Gathering Storm in the East....China's Urban Future

Dense cities in China (Peter Morgan/Flickr)

By Lisa Fleming

ASNC's Sustainability Program Manager, Daniel Tien Simon, delves into the issue of China's rapid urban development as we at ASNC prepare for "Building China's Urban Future", on Wednesday, March 21st  at the Bechtel Conference Room, where a panel of experts will discuss the drastic transformations of China's urban landscape and the implications for the future. 

LF: Can you paint a picture of the current situation of China’s urban development? 

DTS: This issue has really exploded in the past few months with two major landmarks: first the world’s population hit 7 billion people, and second, the urban population of China, the world’s most populous country, has reached 50%. That is impressive. The scale and pace at which China’s urbanization is happening is unprecedented and almost unfathomable to those of us in the West.

To give you a sense, a few years ago I worked on a project in the Chinese city of Shantou, which you may not have heard of because, well, it’s a pretty small city for China… it only has 5 million people! While I was working on this project I came across a map that compared the U.S. and China. It shows cities that have a population over 1 million. In the U.S. there are only 9 cities while in China there are nearly 100. The map demonstrates a stunning disparity.
As rural-to-urban migration continues to grow, the issue really becomes how to manage this growth and to ensure that citizens are able to experience a reasonable quality of life.

More specifically, that they have access to adequate housing, viable transportation, and the natural resources, such as water, necessary to live and thrive. In light of limited space and limited resources, as China’s urban population continues to grow, a major challenge will be finding ways to maintain this quality of life in the years to come and to make it last in the long term. For example, replacing current automobile technology with electric vehicles will certainly reduce carbon emissions and is a step in the right direction with regards to environmental sustainability, but this won’t mitigate the dire transport issues, such as traffic, that arise from increasing population. In other words a smaller carbon footprint doesn’t mean an end to traffic jams! We need to go even further and examine entire systems and learn how to encourage behavioral change.

LF: How are things poised to change in the near future and in what ways will these changes affect the American people? 

DTS: There are two major ways that this will affect Americans. Firstly, today the share of power in this world has been shifting and now China is emerging as a major superpower, thus anything that happens within China now affects the entire world in terms of trade and business, the economy, and policy.  
Secondly China’s urbanization is happening at such a rapid pace that it is spurring exciting new innovations and allowing for experimentation within urban development. Since China is an authoritarian government, it is often able to push through a multitude of different programs without political bureaucracy. I’m not condoning this system, but it does allow for an incomparable speed of development. We can really gain a lot of insight and knowledge from their experiences. We can learn from their mistakes and successes as our cities push forward and can use those examples to enhance what is happening here domestically.

LF: Urban development in China is a really expansive topic. In your opinion what is the most immediate pressing issue, under this umbrella topic? 

DTS: Well, their currently limited access to clean fresh water sources could be China’s Achilles heel. As they are keen on rapid development and while the urban population is exploding, pollution of their water sources is becoming a major issue and without access to water this rapid development can't be sustained much longer. Clean, fresh water is essential for not only maintaining the basic health of China’s people, ensuring access to food, but also water is central to development and to manufacturing – China’s main industry. Any business that produces metal, wood/paper, chemical, or plastic products uses water. Basically almost every manufactured product uses water for some part of the production process.

LF: How did you personally get interested in urban development? 

DTS: Right after I graduated college I lived in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. My mom is from Vietnam, and what started as a family experience eventually became a much longer journey. After living there for two years, I left with a close emotional attachment and a strong desire to be a part of its future. At that time, the country was still being heralded as an up-and-coming “Asian Tiger,” and I believed in its promise.

Fast forward four years later, I was brought back to Vietnam for work and the visual fabric of the city had changed so drastically it was almost unrecognizable to me. I could see that a far greater number of cars and motorbikes clogged the streets. And modern office buildings were quickly replacing the colonial-era French villas. For me, the drastic changes and the rate at which they were occurring was alarming and I felt that this rapid urbanization and the problems that it created might would be something I would want to explore.

LF: Asia Society has recently partnered with the Urban Land Institute, USC, UCLA, among other organizations to create the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative. Can you tell me a bit more about that initiative?

DTS: PCSI is a joint collaboration among these various organizations and universities that aims to address urban sustainability challenges by bringing together business leaders, policy-makers, and academics from across the Pacific to share common challenges, attempted solutions, and areas for assistance.

Given the issues we’ve been talking about here, there is clearly a need to address them but the private businesses, public research institutes, and policy makers who are coming up with innovative solutions do not necessarily have the channels to communicate with each other. Too often they don’t have these channels, and after hearing this from many different people working on sustainability issues, we decided that something like PCSI could help fill this need.

Alongside increasing cross-sector collaboration, we also want to bring together delegations from different cities across North America and Asia to meet and offer case studies to help each other understand their urgent challenges and the solutions that are being proposed and implemented to find common areas for collaboration and help each other move forward.

Reminder: SAVE THE DATE “Building China’s Urban Future” will be on Wednesday March 21st from 6-8:30pm in the Bechtel Conference room at 500 Washington St., San Francisco, CA. This event is hosted by Asia Society Northern California, National Association of American Professionals, and Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative.