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A planner’s impressions of China

13 December 2013

Richard Summers

Following the round table on low carbon urbanisation in China on 6th December 2013, I visited Xi’an and Beijing and comment as a planner on my impressions of this fast-growing country - its long proud history but also its rapid expansion of as an 'emerging' global economic power.

Beijing to Wuhan

The flight from Beijing to Wuhan headed southwest across extensive unplanned urbanisation including large factories and clusters of high rise flats criss-crossed by railways and expressways. It then crossed a mist mantled mountain range. Peter Vorkötter and I were met by Professor Wang Songling.

We then drove for two hours in the rush hour to the large and leafy University campus on the other side of Wuhan. The visibility was no more than half a mile amidst the smog of this heavily industrialised city similar to Sheffield and Rotherham. Wuhan had been waiting for a refreshing rain for six days.

Conversation with an old man

I sat next to an old man at breakfast just before the next stage of my journey. He spoke good English and said he was retired from a long career producing an academic magazine that is now switching from print to web-based format. He was keen to compare his own experience with Wuhan’s experience of economic restructuring as part of China’s growth.

We talked about low carbon urbanisation with its comparisons between China and Europe. He wanted to know how I would compare India and China in a modern world. I reflected that China is perhaps more commercial and practical and India is more spiritual and adventurous while different forms of urbanisation have different effects on people and the environment.

Wuhan to Xi’an

After the Round Table event, I travelled by high speed CRH Harmony train northwest from Wuhan to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. The journey of 500 miles took 5 hours along a major transport and urbanisation corridor. Recent major investment in the rail infrastructure provided a journey more like travelling by air than even our West Coast main line.

CRH high speed Harmony train

New tower blocks of apartments all of the same design were clustered in tightly packed groups along the route together with new business and retail areas. The rate of growth and the enormous scale of this country were only too obvious.

I was impressed by the extensive areas of new housing and business development along the transport corridor. New tower blocks of apartments all of the same design were clustered in tightly packed groups along the route together with new business and retail areas. The rate of growth and the enormous scale of this country were only too obvious.

It would have been interesting to see how far the Hubei Urbanisation Strategy went in locating housing, employment, infrastructure and services and how it tackled climate change issues. The major investment in the railway and delivery of the housing was probably a significant achievement for an embryonic planning system in the face very rapid growth.

Xi’an was once the capital of China and is now a bustling metropolis. Crowds of people were enjoying western style shopping in the city centre on a sunny winter afternoon. There were fewer extremes of wealth and poverty than might be seen for example in an Indian city. The streets were thronged with cars, lorries, buses, taxis, bicycles and motorised rickshaws.

The Terracotta Warriors are amazing in their dignity, patience and readiness to protect China’s first Emperor. Each figure is unique and is thought to have been modelled on an individual warrior of the time. Many people were traditionally killed to accompany the spirit of the dead Emperor to the underworld but the warriors were spared to protect the life of his son.

Terra Cotta warriors Xi'an

Everyone I asked before the 600 mile flight to Beijing said “if you can only see one thing, visit the Great Wall of China”. The Great Wall is indeed great: a great climb to a high ridge and a great sight of the wall and its guard towers snaking through the mountains that then separated China from Mongolia to defend a country originally formed by its first Emperor.

I got back to Beijing for a sunset visit to the vast and awe-inspiring Tian’anmen Square and the majesty and mystery of the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace and the Museum of Urban Planning will have to wait for another visit. China’s proud history and its current growth as an 'emerging' world economy should both be taken seriously by British planners.

About Richard Summers

Richard Summers is Chairman of the International Committee of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), he is a member of the RTPI General Assembly and he is a specialist adviser on economic issues. He is a Past President of the RTPI (2011) and a former member of the RTPI Board of Trustees. He spoke for the RTPI at a planning conference in Bogota, Columbia, in 2012.

Richard is an independent consultant specialising in spatial planning, environmental conservation and economic development. He retired as Head of Planning at The Landscape Partnership in 2012 at the end of his year as Immediate Past President of the RTPI. He has extensive experience in the public and private sectors in the UK and abroad.