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Planning for growth: urban and regional planning in China

01 May 2015

Fulong Wu

In contrast to the popular imagination of planning being procedural or even the ‘enemy of business’ under neoliberal attack in the West, planning in China was resurrected after economic reform and is becoming a key driver for fast urbanisation and economic growth. My new book, Planning for Growth: Urban and Regional Planning in China (published in the RTPI Library Series), traces the origin of Chinese modern planning in the Republican and Socialist eras and offers an accessible text on China’s complicated planning system.

Broadly speaking, planning activities in China include three different types, respectively under the directory of construction, land administration, and development and reform commissions. This complicated institutional set-up reflects the tension between promoting growth and implementing development control. The book provides three explanations for why the Chinese planning profession has experienced a boom during market transition.

First, planning has been commoditised and has adapted well to market development; second, planning has been transformed to cope with the crisis brought about by marketization; and third, planning has created legitimacy for growth and strengthened the role of the state during market transition, which has in turn enhanced its own position.

The legacies of planning as modernisation and development visualisation laid down the foundation of a proactive planning approach. The book examines planning practices under urban entrepreneurialism and recent attempts to coordinate development through national and regional planning. Fascinating examples of new towns and eco-cities planning are illustrated with a close look at their planning and development processes. The book gives a historical and panoramic overview of developments and changes in urban and regional planning in China. With a ‘comparative gesture,’ it complements its classic counterpart on Western Europe and North America.


Picture: Planning for Growth, the cover showing the new town at Wuxi, near Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta, China. Massive development in China is achieved through urban planning.

China has a long-standing culture and planning norm. The rule of city planning is recorded in Kao-Gong-Ji. The Chinese geomancy, or fengshui, influenced the site selection of the city. However, the modern meaning of city planning as civic design and building regulation only appeared in the late imperial era. Western influence began in Treaty Port cities. As shown in the examples of the Capital Plan (of Nanjing), the Great Shanghai Plan, and the Shanghai Metropolitan Plan in the era of Republican China, these advanced modernist plans have not been materialised but they have had a long lasting influence on Chinese planning ethos.

Urban planning during the socialist period was only part of the overall mechanism of a centrally planned economy. It was an instrument to ‘materialise’ economic development targets. Planning during socialism experienced ups and downs and was abandoned during the Cultural Revolution. The planning rationale was to facilitate state-led industrialisation, and policies across national and local scales were formulated to achieve this mission. The workers’ villages were a distinctive feature of socialist planned development. However, actual territorial planning has been difficult because of the dominance of hierarchical structures and state work-units. In contrast to the ‘socialist monumentalism,’ city planners more or less played the peripheral role of technicians.

The Chinese planning system has been quite complicated, consisting of three parallel types: urban planning, land use planning, and economic planning. The 1990 City Planning Act allows the city government to enforce development control, and hence is a milestone in Chinese planning history. However, planning power had not covered the rural area until the 2008 City and Countryside Planning Act. In the meantime, the land authority managed to develop its power to allocate a developmental land quota. The statutory planning system consists of a master plan and a detailed plan. The urban system plan is a kind of statutory plan at the provincial level but has never been enforced. Planning consultancies and design contests became widespread practices, along with the commodification of planning activities. The Chinese planning system is essentially a permission-based and administrative-led one but this character has opened the door to discretion and transformed planning into a development tool.

The outstanding feature of planning during market transition is the emergence of entrepreneurialism to facilitate the land-driven growth machine. The fiscal policy, economic governance, and planning incentivised the city government to promote economic growth and land development. The county-level strategic plan of Kunshan illustrates how planning has been used to unshackle the development constraint and keep the thrust of expansion. Another example from the city of Zhengzhou shows how city planning created an ambitious new district and attempted to develop the vast rural area between two cities even further. Under urban entrepreneurialism, the vision of the ‘socialist countryside’ has been turned into the space under the hegemony of the city. A new type of ‘non-statutory plan’— the so-called ‘strategic plan’ has been invented to suit the need to use planning as place promotion. More plans have been prepared under urban entrepreneurialism in China.

Reversing the trend of decentralization is the emergence of planning at national and regional levels. Planning is used as a new method to deal with the problems created by urban entrepreneurialism and local expansionist plans. In addition to region building efforts, the national urban system plan has been created. However, it has not been implemented because at the same time another type of plan — the ‘main functional area plan’ has been created by the system of economic planning. Although prepared in the style of the ‘scientific development approach’, this new type of plan has not really achieved development coordination. At the regional level, there are competing experiments such as the Pearl River Delta Urban Cluster Coordination Plan and the Yangtze River Delta Regional Plan. But the city–region plan has been driven by another impetus: the local government wishes to use this type of plan to strengthen its position and, further, to get recognition from the central government.

The characteristic of Chinese new planning practices during market transition is perhaps best represented by new town and eco-city planning. In the socialist era, the development of new towns was difficult because there was no mechanism to fund infrastructure. However, in the post-reform era, new town planning is becoming an ambitious place-making activity. Examples of the development of new towns in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Kunshan, and Shantou suggest that new towns are in essence mega urban projects. More recently, a special type of new town has been created—the so-called ‘eco-city’. The planning of eco-cities continued the urban expansion thrust but also reflected the directive of central government on carbon emission policies. Originated from the first attempt at Dongtan, now there are more cases including Tianjin Eco-city, Caofeidian International Eco-city, Wuxi low-carbon new town, and various eco-communities. Planning has been used to stimulate and facilitate the development of these projects.

The intriguing question is why Chinese planning has not been abandoned in the course of market transition. With the reference to Western planning experiences, three explanations are offered. First, planning has adapted well to the market; second, planning is used to cope with market crises; third, planning helps the state extend its power through the market mechanism. It is thus interesting to note that ‘planning for growth’ is not equivalent to ‘planning for the market.’ The third explanation sounds uniquely Chinese but there is actually a similarity between Chinese ‘planning for growth’ and the notion of ‘post-political planning’ in advanced market economies in the West. Policy mobility and transfer are discussed. It is debated whether planning should serve its paymaster — the client — or social justice. The opinions of Chinese professional planners on this matter are illustrated in their debates with their own Twitter community. There has been a long-standing thrust for Chinese planning to achieve modernisation and economic prosperity. In China, planning is not necessarily regarded as ‘an enemy of growth.’ China might be the exception to the rule. However, this exception is becoming increasingly difficult to justify in planning for the future, because growth-oriented planning creates a variety of problems.

Professor Fulong Wu is conducting further research on planning and economic growth in China for the RTPI, under the Small Project Impact Research Scheme (SPIRe). More information on the project is available here.

About Fulong Wu

Fulong Wu is Bartlett Professor of Planning at University College London. His research includes China’s urban development and planning and its social and sustainable challenges. His latest book, Planning for Growth: Urban and Regional Planning in China was published in 2015. He is co-editor of Restructuring the Chinese City (Routledge, 2005), Marginalization in China (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), International Perspectives on Suburbanization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), and Rural Migrants in Urban China (Routledge, 2013), editor of Globalization and the Chinese City (Routledge, 2006), China’s Emerging Cities (Routledge, 2007), and co-author of Urban Development in Post-Reform China: State, Market, and Space (Routledge, 2007), and China’s Urban Poverty (Edward Elgar, 2010).