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Urban Planning systems – or – why China might save the world, and we could as well.

Urban Planning systems – or – why China might save the world, and we could as well.

Markus Appenzeller

City development is deeply intertwined with the economic and political system it happens in. It translates into how space is used, how infrastructure is provided and what role individuals play in the process of making city.

Cities therefore are a living witness of political systems and associated economic models. American style suburbia is not imaginable in a communist system while the uniformity of Hrushchev housing districts is hard to imagine in the US. And even within countries we can see impact that the the transformation of political systems over time had. Welfare state housing of the post-World War 2 period nowadays is unthinkable in the Netherlands, Germany or the UK. It had to make room for individualist housing forms, reflecting the growig role of the ego in society and a more and more fragmented political system. The bigger role of the individual has a profound impact on how projects need to be planned and carried out. A political establishment that is nervous of making bold decisions to avoid scaring off voters creates increasingly complex planning processes to render their role in decision making less strong and therefore less attackable. People – empowered by this lack of leadership – also claim more involvement in city development. The fact that more and more knowledge and skills are readily available via media only adds to this new found power on an more equal playing field. The result of this is that urban development in what used to be called the West has turned into a very costly and extremely slow process. Planning an building a new metro line takes at least 20, more likely 30 or 40 years. For a new neighbourhood one should reserve 10 years to see first results and when it comes to coordinating development across city limits, in many places there are simply no mechanisms to achieve coherence, leading to fierce competition of cities for investment and allocation of big or prestigious players.

One of my urbanism teachers back in the 1990’s already told me, that the fate of any urbanist is that before he can enjoy the results of his work he either is already retired or dead – most likely both.

The problem we face now renders these slow processes futile. Climate change and migration, changing demographics and increased urbanisation in the big urban centers have a dynamic and pose a threat level, that cannot be addressed sufficiently by use of these slow processes. Floods and raising sea levels do not respect our ‘democratic values’. When they arrive, they destroy not only those but also our living environments.

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”

Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

We need to change something. We need to speed up our processes and create a completely different urban development dynamic. The question is how? To answer that, it might be a good idea to look at those who are experienced in using a much quicker system: China.

Like no other country in history, China has been urbanizing in rapid pace. The urbanization rate went from 36% in 2000 to almost 60% in 2018. More than 330 Million people moved to cities in that time frame – largely without problems that we have seen in the past like slums, transport system breakdowns or food supply shortages. To achieve this, China has used a highly efficient planning system that made this rapid urbanism possible. Of course, some slowing factors from western planning like participation did not have as much attention – if any. Of course, private ownership of land as we know it does not exist in China where almost all is state owned and given out as leaseholds. And of course, China was booming in all these years like no other nation in history, creating enormous wealth to pay for the growth. But even discounting that, one still can learn from China to improve our own systems. A couple of lessons that could be integrated into the way we do planning:

Think big, act big.
Urban planning in China to many looks megalomanic and in some places it indeed was – delivering ghost cities. But that misses the fact that especially in the big cities big plans successfully managed to significantly improve the quality of the urban environment – from high quality densification across new infrastructures to social and public space improvements. Thinking big and acting big becomes the driver for change that makes this change visible in short periods of time. Once people see these changes, they start acting in the same direction themselves, reinforcing the scale of the operation.

Strategically think and develop ahead.
In Europe, a lot of urban planning is reactive. Responding to pressing market demand or solving bottlenecks due to a lack of thinking ahead is short-sighted curing of symptoms. Taking a more strategic approach and developing infrastructures, open space networks and densification clusters ahead of the time they become unavoidable allows for a much smoother process with less hick-ups that compromise the speed of change.

Don’t be afraid of density.
If Europeans say dense, they often do not mean really dense. 100 to 150 residential units per hectare and floor area ratios of 2.5 – 3 are considered high density. China shows us that a lot higher densities can be achieved. That does not deliver the exact same qualities but new ones. We need to understand what these new qualities are and use them. Ultimately, higher densities in cities lead to less space demand at the edges and more much needed room for nature and energy and food production.

Bigger entities and more often something similar.
Bart Goldhoorn, a Dutch urbanist, has called European cities ‘designer cities’, meaning each building is designed individually and the projects are relatively small. This delivers a diverse urban environment but is also makes city making a very slow process. Making bigger projects and adopting a more mass customized approach would speed up things significantly and depending on the design and planning tools we apply, it still could create quite a diverse picture.

Don’t try to solve everything at once but engage in gradual but speedy improvement.
This might sound contrary to what is said above, but ambitions in starting projects are usually very high. Every agenda needs to be addressed, every problem solved and often there is the will to prepare for an anticipated future. The problem is often that the foresight often is not sought in the strategic aspects of a plan but in the details. Adopting an attitude of starting and solving detailed issues on the way or after allows for a much more speedy process that – combined with adaptive implementation – delivers results more quickly.

Let the public sector play a more steering role.
The public sector plays a very important role in Chinese planning. Governments decide many things there – and also here they could steer more. It is a mistake to think the market delivers all the changes that are necessary in the coming decades. It will only if it is forced to and some issues that need to be resolved simply are too big or complex for ‘the market’ to solve them. Market players even welcome a stronger role of the public sector: they want to have certainty and that is what a more steering role of the public sector can give them. Authorities should use this for the benefit of making cities better.

Don’t limit yourself with this approach to everything urban, treat the not urban also with that mentality.
The future of mankind will not only be decided in cities. The countryside will play an equally important role. This importance should be reflected in an approach that is no different than the effort one puts into cities. It needs the same boldness and speed, otherwise the transition will not be successful.

A bit more Chinese big thinking is necessary to meet the scale of the challenge we are facing in the coming decades, and we should not be afraid of trying to meet them. Meet them with rethinking how we can combine our values and the qualities that we cherish in cities with a radically different approach how we create, adjust, improve or invent them. Let’s get started!

by Markus Appenzeller

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