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Change, Challenge, Opportunities

John Parker, Convenor of the IDN China Task Group, writes:

Today China has the world's largest population, third largest land area and fourth largest economy. It is currently undergoing unprecedented internal change in its political, social, economic, cultural, demographic and physical structure. This in turn is changing its relationship with the rest of the world, and is having a dramatic global impact in terms of its political influence, economic and trading patterns, and the environmental and climatic consequences of its activities.

These changes have also created marked internal disruption, with a stark imbalance between the economies of a narrow band of eastern seaboard regions and the vast swathe of the rest of the country to the west. One of the results of this has been internal migration of vast numbers of rural people into the larger cities where they struggle for a marginal standard of living. Other long-standing problems are becoming more acute from the demands of economic growth. For example, two interrelated problems are the desperate shortage of sustainable water supplies and its unequal distribution across the country, and untreated human and industrial waste that is polluting rivers and supplies.

The change in China's world image is epitomised by the transformation of Beijing. Less than a decade ago, Beijing was a large old imperial city that was a backwater in terms of modern development. Beautiful historic places such as The Forbidden City were adjacent to monolithic and crude Marxist architecture and ancient alleyways of dilapidated buildings, all served by a creaking transport system, in which the bicycle was still a major mode. This scene has now undergone a dramatic transformation for the Olympic Games. Similarly, central Shanghai has been the largest construction site in the world.

 Beijing Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, Beijing (photo: John Parker)


The challenge that China now faces is how to utilise the momentum of its rapid economic development, and spin-offs from the Olympic Games, to improve conditions in its smaller cities and rural communities, where modern sustainable development is either vestigial or non-existent. Unless this occurs, the movement of the rural population towards the larger cities will rapidly increase.

Opportunities will occur for widespread change, and the choice for the Chinese Government could be the classic one of whether to concentrate the country's burgeoning wealth into improving conditions in a limited number of regions and cities, or to distribute it more thinly and widely across the nation, in both urban and rural areas. With the growth of public participation within China and the involvement of the outside world in its future development, as it moves from a centrally-allocated economy to a more market-oriented one, the governance of the country is slowly changing. Reform of governance is desperately needed, although one promising sign is the new Regulations on Government Disclosure of Information, which aims to provide greater transparency in governance. These regulations are partly to curb the corruption that has become rife as an accompaniment of rapid economic advancement.

Either directly or indirectly, China's emergence on the world stage will have widespread effects with regard to development throughout Asia, and it will need collaboration and friendly advice from other major nations on how best to approach its new international responsibilities. Spatial planning and sustainable development could have a key role in this scenario.


The changes, challenges and opportunities briefly outlined above generate and demand innovative and sustainable solutions to many serious planning problems: increasing rural migration into cities; acute shortages of affordable housing and modern schools; the threats from greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning as the main energy fuel, and resulting widespread air pollution and acid rain; a paucity of adequate water supplies and its purification for drinking; soil erosion, deforestation and desertification; protection of historical and cultural heritage; and the integration of land uses development and transportation. All these will be exacerbated by global climate changes that China has a significant and increasing part in causing.

What can town and country planners and associated professionals do in the face of such formidable issues? For a start, we can add our small voice, knowledge and experience to the other disciplines that are engaging with and exchanging ideas with Chinese counterparts. This could eventually help with the reforming of Chinese planning education, institutions, systems and practices, and enable the new China to meet its urbanisation challenges in a sustainable way. And it is not a one-way process: IDN's approach is always about learning from others, exchange of experience and sharing knowledge. 

 Zhenjiang Hutong Shops.jpg

Zhenjiang Hutong Shops (Photo: John Parker)

 Some Chinese proverbs encapsulate the situation and the possible response:

To teach is to learn.

When planning for a year, plant corn.
When planning for a decade, plant trees.
When planning for a lifetime, educate people. 

If you want to know your past look into your present conditions.
If you want to know your future look into your present actions.