Working with China on urban challenges

China is urbanising faster than any other country in history. It has now 120 cities with over one million people, 36 cities over two million and it is predicted that China’s urban population will be one billion by 2030. China also has more researchers than any other country and partnerships with these research and technology communities are crucial to Australia’s ability to access new ideas and to build our future competitiveness.

In the last 20 years, China’s urban boom has often become synonymous with traumatic individual experiences, of poor farmers leaving the countryside for cities with better job opportunities and a higher quality of life defined by air-conditioned flats, private cars and supermarkets full of goods. But some end up existing in a new urban underclass.

There is an increasing awareness of socio-economic inequity and the need to base the economy on innovation and knowledge rather than on cheap labour and environmental exploitation. Now that the need to protect agricultural land is acknowledged, urbanisation models have started to move away from Western sprawl concepts. China is seeking advice on more environmentally sustainable ways to support the transformation of their cities, and to resolve the serious challenges caused by their too rapid urbanisation. These challenges include conflict with citizens due to governments’ top down “command and control” approach to urbanisation.

Chinese authorities are increasingly interested in altering the course of unsustainable development and setting new benchmarks by introducing better standards and environmental values in their urbanisation programs. Not every project has to be rushed (as was the case a decade ago); and a younger generation of urban dwellers are asking for higher living standards, a better quality of life and the kinds of environmental protection they have seen when visiting Sydney, Seoul, Singapore or Tokyo.

While this is promising, many new projects still feel this need to be ‘big’ and spectacularly out of scale, as highlighted by the 2012 winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, Chinese architect Wang Shu. An architect who profoundly disagrees with China’s rush to urbanisation and gigantic developments, Wang has found a way to criticise it through his own more careful work and his diverse sophisticated urban renewal projects. He asks for social innovation rather than technologically driven solutions. For example, the adaptive reuse of existing buildings (rather than their demolition) and the regeneration of city centres would not only save energy and materials but also help maintain the city’s identity.

Urbanisation in Asian societies involves hundreds of millions of people—many times that of Australia. The scale and pace of urban growth in China is a defining feature for many countries in the 21st century, with profound implications for people everywhere. If we can identify solutions for China, these will be replicable elsewhere.

Cities in the Asia-Pacific will need to be kept dynamic, inclusive, complex and vibrant, but also healthy and resilient. This ensures the well-being of their citizens and allows for democratic participation processes for their residents. Sustainable flows of the urban metabolism need to go beyond flows of data and money to include the sustainable flow of resources, materials, energy, transport, water, biodiversity, nutrients and food – cycling energy and material (waste) flows.

Governments and municipalities in Asia-Pacific will need to develop better incentives for people to take action to protect our ecosystems, which we risk destroying if we follow the consumption patterns of the last two decades. This is particularly interesting with regard to China’s growing role as consumer and Australia’s as provider of natural resources.

This goes far beyond the conventional thinking of aesthetics and functional city form; it is about the longer-term sustainability of urban settlements. Instead of becoming more unsustainable, existing cities will need to be transformed in an intelligent way, district by district, towards low carbon urban precincts. In this way, we can increase the resilience and durability of cities against environmental factors such as rising temperatures, heat stress and other extreme weather events, such as urban flooding.

For forward-looking academics, it is essential to engage in the Asia-Pacific region and think beyond low value-adding commodity exports. There are dangers from growing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions; with ever-growing energy consumption, China now accounts for over a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Innovation and expertise in sustainable processes have become more important than ever for Australia in finding avenues through which to engage with this dynamic region.

There are promising major developments which are about rethinking cities and exploring urban solutions based on walkability and public transport. Self-contained, compact eco-city projects are underway in China (such as eco-city projects in Chengdu, Wanzhuang and Qingdao), which could be promising prototypes for the future in other Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia.

With China’s transformation to a knowledge-based society, the global centre of gravity is shifting to the Asia-Pacific region. In the 21st century, Australia needs to be integrated with the region, to benefit from its opportunities. Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb recently noted that ‘the most pressing concerns for Australian researchers were responding to a changing planet and the challenges of the Asian Century,’ and stated that ‘… we need to be in there right now seeking solutions to some of these challenges’ (Chubb, 2012).

The China–Australia Centre for Sustainable Urban Development, CAC_SUD at the University of South Australia (UniSA) has been developed to find just those solutions – to the world’s environmental concerns and the challenges and opportunities of the Asian Century. The Centre’s aim is to build a world-class multidisciplinary research-intensive centre and think-tank, focusing on sustainable urban development. It explores strategies to enhance urban sustainability practices and policies in China, Australia and other cities in the Asia-Pacific region. Leading experts and practitioners in urban sustainability will engage governments, businesses and other experts to help solve challenges such as how municipalities can better incorporate urban sustainability into their strategic plans.

Professor Steffen Lehmann is Director of the China-Australia Centre for Sustainable Urban Development, CAC_SUD, a leading think-tank for research and consultancy on urbanisation in the Asia-Pacific region. For more information on the CAC_SUD, click here.

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