Can China’s Largest Cities Look Like This in 5 Years?

China’s urban policy unit met for the first time in nearly four decades.

Apartment buildings crowd the skyline in Chongqing, China. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

After decades of rapid urbanization, China is taking a step back and thinking more critically about the future of its booming cities. The country’s urban policy unit recently met for the first time in 38 years to craft a set of guidelines for future development.

According to City Metric, since the Central Urban Work Conference last met in 1978, China’s urban population has jumped from under 20 percent to 57 percent. That boom’s largely due to cities building hundreds of new sub-cities and towns, leading to sprawling urban areas that are difficult to navigate without a car. These cities were often thrown up fast and with little attention to sustainability; the average life span of a building in China is only 25 to 30 years. (By comparison, the average lifespan of a U.S. building is 74 years, and in the U.K. it’s 132 years.)

“The breakneck speed of urbanization during this era often outpaced quality planning,” say the authors of the City Metric article, “and China gradually became a land of single-use, car-dependent, Soviet-style superblocks.”

The new guidelines (posted in full in Chinese here; a summary in English is available here) released Feb. 21 are aimed at refocusing China’s urban areas from building as fast as possible to revitalizing existing spaces into sustainable, dynamic communities.

Key recommendations in the guidelines include:

1. Denser street networks and narrow roads
2. Historical preservation
3. Expanded public transportation networks
4. Increased public and green space
5. More energy-efficient and high-quality construction
6. Enforcing urban growth boundaries and reducing sprawl

The focus on sustainable development is in line with the country’s recently released five-year economic plan. The Diplomat reports that China aims to double its 2010 GDP and per capita income levels by 2020, primarily through new innovation and technological advances. Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report released Saturday outlined a number of policies, including tax incentives for high-tech firms and encouraging alternative methods for funding startups, including crowdsourcing, angel investors and venture capital, aimed at driving innovation.

The country’s 13th five-year plan, which covers the period from 2016-2020, also puts a focus on green development — particularly in the country’s largest cities. Li said he wants the country’s major cities to have “good or excellent” air quality for 80 percent of the year. And a few of the $800 billion renminbi ($122.7 billion U.S.) worth of major projects Li mentioned include projects that could reduce carbon emissions, such as hydropower, smart grids and urban rail transit.

However, The Diplomat argues that the environment still is by no means China’s top priority: “While China is saying all the right things about its environment — promising to cut emissions from coal use, increase the use of renewable energy, and punish polluters — the environment is not given as much emphasis as other areas of focus.”

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Kelsey E. Thomas is a writer and editor based in the most upper-left corner of the country. She writes about urban policy, equitable development and the outdoors (but also about nearly everything else) with a focus on solutions-oriented journalism. She is a former associate editor and current contributing editor at Next City.

Follow Kelsey

Tags: urban planningsustainable citieschina

Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1107 other sustainers such as:

  • Bruce in Muncie, IN at $60/Year
  • John in Dayton, OH at $120/Year
  • Andrea at $100/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉