Ecopolis in China: Lab for Idealist or Realist?

By Anonymous

This two weeks we read about two sustainable cities, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, UAE and Tianjin in China. It is reasonably straightforward to form the overall framework for sustainable urbanization, which consists of four interrelated actors and points of view: investor, government touches, design configuration and business tactics (source: class discussion and Prof Macomber’s chart).

In today’s China, the development of eco-cities has been a hot topic extensively reviewed and discussed by different parties, and the progress of Tianjin draws a lot of attention – particularly because of the failure of its predecessor, Dongtan District of Shanghai. Indeed, the concept of eco-cities has been tentatively utilized to provide theoretical support and planning model for more than 5 cities in China, and in addition to that, more municipal governments are approaching the central government and seeking financial, political and technological support. Nevertheless, there is not even a far cry from a successful in model in practice that can be found to underpin the feasibility of the “eco-city” concept. Continue reading


China’s ghost city of Ordos

By Candy Tang

Ordos has quietly become China’s luxury good capital. Located in once the most impoverished area of Inner Mongolia, Ordos has about one sixth of China’s coal reserves and one third of the natural gas reserves. With a population of 1.6 million people, its GDP per capital reached $20K, twice as much as that of Beijing and Shanghai. The affluent local government began a public-works project, building a district called Kangbashi in the city. The area is filled with office towers, museums, theaters and sports fields—not to mention acre on acre of subdivisions overflowing with middle-class duplexes and bungalows. The only problem: the district was originally designed to house, support and entertain 1 million people, yet hardly anyone lives there. The city is empty. Continue reading

What is the first step in China’s sustainable growth?

By Liz

For the past 5-10 years, academics, politicians and pretty much anyone who has set foot in China have agreed that pollution is a huge problem in the country. As the world’s largest developing economy, the country is expected to see a rapid increase in its urban population over the next decade—only further increasing their carbon footprint. Most people agree that the Chinese cannot continue to expand using their current cities as a model.

In class, we discussed the merits of the Tianjin Eco-city, Masdar and other green cities. Those cities take years, if not decades, to plan, design and build. The Chinese need solutions now. What is step one of the process? We’ve been talking about China for a long time and have yet to see any policies from the Politburo. I believe the first step towards solving China’s environmental problems is greater public awareness.

The issue of Chinese carbon emissions is being blogged almost everywhere, scrutinized in American think-tanks and discussed in Harvard classrooms, yet aside from improvements during the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has done relatively little. A few weeks ago due to heightened public awareness and outrage, the Politburo for the first time publically addressed the air quality problem in Beijing. Premier Li Keqiang asked for patience in dealing with the problem, saying it was created over a long period of time and will take a long time to ameliorate.1 Unfortunately, China does not have a long time. They need to see action now. Continue reading

How To Get Businesses To Invest in New Cities

By Stacie Chang

Last week, we discussed the creation of new cities all over the world. One question seems to pop up every time – where do we start? Do we get businesses in first or people in first? It’s a chicken or the egg problem. Without businesses, no one will want to live there, and without people, no businesses will want to locate there. If one of the reasons we see massive migration to existing cities is because commerce and opportunities reside there, then I don’t see why it would be any different for new cities. So how do businesses think about investing time and resources into a new country or city? Continue reading

Beijing Commuting System: Challenges And Reactions In Urbanization

 By Lynsey Mengchen He

Every time I’ve been stuck in traffic for hours, I have always imagined myself driving a car like the one Christian Bale drove in the Batman movies. No matter how quickly a city expands geographically, transit can hardly keep up with the exponential growth of population as urbanization progresses.  Central areas usually receive the major commuting pressure, and existing infrastructure within those areas is almost impossible to reconstruct.  The “TransMilenio” case reminded me of how Beijing, a city with population of over 20 million[1], has fought for the better functioning of its commuter transit system. Continue reading

Lessons from China: Central Planning and Satellite Cities in the Design of Smart Cities

By John Niehaus

During our Smart Cities discussion, I was reminded of a series of conversations that came up during my IXP trip to China a few weeks ago.  With around 18-20 million Chinese migrating from the countryside to the cities each year, urbanization is a key focus for the Communist Party.  During our class discussion on Smart Cities, we debated the point of just how applicable PlanIT Valley is to urbanization in the real world.  Sure, perhaps PlanIT Valley can succeed as a city of just a few thousand people, but are its results replicable on a larger scale?

If China chose to, it could build Smart Cities of millions of people because the Communist Party has a great deal of influence over where new housing developments are built and, more broadly, where new cities are built.  One concept which was mentioned in several of our meeting was the concept of “Satellite Cities” which the Communist Party has been encouraging.  The concept is to build a series of smaller cities about an hour or so outside of the major Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou, etc) rather than deciding to build a city in the middle of the countryside.  Presumably, this will allow the government to leverage much of the existing infrastructure (water, electricity, highways, trains, etc) and give people the opportunity to work for companies in both their satellite city or in the major city itself.

While much of the West criticizes the sometimes authoritarian rule of the Communist Party in China, this example, to me, illustrates one of the great strengths of the Community Party, which is its ability to think long-term about the best interests of the country and implement public policy with minimal oversight from the general public.

In fact, one of the Americans that we met with in China, who has been in China for the last 20 years, said America itself could use some more “Central Planning” sometimes.  However, the American public is greatly averse to the thought of “Central Planning” in the post-Cold War era.  As part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” in an effort to combat unemployment and boost the economy, Roosevelt created a series of federal agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 (still in existence today) to provide flood control and electricity generation in Tennessee and its neighboring states.  This was arguably the height of Central Planning in the US, with much of the power grid and national highway system being laid in the next couple of decades.

Today, high profile events like the levees in New Orleans breaking during Hurricane Katrina, the flooding of downtown Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, and the lack of a true high speed train in the US point to a lack of infrastructure investment over the last few decades.  Clearly, there are other national budgetary restrictions at work here (Medicare, Social Security, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc), but I think it does raise the question of whether a democracy like the US can take the long-term view to invest in infrastructure and new cities (or hopefully Smart Cities) when it is necessary.

Making Sustainable Decisions

By Yiran

There are thousands of “sustainable” ideas in the world, BRT, metro, GPS, etc.; but not every city is adopting every single one of them. Why not?

Despite the financial and technological constraints, the major question we should ask at the beginning is, “Is this idea really suitable for our city?” Only when the answer is “Yes” can the quote mask could be removed from the defining word “sustainable.” However, in rapidly urbanizing cities, this question has been long forgotten and the supposedly “sustainable” ideas that are not suitable for the cities are now creating an unsustainable future for them. Therefore, how public sector and private sector can work together to make real sustainable – sustainable and suitable (S2) – decision for cities remains a critical problem.

Public Sector: Decision Maker

Focusing on the public sector’s needs is very important because they are the final decision maker. What do those politicians want? Political benefit, economic growth, and, if it is a moral politician, public good. It’s not uncommon that first two needs could outweigh the third pursuit, and this situation produces unsustainable decisions that are not in the long term public interest. For example, following the first subway project started in 1965, China now has 25 cities constructing subways[1], and 18 cities constructing BRT[2]. Are metros and BRTs really necessary and feasible for so many cities? Unfortunately the answer might be “No”. My investigation with World Bank Transportation unit of one of the cities, Nanchang, China, indicates that the massive 5-line subway construction plan will add a heavy financial burden to the small second-tier city. However, subway and BRT projects are attractive to politicians because they meet their needs as follows:  First, the “large” and/or “advanced” projects could bring to the city huge funds from various sources as well as achieve apparently high GDP in short time [from short term construction projects], from which the leaders could obtain economic interests. Secondly, these projects are “advanced”, “sustainable” and very visible, so that they could easily draw attention from the central government, and thus the politicians could build up their political profiles.

Private Sector: Game Player and Change Maker

Despite the perception that some leaders tend to make decisions for their own interests, there are entities who are trying very hard to make the decision making process more scientific. The auxiliary forces include experts from planning and design department and institutes, and from non-government sectors such as the World Bank, etc. To some degree they could influence a mayor’s thoughts, but more often they have to give up their insistence and choose the second best alternative in order to meet the leaders’ requirements. Without guaranteed authority, the experts’ power is limited.

A smart move for private sector firms to increase their influence is to tailor their sustainable ideas to meet the politician’s needs. One example is to visualize the proposal of a transportation mode using a simulation modeling to help the politician see the possibilities to could really understand what result their decision would lead to[3].

Institutional & Legislation (I&L) System: Regulator and Interest Balancer

Not only could politicians make unsustainable decisions solely for their own political and economic interest, but the private sector could also make unsustainable proposals that could maximize their financial benefits, and cater to politician’s interests, but not be beneficial for the people. Thus, an I&L system that guarantees public good is indispensable. The I&L system should have an institutionalized project prioritization process that could make the selection of competing projects to be invested more scientific. The I&L system should have a regulatory and punishment mechanism that could prevent the sole realization of city leaders’ political and economic interests by ensuring experts’ power. The I&L system should include a viable public participatory institution that is special-designed for each municipality’s condition, so that the peoples’ voice could be heard and the I&L system and democracy could be mutually-promoting and mutually-supplemental.  Therefore, in the long run, a scientific I&L system could lead to a more collective and rational selection among competing goals and interests.

In sum, by focusing on the needs of decision-makers first, then making private sector and public sector work collaboratively with each other, the best decisions can be identified and then adapted through an institutionalized project prioritization process that leads to sustainable decisions.