The Chinese urban dream is not yet for everyone
15 MARCH, 2018
Most likely “the cities of tomorrow” will look quite different from the ones we live in today. New technologies have the power to change the way we live and work in profound ways. For example, the introduction of autonomous cars and the further development of ride-sharing services are likely to lead to dramatic drops in car ownership as we know it today. Much of the infrastructure we are surrounded by is purpose-built for a car-centred society (spacious garages, wide highways), and may become redundant when we enter what has the promise of being a more human-centred, and therefore sustainable, era.
China’s environmental challenges are enormous, but at the same time the country has a unique opportunity to leap-frog western countries when it comes to implementing urban infrastructure solutions that will make its cities the leaders of the 21st Century. In the past few years, we have actually already seen a noticeable improvement in air quality in cities like Beijing. This has been achieved mostly through “old school” methods like moving industry away from the city, and implementing (some) restrictions on car traffic. The type of fundamental technology shift promised by a “smart car revolution” could quite possibly make China’s great cities as clean as their peers anywhere else in the world.
There is also the question of how a country and its cities grow in a sustainable fashion. Is it possible for a “green” city to expand indefinitely? The Chinese government appears to have concerns that this is not the case, as it is developing plans to turn its biggest cities into clusters of many “mini cities”, instead of letting them continue to grow organically. The challenges for mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai (but also Guangzhou and Chongqing) in areas like energy generation, logistics, waste management and public transportation, as well as in the provision of basic social safety and health care, are beyond imagination. Just take the single question of power supply; for now it is impossible to see a full transition to renewable energy anytime in the foreseeable future. For the time being, even a “sustainable” city will still be powered to some extent in an unsustainable fashion.
So will these future dream cities be available to everyone? Here we may paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, who famously stated that China had to “let some people get rich first”. In the same vein, the world will probably have to let some people get access to a more environmentally friendly environment first, which would further increase the gap between the rich and the poor.
It is still possible, judging from the direction in which the country is headed, that some of these lucky inhabitants of sustainable metropolises will live in China. At the same time, let us not forget that China is a big country with many backward regions, and it will take time before we see autonomous vehicles on a daily basis in the backroads of Anhui province, or are we perhaps underestimating the appetite for change in rural China?
Last year, the Chinese government demonstrated in very practical terms how far they are willing to go to manage the future population of Beijing. Using a tragic fire as the pretext, they closed down a large number of “illicit” markets and smaller shops, none of them more “unsustainable” than other establishments in their respective neighbourhoods. As a result, thousands of non-hukou residents (i.e. people without social registration in Beijing) were effectively forced out of the city. These people were apparently not considered welcome any more. Cases like these make it abundantly clear that the Chinese (urban) dream is not for everyone, at least not yet.
A sustainable city is not only about the physical environment and infrastructure, but very much also about the people. You can introduce electrical buses and taxis, an improved waste management system, and super-efficient public services, but at the end of the day you need people to be able to live and thrive in the city. The single biggest challenge for the Chinese government will therefore be to achieve a balanced growth model that combines affordable housing and social services (including schools and hospitals) with an overhaul into a more sustainable society.
China is among the countries that are leading the transition from cities congested by cars using fossil fuels, into cities only allowing electric vehicles, as well as a more efficient public transportation system. China has an obvious advantage in terms of implementation, i.e. when a decision is made the implementation will usually follow regardless of public opinion. But China also faces challenges associated with fulfilling promises made about a prosperous future and a higher quality of life. China’s young generation does not want a quiet life in a relatively backward countryside; they are looking for inspiring work in vibrant, modern cities. Change cannot come soon enough for them.
Perhaps the true challenge lies more within managing people’s expectations, rather than in realising the physical environment as such.