Smart Growth with Chinese Characteristics

The scale and scope of urban change in contemporary China are essentially unprecedented, with its cities, average incomes, and middle class each growing annually by sizable percentages amidst an even more rapid transition to a market-based economy. The country reportedly has more than 100 cities of over 1 million population and a rising number in the 5 to 10 million range. Nearly all China’s population growth over the last two decades was in cities. The UN forecasts that Chinese cities will again more than double in size by 2030, leaving an urban population of nearly 1 billion. This represents a doubling of China’s share of the world’s urban population since 1980, from 1/10 to 1/5.

An extreme example of the changes in these numbers is the urban skyline above, of the special economic zone city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, which in 25 years grew from just over 300,000 to some 10 million persons. (Click on the Landsat image of the region to the right for a time lapse quicktime movie of the expansion of the built environment footprint from 1973 to 2001.)

These dramatic transformations naturally pose many challenges for Chinese planners, who in turn are eager to consider alternatives to their traditional top-down, deterministic, physical planning styles — which doesn’t fit market driven growth so well anyway. Several reports suggest that they are increasingly more open to the lessons of the West regarding the orderly planning of cities than in years past. Perhaps not surprisingly, the promises of “smart growth” have generated great interest.

You have to admit, it sounds right. On paper, especially, it looks right. There’s the growth. Then there’s the smart. They complement nicely in principle. Hence my impression when recently speaking to the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design (the major urban planning arm of the Ministry of Construction) was that they were ready to grow smart as soon as the “how” was spelled out to them in adequate detail to implement. I was there to talk about Chinese sprawl. They asked if I could, instead, talk about the U.S. experience with addressing sprawl via SG. They basically requested an overview of the SG operating manual, for which I only have the table of contents. So I improvised.

The American Planning Association’s China Program has a permanent office in Shanghai to facilitate the transfer of U.S.-style planning there, including smart growth, and has participated in many tours of Chinese planners and municipal officials to the U.S. for that purpose. In addition, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s Program on the People’s Republic of China in conjunction with the China Land Policy Program of the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth, both principally managed by Professor Chengri Ding, has a well-developed and expanding series of workshops and research activities promoting smart growth-style approaches to Chinese urbanization. These are all extremely important and underfunded initiatives.

But the prospect of bringing smart growth to China raises at least three questions. What is smart growth exactly (I know you know, but I don’t know what you know I know you know), what can we say about how it works in the U.S., and how well would those lessons fit Chinese cities? That is, what does smart growth have to offer China, and in what form? Much as Deng Xiaoping famously modified the practice of Marxist theory to accommodate “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” how should the practice of smart growth be adapted to the distinct circumstances of Chinese urbanization and culture? If so, how?

UNC’s Yan Song and I are writing a paper on this (while Rutger’s Dan Chatman and I are developing a wider assessment of SG in the U.S. context). Here’s our story thus far: The weakness of the conventional smart growth framework is its deterministic nature; its strength is the implicit reform of land use governance to be more inclusionary. Conversely, the strength of traditional Chinese planning is its deterministic nature, at least in pre-market times. Its weakness is its applicability to a nation of cities that are increasingly market driven and where regulatory reforms proceed at an uneven pace. In addition, Chinese cities are smart growth writ large: densities often run to thousands of persons/acre, nonmotorized and transit mode shares can run as high as 90%, and mixed land use is pervasive. In many key respects, then, smart growth is more Chinese than American, except regarding the land use development process.

Other key points

  • Much as with its version of socialism, smart growth with Chinese characteristics suggests accommodating private (land) markets within a system of top-down, centralized controls.
  • Planning in both settings too deterministic, which SG promotes, but this was historically less an issue in China with public ownership and central control
  • Many of the core promises of compact development have yet to be confirmed in the U.S., so it is early to be serving as a model for market behaviors in foreign cities
  • That said, China is more SG than the U.S. with respect to land use & infrastructure patterns. The question is how well this will fit the new, more motorized China.
  • The SG participatory model in the U.S. is driven by environmental laws and negotiations. In China, it will be driven by experiments with local representative government, which may indeed result in more attention to local constituencies in the planning process.


Bottom Line
The planning of Chinese cities is one of the greatest planning challenges of modern times

SG looks good on paper, but many of its best known features have limited applicability to places where the benefits of decentralization and motorization are still great – that is, where densities are perhaps too high and motorization levels too low. Moreover, it remains unproven in several critical respects. The greatest weakness of SG is its inattention to market incentives & behaviors, and these are exactly the areas in which the Chinese face their greatest need to reform planning process.

However, its governance reform content, though little heralded, has considerable potential…

In the end, SG does need Chinese characteristics, perhaps as much in the U.S. as in China. The accommodation of private land markets and market behaviors is important. The U.S. experience with participatory planning does not translate as well, and it may be some time before this translation takes place.

Friday, April 28th, 2006
randall Crane