Concepts behind urbanization and the sustainable use of resources

Urbanization is a natural process that has accompanied the process of industrialization in human history. Nonagricultural industry concentrates in cities, leading the rural population of a country to move toward urban concentrations. Factors of production also concentrate in urban areas as resources are deployed in the making of products, and the resulting economies of scale and scope are conducive to increasing division of labor, specialization, and technological innovation. This raises production efficiencies and the efficiency with which resources are used. Clearly, the efficiency with which resources are used is closely related to the scale of urbanization. As the scale of urbanization expands, however, and the benefits of concentrating resources increase, the costs also increase - including the costs of shipping resources and the costs of externalities relating to resources. When such costs exceed the benefits of concentrating resources, ‘sick-city syndromes’ begin to appear and the sustainability of resource use confronts challenges. One thing needs to be pointed out and emphasized, which is that the scale of cities is determined by how well cities are administered. The same size city, when managed with different levels of expertise, can be as different as night and day. The quality of management determines how well resources are concentrated and deployed. Such concepts as ‘smart growth,’ ‘compact cities,’ ‘green cities,’ ‘ecologically minded cities, ‘sponge cities,’ ‘smart cities,’ ‘livable cities,’ and so on are all a function of the capabilities and quality of urban management. Excellent management devotes itself to the sustainable use of all forms of natural resources including land, the biome, water, and energy.

‘Smart growth’ as a concept, as well as its practice, arose in the United States. It aims to control urban sprawl and improve the sustainable use of land as a resource. In 2000, the American Planning Association brought together a group of 60 public entities that together formed a coalition called Smart Growth America. The core concepts behind this concept are the following: First, use urban capacities fiilly in order to reduce ‘blind’ expansion. Second, rebuild and renew on existing land in order to save on basic infrastructure costs and the cost of public sendees, which includes redeveloping land that was used by polluting industries. Third, make living and working as close together as possible by creating relatively dense groupings, in order to reduce the cost of basic infrastructure and the costs of building and using housing. In China, the rate at which land is being urbanized exceeds the rate at which people are being urbanized so that urban population densities are falling. Some cities are spreading out like pancakes. The excessive pursuit of broad avenues, large squares, ‘new city districts,’ development areas, industrial parks, and so on, is occupying large amounts of land a with relatively low-density population. If the concepts of ‘smart growth’ can be applied in China, this will help resolve the issue of ‘extensive-type’ use of land as China urbanizes. In 2015, the Central Urbanization Working Group called for adhering to concepts of intensive as opposed to extensive development, for setting up ‘smart growth’ and ‘compact cities,’ for planning that develops perimeters of cities in a more scientific way, and for a transformation in China’s mode of urbanization, from external expansion to internal upgrading.

The concept of compact cities arose in Europe, as well as its practice. The whole idea is to limit urban sprawl. Historically, European cities have always been far more compact than those in the United States and the idea of compactness arose out of this long tradition. In 1990, the Commission of the European Coimnunities issued a Green Paper on Urban Environments. This called for compact development of cities, restrictions on the number of cars, and more pedestrian walkways and public transport. It emphasized the desirability of mixed urban functions and high density and it called for actually realizing the sustainability of urban growth through environmental protection and the conservation of energy and resources. ‘Compact urbanization’ is dedicated to realizing the sustainable growth of urban economies, environments, culture, and resources and is therefore the concrete expression of sustainable growth in the sphere of urban planning.

‘Green cities’ and ‘ecologically minded cities’ focus on urban environments and advocate for the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature. This rethinks the old style of urban development as driven by traditional industrialization and emphasizes that urban growth cannot be achieved at the cost of the ecological environment. It also cannot afford excessive expenditure of resources. As concepts, ‘green cities’ and ‘ecologically minded cities’ aim for an organic integration of society, economy, and the ecosystem as development goals. These fit the inherent demands of sustainable urban development and so have become the mainstream orientation of cities around the world as they shift their mode of growth (see Box 3.6). China’s Plan for a New Form of Urbanization (2014-2020) adheres to the fundamental principle of ‘an ecologically oriented, green, low- carbon civilization. ’ The plan calls for integrating these concepts into the entire process of urbanization. It calls for vigorous promotion of operating models that promote green, circular-type, low-carbon development and that conserve and intensify the use of land, water, and energy. It calls for strengthening environmental protection and the restoration of ecosystems, for reducing the disruptions and damage to nature, and for promoting lifestyles and production methods that are green and low carbon.

The idea of ‘green cities’ involves incorporating the concept of an ecologically oriented civilization into all aspects of urban development. It includes green production methods, green lifestyles, and green modes of consumption. The core idea behind this is the sustainable use of resources, particularly the sustainable use of energy, which affects ever}' single aspect of urban development. This involves strict control over the growth of high-energy-consumption and high-emission industries. It means building diversified systems for renewable energy and promoting distributed solar energy, wind energy, biomass energy, and geothermal energy. It encourages the scaled-up application of alternative energy and raising the percentage of alternative and renewable energy sources in a city’s energy supply. It calls for green construction and focusing on energy-conservation in construction. It calls for alternative-energy cars and promoting emerging green industries. ‘Green cities’ as a concept also requires promoting the circular use of resources, improving the retrieval and reuse of discarded products, and improving garbage soiling and handling systems. It involves strengthening the circular use of solid waste in cities and detoxifying waste. It involves determining reasonable ‘red lines’ in cities that define protected areas and expanding the space devoted to ecosystems, including the construction of green ecosystem corridors.

Box 3.6 The China-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city

The China-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city is a strategic cooperation project that has been jointly developed by the governments of China and Singapore. It shows the determination of both countries to address the problems of global climate change and to strengthen environmental protection and energy and resource conservation. It provides a proactive model for how to tiy to achieve a resource-conserving and environmentally friendly environment.

The idea of creating a city along the lines described earlier was discussed in April 2007, when Wen Jiabao, premier of China at the time, met with Singapore’s senior minister Goh Chok Tong, and both expressed the desire to cooperate in this endeavor. In November, the two governments signed a framework agreement to build an eco-city. According to the agreement, the China-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city would use the extensive experience of Singapore in terms of urban planning, environmental protection, resource conservation, a circular economy, ecosystem building, use of renewable energy, reuse of water, sustainable development, and the fostering of social harmony, as the two countries carried out broadly based cooperation. The two governments then set up a Joint Coordination Council, led by people at the vice-premier level, and a working group led by people at the ministerial level. Corporations in both countries then formed investment groups that set up joint-investment companies that included entities from both countries. These undertook to do the actual development of the eco-city. The Ministry of National Development of Singapore set up a specific Working Office for the Tianjin Eco-city, and in January 2008, the municipal government of Tianjin established a Management Committee to oversee the work of the Tianjin Eco-city.

This eco-city is located in what the Chinese government has designated as a strategic development district, within the boundaries of the Tianjin Bin- hai New District. It is adjacent to the Tianjin Economic and Technology Development Distiict, the Tianjin port, and the Haibin recreational district and is between the Tanggu District and the Hangu District. It is 45 kilometers from the center of Tianjin and 150 kilometers from Beijing. It covers an area of 31.23 square kilometers and is intended to have 350,000 residents according to the plan.

The eco-city is being built in a location that suffers from resource constraints. Its goal is to restore the ecosystem and protect the environment, to build ecosystems that allow for the natural environment and the man-made environment to live together, that is, to realize harmonious coexistence between the two. The guiding principles that govern the development of the city include a compact urban layout supported by green transport and urban planning that must comply with a system of specific targets. The fundamental framework of the city is composed of green valleys (corridors) and green ‘cells’ (ecological neighborhoods). In addition to having a direct supply of drinking water, the project has set up circular ecological water systems to process and reuse water in districts with insufficient water in terms of water quality. These include ways to collect rainwater and to restore water bodies. The city is also characterized by the reuse of resources in general, the strengthening of resource conservation, reduction in emissions, and the development of a circular economy, in order to create a resource-conserving and enviromnentally friendly community.

This is the first place in the world where countries are cooperating to develop an ecologically oriented city. The results should provide a model of sustainable development not only for China but for other cities in the world as well. The project provides an international platform that is generating innovations in the theory of ecosystems, that is developing technologies for energy conservation and environmental protection, and that is demonstrating a progressive ecological mind-set. It is also providing a learning model for China, as China carries out many different forms of international cooperation in the future.

Source: Official website of the China-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city (

The concept of a ‘sponge city’ is one method of urban development that allows natural ecosystems to play a crucial role in the water management of cities. The method requires strengthening urban planning and management of urban development so that buildings, roads, green spaces, and water bodies can absorb rainwater and reduce the amount of rainwater runoff. Sponge cities are a combination of a number of measures to ensure sustainable use of resources and protection of the environment and include the adoption of ways to absorb, store, purify, use, and discharge water that, to the greatest extent possible, limit the effect of urban development on the ecological environment. In October 2015, the General Office of the State Council issued an Opinion called Guidance Opinion on Promoting the Building of Sponge Cities. This called for achieving a target of 70% of rainwater that is to be absorbed and used locally in China’s cities. By 2020, one-fifth of the built-up area of China’s cities is to achieve this target; by 2030, four-fifths of the built-up area in cities is to achieve this target (see Box 3.7).

Box 3.7 Sponge city pilot programs

In April 2015, the Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Water Resources jointly announced the first batch of sixteen sponge city pilot-program locations. These were Chongqing, Qian’an, Baicheng, Zhenjiang, Jiaxing, Chizhou, Xiamen, Pingxiang, Jinan, Hebi, Wuhan, Changde, Naming, Suining, Gui’an New Area, and Xixian New Area. These cities and districts are located in different parts of the country and were selected for being representative of their various regions. At the same time, they represent various sizes and attributes. Some are direct-report cities, reporting directly to the central government. Some have ‘separate line-item’ planning status. Some are the capital cities of provinces, and others are administered at the district or county level. They basically cover all types of cities in China.

After three years of implementation, the total area covered by carrying out the plan in sixteen cities has come to 435 square kilometers. A total of RMB 86.5 billion has been invested in 3,159 separate projects which have included the building of buildings, neighborhoods, roads, plazas, green spaces, underground pipe networks, and water system improvements. Some of the completed projects have achieved remarkable success in reducing the risk of flooding, improving urban water features, and furthering industrial development in creative ways. The projects have been well received by the public, and the initial results are quite positive.

Chizhou City serves as an example. In the past, governmental fluids were insufficient to keep up the waterpipe network and buy and maintain the requisite large equipment. The project greatly improved the ability of the network to operate, such that no obvious flooding has occurred in the project district even though rainfall has been 30% to 40% higher than in previous years. Nanning City has created a large contiguous green space that covers around 1.3 square kilometers and includes the Qingxiu Woodlands Park and surrounding areas, where the overall effectiveness of sponge cities is beginning to be apparent. Xiamen City’s project was tested by a typhoon, but already-completed projects in the pilot area did not experience flooding. No flooding was reported in the pilot areas of Changde City and Xixian New Area during and after a heavy rain that dropped 50 to 60 millimeters in a short time. The pilot areas of Zhenjiang City and Suining City also did not experience flooding after heavy rains of more than 100 millimeters.

Source: Liu Hongwei. ‘Progress in the implementation of the Sponge City Pilot Program.’ China Construction News, May 5, 2016. Retrieved from the website of the Ministiy of Housing and Urban and Rural Development.

‘Smart cities’ apply information technologies to the process of urban development. Through the innovative application of such new information technologies as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and big data, they seek to improve the quality of urban administration as well as the lives of urban residents. Smart cities emphasize overall plaxming and coordinated use of material resources, information resources, and human intelligence resources. They encourage the sharing of information related to government administration across governmental departments, industries, and regions to achieve coordination of administrative affairs. They seek to enable society at large to use information resources. They promote the application of smart information technologies and new forms of information sendees in order to support urban planning and administration that is informed by information technologies, to have basic infrastructure that operates ‘intelligently’ with smart technologies, and to have public services that are convenient and responsive, smart industrial development, and social governance that is well informed. The aim is to ensure that advanced technologies and methods have a positive impact on urban development and on the allocation of resources in cities. Information technologies and processes are meant to provide technological solutions that help overcome the increasingly severe problem of ‘sick-city syndromes’ in China. However, applying advanced technologies alone is insufficient. Technologies must be matched with improved levels of administration and accompanying systems. The ‘smart’ in smart cities refers fust and foremost to human intelligence. While providing better tools for urban administrators, the concept of smart cities also puts higher demands on urban administrators (see Box 3.8).

Box 3.8 Smart city pilot programs

In December 2012, the Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development issued the Interim Administrative Measures for the National Smart- city Pilot Program, as well as the Smart-city Index of Targets to Be Met by the Program (Trial Implementation). The first phase involved 90 pilot units, including 37 prefecture-level cities, 50 districts or comities, and 3 towns. In August 2013, the same ministry confirmed that another 103 pilot cities would be included in the program, including 83 cities or distiicts and 20 counties or towns. In addition, the scope of nine of the original list of cities was expanded. In April 2015, the same ministry announced another 84 pilot cities, districts, counties, and towns and the expansion of project areas in 13 of the already-existing sites. These three groups added up to a total of 290 smart-city pilot sites throughout the country.

As separate initiatives, by June 2016, more than 500 cities in China had stated in either their government work reports or their 13 th Five-Year Plans that they intended to adopt the smart-city approach. These represented 95% of sub-provincial-level cities and 76% of prefecture-level cities. In November 2016, the National Development and Reform Coimnission, the Central Cyberspace Affairs Coimnission, and the Standardization Administration of China jointly issued the new-type smart-city performance targets. The National Development and Reform Commission stated that it would launch 100 additional ‘new-type’ smart-city pilot projects during the 13th Five- Year Plan period (2016-2020).

China is still exploring how best to develop smart cities, however, and many problems remain to be addressed. First, the actual experience of building smart-city programs has not gone well, needs are not well defined, and the response from urban residents has been negative. Second, the top- level design of many projects is not well linked up and coordinated, and plans are often abandoned halfway through their execution. Third, there are no specific standards by which to measure the results of the model, and many projects have failed to provide the functions that were promised. Finally, the business model remains vague, limiting the sustainability of project funding.

Source: Related documents published by the Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development; Chen Jing, ‘The smart-city model gains traction in China.’ Economy, 2017 (Zl).

The concept of‘livable cities’ is multifold. It looks at urban development from the perspective of people who live in cities, but also from the perspective of developing the people themselves. It makes ‘people’ the dominant consideration in urban development. It has even broader implications, however, since it not only incorporates the idea of humans living in harmony with nature but also takes into consideration social, cultural, and economic aspects, as well as public sendees. As a result of this complexity, there are a variety of systems for evaluating the target goals of becoming a ‘livable city.’ A number of governments around the world have released what they consider to be an index that rates ‘livable cities.’ Influential research institutes have done the same, as well as industry organizations, and all these have ranked the cities in then own country with respect to other international livable cities. Each entity has its own emphasis in evaluating livability, and the rating systems are enormously different fr om one another. This leads to a wide disparity in the results of such evaluations. Cities can lift their reputations and desirability based on these ratings, and the ratings do serve a certain purpose in getting urban administrators to improve the management of their municipalities.

Smart-growth and compact cities both focus on the sustainable use of urban land. Green cities and eco-cities mainly emphasize the sustainable use of energy resources. Sponge cities put then' efforts into the sustainable use of water resources, while smart cities and livable cities propose pathways to achieve sustainable use of resources in cities and describe the ultimate results. All these development concepts are fundamentally in line with the whole idea of the sustainable use of resources. They are both concrete ways of desexibing sustainable growth in the course of urban development and an expression of the forms that sustainable development can take.

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