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Low carbon urbanisation in China

12 December 2013

Richard Summers

The RTPI was invited by E3G, a non-profit organisation which supports global sustainable development, to take part in a round table discussion on low carbon urbanisation at Huazhong University in Wuhan, China, on 6th December 2013. I attended on behalf of the Institute as Chairman of the International Committee.

Low carbon issues in China

China 1

Rapid urbanisation is another major problem across China as the population increases and country people move into the cities. Beijing, for example, has extensive urban sprawl which generates large scale commuting and adds to the problems of pollution and unsustainable development.

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province in central China about 750 miles southwest of Beijing. It is dominated by declining traditional industries including three steel works and three car plants. Air pollution and smog are major problems for the city and evidence the various challenges of climate change and unsustainable development that it faces.

Rapid urbanisation is another major problem across China as the population increases and country people move into the cities. Beijing, for example, has extensive urban sprawl which generates large scale commuting and adds to the problems of pollution and unsustainable development. Most cities compete to contribute to China’s rapid economic (GDP) growth.

The Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan is assisting economic restructuring of Hubei Province and the Wuhan city region, supporting the growth of intellectual property (IP) industries, such as computing and optical sciences, and helping the city and provincial authorities to tackle the challenges of climate change, low carbon urbanisation and sustainable development.

Wuhan round table

The round table on low carbon urbanisation was organised by Huazhong University with E3G, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Germanwatch and the German Mercator Foundation. It was well attended by University researchers and environmental science professionals from the City and Provincial Authorities in Hubei but few local planners. (Qiu Shi, the Director of the Hubei Province Department of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction, attended for the morning presentations but was unable to take part in the afternoon discussions.)

China 2

Professor Wang Songling welcomed me, and Peter Vorkötter from Solingen, Germany, a Dutch architectural consultancy and a Danish environmental consultancy, to speak on European experience in low carbon development together with various Chinese academic and commercial speakers, including a China VP of Siemens.

Round table discussion

Representatives of the City, Province and University explained that Hubei produced the first urbanisation strategy in China and is now a pilot for the new Energy Trading Scheme. They said urbanisation is part of the country’s economic and social development but China needs to follow Europe’s example in urban planning to manage the environmental effects of growth. 

Nick Whittingham, British Embassy, Beijing, announced that a new Diplomatic Post will be set up in Wuhan in 2014 with support from UK Trade & Industry (UKTI) to assist in reducing pollution, promoting low carbon development and restructuring the Hubei local economy. He pointed out that low carbon development and rapid urbanisation are interlinked.

I outlined the international work of the RTPI including the Policy Futures programme and the seven commitments to planning to live with climate change. I explained the national and local planning policies for sustainable development and summarised two case studies of work on renewable energy capacity and low carbon development in the East of England.

Round table conclusions

The concluding discussion of the round table agreed that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to integrate urban planning with the various professions involved in sustainable development. It was noted that the Third Plenum of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2013 agreed a more commercial approach, major financial reforms and priority for building an 'ecological civilisation'.

It was agreed that there is a need to coordinate research, policy and action to achieve low carbon urbanisation. Low carbon issues and practice are similar in China and Europe but China also needs to set a long term aim to achieve full decarbonisation by 2030. There seems to be much talk but little integration between these issues and urban planning. 

Peter Vorkötter explained in answer to a question that all low carbon
and planning issues are coordinated by the Energy Department in the City of Solingen, Germany. I described how these issues are coordinated by different policies and departments at the national and local levels in the UK but concept and practice are not yet fully integrated.

Alan Searl, British Embassy, Beijing, suggested that Joint Committees could assist with this integration at the national and local levels in the UK and also in China particularly if they had access to seed funding to stimulate new initiatives in low carbon urbanisation. It was generally agreed that these questions would need further examination in both countries.

British Embassy, Beijing

A later meeting with Joanna Key, Urbanisation Director at the British Embassy, Beijing, confirmed that China urgently needs additional professional planning resources to coordinate the management of the rapid increase in its urbanisation and climate change problems. It has an embryonic planning system that lacks sufficient authority and resources.

Planning in China

Effective planning is undermined by an old law that requires people to live in the place of their birth, by the state free-hold ownership of land, by the power of local authorities to sell lease-holds for development and by traditional corruption. This helps to explain the many clusters of high-rise apartment blocks on small sites within unplanned urban expansion.

There are no national planning policies in China, no system of national, regional and local plans and no requirements for community consultation. Various Ministries are promoting so-called 'eco towns' (planned new communities) but without any coordination. The long term economic benefits of planned rather than unplanned development are not understood.

Future possibilities

I mentioned the forthcoming RTPI/UKTI Guide on International Planning Consultancy and the availability of RTPI accredited planning courses in Hong Kong which could help to increase planning capacity in China. I also asked the British Embassy to respond to RTPI research on the five Centenary Policy Futures papers from a Chinese perspective.

Joanna Key said the British Embassy is thinking of offering a 'Mayors Master Class' series on the basics of spatial planning to help China’s cities as part of its substantially funded Low Carbon Urbanisation programme. The Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD) wants to learn from UK planners to help its urban master planning work.

Trudi Elliott, RTPI Chief Executive, will be visiting Hong Kong in January 2014 to meet RTPI members in Hong Kong and the Partnership Board of the Hong Kong University Panning School. She will visit Hong Kong again in March 2014 with Cath Ranson, incoming RTPI President, to discuss the Centenary Policy Futures with the Hong Kong Institute of Planners.

Tomorrow on this blog I will report on my impressions as a planner of China as an 'emerging' global economy.

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.