine for the country's continued economic development, still has much room for improvement.

In the next decade, China will go through yet another economically based transformation, much like it did 30 years ago. Economic development will shift from being investment-oriented to being consumption-oriented. Cities are major areas of consumption; accordingly, increased urbanization is key to increasing consumption. An insufficient urbanization rate has suppressed domestic consumption, leading to a lack of domestic demand as well as overproduction.

The Expo Park's Urban Best Practices Area (UBPA) is home to 80 compelling displays of how people are endeavoring to make the process of urbanization easier and less painful for rural and urban residents. What we see and experience in the UBPA today may turn out to be reality tomorrow.

Expo Weekly reporter He Liu talked to Professor Wu Weijia from the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University

Expo Weekly: The Urban Best Practices Area (UBPA) is unique to the Shanghai World Expo. What is your opinion of the UBPA?

Wu Weijia: The development of cities follows a process of substitution. For example, the suburbs of Beijing might have originally been places that provided vegetables and other agricultural products for city residents. With the outward expansion of Beijing, these suburbs began to feature more industrial production, tourism and entertainment-oriented businesses. Agricultural production has accordingly been pushed to the farthest reaches of Beijing's suburbs.

The speed of urban substitution depends on how quickly cities are developed. The cities themselves have a great ability to innovate. The population distribution and industrial structuring can continuously adjust to cities' development. This is the advantage of cities.

We say that the city is the innovation base of civilization, a place for exchanging information and an engine of scientific and technological development. Of course, there are also many problems existing in cities, such as pollution, traffic jams and overpopulation. Some of these problems can be solved with technology, others can be solved with social adjustment, but others can't be solved so easily. For example, an enlarging wealth gap is a problem that has faced cities for centuries.

Whether or not cities provide ideal modes for future development is still in discussion. Although the advantages of big cities are very obvious – such as affluence, access to important resources and conveniences – the problems I mentioned above are also obvious. Do smaller cities have fewer problems? This is an issue that has long been in discussion.

So the cases in the UBPA can provide a reference for other cities?

The previous Expos all tried to show that cities themselves can solve these problems. They exhibited new technologies, new ideas and new lifestyles. The theme of this Expo, "Better City, Better Life," is very challenging. It asks us how we can create better cities in light of the problems faced by them. The cases in the UBPA, I think, provide various ways and methods to solve these issues. They show a kind of confidence that, with our efforts, problems in our cities can finally be solved. As different cities have different conditions, the experience of one city might not apply to another, but they can at least learn something from existing cases.

Some people say that since the 1960s, a "counter-urbanization" phenomenon has emerged in some Western developed countries. This has been characterized by the drastic fall of urban populations and enterprises being transferred to smaller cities and rural areas. How do you feel about this phenomenon?

I don't think this is the correct wording for it. To be more accurate, maybe we should call it "urban regionalization," meaning that urban economic development requires more space to meet various demands. The Europeans believe the best way to deal with urbanization problems is to let cities expand slowly outward. Then there will be two regions, one that is industry-oriented and densely populated and one that is agriculture-oriented and sparsely populated. Urbanization has brought many challenges to cities, such as traffic jams, pollution and the influx of large numbers of migrants. It is not the right approach to let cities digest all those problems themselves; from the perspectives of environmental protection and socio-economic development, urban regionalization seems to be an ideal and logical option.

Is China's urbanization process different in any respects from those of other countries?

The basic rules are quite similar. Urbanization is a major trend in the world today; it is irreversible, just like industrialization. But from a global perspective, there is no universal pattern applicable to all nations. The urbanization process in Germany and France is not quite the same as Great Britain's; urbanization on the European continent is also different from that of the United States. In the case of China, I think we should take into consideration the nation's actual conditions and social environment, and explore a suitable way for ourselves.

For the coastal regions, such as the Yangtze River Delta in the east and the Pearl River Delta in the south, I suggest we bring into full play the role of commerce and trade to boost regional economic growth. In these places, regional development should thus be based on a model in which a large city acts like an engine, setting in motion the other smaller cities in the locality. In areas where agriculture is the predominant economic sector, our focus should be on expanding agricultural production. Moreover, we will stick to our traditional administrative management system rather than adopt methods used by Western countries. For instance, China's county-based administration goes back more than 5,000 years; our administrative governance has been very efficient. This fine tradition should be carried forward.

Problems will definitely occur in the urbanization process, and people will continuously look for means to deal with them. The problems may vary from one city to another, so there is no fixed urban development mode.

Can China learn anything from the urbanization process of developed countries?

One thing it can learn is the coordinated way of urban development. China is a big country and the distance between two cities is relatively far. This is not the case in Europe. In Germany, for example, because cities are in close proximity to each other, the development of a particular city definitely affects others. So the Germans came up with many good ideas, such as forming a partnership organism grouping a number of districts or cities together. This is exactly the kind of lesson the Yangtze River Delta region should learn: The relationship between Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuxi and Kunshan is no longer that of industrial competition, but of mutual dependence.

Another thing we can learn is the importance of agriculture and ecology. The relationship between the cities and countryside is this: The country provides the necessities for urban development, including grain, labor and raw materials for industrial processing. Cities and rural areas must therefore be mutually supportive. However, some people don't think this way – they just want to get rid of the countryside and live in cities. But this will actually block our movement forward.

The Europeans took a different approach, using special funds to protect farmland and the environment as well as subsidizing the agricultural sector with tax revenue from other industries. They knew pretty well what agriculture meant for the existence and development of the cities. That is why Europe paid close attention to agriculture throughout the industrialization process.

Here, people are also talking about industry supporting agriculture and spurring agricultural development, but we have yet to come up with any effective measures to move in that direction.

We should consider how to ensure long-term stability and the development of society. If there is only industry but no agriculture in an area, then the area will be in great danger. Agriculture is a basic social guarantee, like a sponge that can absorb the unstable elements of a society. Historical experience teaches us we can never ignore the importance of agriculture. London, Paris and Tokyo have all preserved farmland nearby although they are all highly developed. Agriculture can be a display of diversity in times of peace, but it is a lifeline during an emergency.

Does urbanization mean all places should become cities and the countryside should perish?

The answer is no, for sure. There should be balanced development between the cities and the countryside. That is the healthiest method of societal development and is also the right way to achieve social harmony. As cities develop, the countryside is faced with many new problems and challenges; to cope with these, we should adopt effective strategies. There can be no road to ruin for our countryside.

In China, the primary challenge is that we are used to administering an agriculture-based society. As we come across more and more urban problems, we should try to change our ways of administration accordingly. For those moving into the cities and beginning to lead an urban life, it is advisable that they change their mindset. Some officials think urbanization is complete when more modern-looking buildings are constructed. This is wrong; urbanization does not only mean building more houses, streets and factories, but means creating new lifestyles like those showcased in the Urban Best Practices Area.

China's urbanization is unprecedented in terms of the scope, scale, influence and the number of people involved. American economist Joseph E. Stiglitz said that one of the two most important things that will impact human history in the 21st century will be the urbanization process in China. The lifestyles of Chinese people, as well as the modes of social organization, are swiftly changing as a result of urbanization. Many problems can occur during this process, and that is where the difficulty lies.

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with the critical issue of "village in the city" and border areas linking cities and the countryside?

Europe faces the same problem. Urbanization not only includes the expansion of cities, but also a continual upgrading process. In Europe, this process is called "luxury upgrading." Of course, when new buildings are constructed, most of the old residents won't be unable to afford them. The government will assist writers, artists and other people in the city by providing housing for them in other places; other old residents will have to make a choice between purchasing the new homes or leaving the place. That is one method of urban administration.

The second of this series on China's urbanization process, "Urbanization with Chinese characteristics", will be online Friday.

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