Can Smarter Growth Guide China’s Urban Building Boom?

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david biello
Can Smarter Growth Guide China’s Urban Building Boom?
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The world has never seen anything like China’s dizzying urbanization boom, which has taken a heavy environmental toll. But efforts are now underway to start using principles of green design and smart growth to guide the nation’s future development.

Coal money, generated by one of the world’s largest open-pit mines, has built a new Ordos, a municipality in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. A modern city is rising there from the steppes, featuring monumental government buildings, an imposing museum, and row after row of apartment buildings and subdivisions, all designed to accommodate more than a million new residents. Spacious roads wait for cars to zoom between residential and commercial areas or feed into the highway that leads to the existing — and inhabited — old city, some 15 miles away. But cars and people remain sparse.

Ordos is emblematic of China’s urbanization boom, a construction frenzy unlike anything seen in the history of the planet. Today, half of the nation’s 1.35 billion people live in cities. From the outskirts of Shenyang in the cold northeast to the mountainous precincts of Kunming in the subtropical southwest, buildings are rising to accommodate the people now crowding into the 170 cities in China that host more than a million residents. Across the country, construction firms have built some 2 billion square meters of new apartments, offices, and skyscrapers annually in recent years. The national bird of China has become the construction crane.

The environmental impact of this construction boom is enormous. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing all the steel, concrete,

One big problem is local governments derive much of their revenue from selling land.

and other building materials are staggering; one ton of the cement that is the substrate of this new urban infrastructure equals at least one ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, another reason China is now the world’s leading CO2-emitting nation. In addition, shoddy construction means that many buildings will have to be torn down and rebuilt within a decade or two, and that new homes and offices often are not energy efficient.

To tackle the problem, a growing number of experts in China, as well as foreign conservation groups working in the country, are attempting to incorporate elements of smart growth, energy efficiency, and green design in China’s construction industry. Basic reforms, such as better building codes and mandated efficiency standards, could make a significant difference, experts contend.

“The issue is not really about restraining the growth of cities, but ensuring that the growth is smart [and] well-planned,” says Deborah Seligsohn, principal advisor in the World Resources Institute’s China Climate and Energy Program.

A major impediment is a simple fact of economic life in China: Local governments, which do not have the power to levy property taxes, derive a large portion of their revenues from development fees and selling land.
 

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesApartment buildings under construction in Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia.

“The single best way for Chinese cities to make money during this unique 40-year urbanization cycle is to sell land to developers,” explains Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE), a nonprofit aiming to accelerate environmental improvement in China. “Infrastructure uses enormous amounts of cement, steel, aluminum — all of the heavy industry that causes emissions and is thirsty for energy. China imports a lot of building materials as well, which requires even more energy to package and transport. This doesn’t bode well for the next two decades.”

The environmental impact of rapid urbanization and poor construction is hardly limited to China. The number of people living in cities worldwide has risen from roughly 260 million in 1900 to 3.5 billion today. By mid-century, two-thirds of humanity will be living in urban areas.

“In the next 40 years, we need to build the same urban capacity that we built in the last 4,000 years or people will live in slums,” says Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, Secretary General of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a city governments group. “We need to increase [population] density and make more efficient use of existing infrastructure. We cannot afford to just double it.”

China’s epic spate of city building is in a class by itself, however. The country’s primary policy at all levels of government remains economic growth, and real estate development fulfills that goal while also providing

Millions of laborers throw up dormitories and apartments, only to see them torn down less than a decade later.

new housing for the millions of recently urbanized Chinese.

Millions of peasant laborers throw up factories, dormitories, and apartments, only to see them torn down less than a decade later. Communist-style apartment blocks, known as “bed cities” because people only go there to sleep, are hastily erected and surrounded by sprawling industrial parks on the outskirts of cities. Contractors and clients sketch out and design buildings in a few hours, quickly followed by construction, with local governments blessing the pell-mell growth.

For all the Chinese demonstration eco-cities like Tianjin or “carbon neutral” pledges from smaller cities like Rizhao, thousands of new homes in rural townships are poorly constructed and made of substandard brick or cinderblock. As a result, China’s buildings consume more energy than its heaviest industries, such as steel and cement, combined. The low-cost construction makes them hard to heat and cool. And low-quality cement, notes Stephen Hammer, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, means that “after a decade or two, it’s so cracked and deteriorated that it realistically needs to be replaced.”

Partially as a result, a single Chinese character has come to dominate urban planning: Chai (demolish). It is scrawled on buildings constructed as recently as the 1990s, now destined to be rubble. “Poor urban planning, lack of accountability, weak regulation and absence of legal framework, all together makes buildings in China so vulnerable,” says engineer Ding Jianhua of the China Urban Construction, Design and Research Institute. “Tearing down buildings is, in my opinion, essentially the most high carbon factor in China at present.”

The Chinese government and various organizations are beginning to come to grips with the challenge, however. The central government has eliminated real estate as a priority industry in the latest Five Year Plan in a

Simply improving existing building codes would have a bigger impact than any new eco-city.

bid to restrain this unsustainable growth. It has also begun to consider mandated efficiency measures for new construction. China’s central government hopes ultimately to build an “ecological civilization” via a “circular economy” of recycling and sustainability. Tianjin Eco-City, scheduled to be completed by 2018, exemplifies many of the proposed attributes: minimal waste, wise water use, and power generated mainly from renewable sources such as the sun, wind, and geothermal wells.

But simply improving existing building codes would have a bigger impact than any new eco-city. “Just construction standards alone, as dull as that might sound, is going to be one of the most influential areas in urban climate change in the next 10 years,” argues Ashvin Dayal, managing director for the Rockefeller Foundation in Asia, which is funding efforts to help developing cities cope with climate change.

Most organizations interested in ensuring the sustainability of cities have a similar focus, whether in China or the rest of the world. “Mandates for little things like enough insulation are really the smartest way to go,” notes Rohit Aggarwall, special advisor to the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an international planning organization for 59 major cities engaged in efforts to combat climate change.
 

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China’s central government is planning such a mandate for energy efficient materials in new buildings, along with greater adoption of renewable energy to go with the solar hot water heaters already covering rooftops across the country, according to CUCD’s Jianhua. Her work with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation includes developing “low-cost, high-effect, low-carbon measures” for Min’an, a community that comprises 22 residential buildings and a park in the Dongcheng District of Beijing. The plan is to deal with subjects as mundane as building insulation, better transportation, and water consumption — measures that can then be replicated across the country.

As for Ordos, it and other “ghost cities” may not remain empty for long. “Given that 350 million people are moving into Chinese cities by 2030, and that the middle class is doubling from 300 to 612 million by 2025, I’m not that worried about these cities staying completely empty forever,” JUCCCE’s Liu says.

But the Ordos model of pell-mell development must be jettisoned if China hopes to control its CO2 emissions and become more energy independent, experts contend. Says ICLEI’s Otto-Zimmermann, “To just expand [cities] at the current rate and build the same Soviet-type prefab buildings another 20 to 30 kilometers around the city, that’s certainly not the solution.”

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