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China’s cities get eco-smart, what can Australia learn?

China is urbanising faster than any other country in history. It now has 120 cities with over one million people and 36 cities with over two million. By 2030 there will be one billion people living in…

China’s fast-track urbanisation doesn’t have to be unsustainable. Flickr/dcmaster

China is urbanising faster than any other country in history. It now has 120 cities with over one million people and 36 cities with over two million. By 2030 there will be one billion people living in China’s cities. Building projects have been fast-tracked on a massive scale to accommodate the change.

Now however China is looking at more sustainable cities. From architects to eco-cities, Australia has something to learn from China’s solutions.

Smarter cities

In the last 20 years China’s urbanisation has become synonymous with inequity. Poor farmers left the countryside for jobs, air conditioning, private cars and supermarkets full of goods – only to end up as a new urban underclass. There is a growing awareness of the trauma China’s urban boom created.

Now a younger generation of urban dwellers are asking for better living standards. They want a better quality of life, and the sort of environmental programs they’ve seen in Sydney, Seoul, Singapore or Tokyo.

There are some promising developments attempting to rethink Chia’s cities. Architect Wang Shu highlights the trend. Wang profoundly disagrees with China’s rush to urbanisation, which he criticises through his projects. Instead of demolishing existing buildings, he argues for reuse. By adapting and regenerating buildings Wang saves energy and materials, and maintains the cities’ identities.

Prize-winning architect Wang Shu’s design for the China Academy of Art, Hangzhou Flickr/o d b

The Chinese government has caught on. There are now new benchmarks for environmental standards. Agricultural land is being protected from urban sprawl. Most intriguing are “eco-cities” projects proposed for Qingdao, Tianjin and near Chengdu and Wanzhuang.

The principal behind eco-cities is living within the means of the environment and resources. Eco-cities strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions by producing energy through renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass, and using low carbon public transport. Resources are conserved through waste management such as natural bio-filtration of storm water. There are even plans to grow food and plant new green areas within the boundaries of the city. The ambitious ultimate goal of these cities is self-sufficiency.

Eco-cities can be new cities, built from the ground up, or redesigns of existing cities like Chengdu. These are government initiatives where private developers are sold parcels of land according to a master plan. However more and more communities are being included in discussions. This grass-roots participation in the process is something very new to China.

From China to Australia

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb recently noted that “the most pressing concerns for Australian researchers were responding to a changing planet and the challenges of the Asian Century,” and stated that “we need to be in there right now seeking solutions to some of these challenges”.

This goes far beyond the conventional thinking of aesthetics and functional city form. It is about long-term sustainability of urban settlements. In this way we can increase the resilience and durability of cities against heatwaves and extreme weather events such as flooding. Some of the thinking around high-density precincts in China could translate to Australia and inform new approaches for increasing inner-city density and reducing urban sprawl.

Urbanisation in Asian societies involves hundreds of millions of people, many times that of Australia’s population. The scale and pace of urban growth in China is a defining feature for many countries in the 21st century, with profound implications for people everywhere. China’s ever-growing energy consumption now means that it accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse emissions.

The upside is that China now has more researchers than any other country. With this shift to a knowledge-based economy and the global centre of gravity shifting to the Asia-Pacific, this is Australia’s chance to learn from sustainability efforts in China.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    We saw a lot of Wang Su's principles for sustainability in action during preparation for the Olympics with many people being forcibly removed from their homes so they could be demolished.

    Learning ought to always be a two way street for all the best answers are not going to be with the one group in a particular location and trading of ideas should occur, that being a prime advantage of international conferences and other gabfests such as those that politicians get involved with though possibly…

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Greg North

      "We saw a lot of Wang Su's principles for sustainability in action during preparation for the Olympics with many people being forcibly removed from their homes so they could be demolished"

      This actually touches of social ethic and the pains of transition not sustainability at all

      ie. even if they killed those people to build more sustainable homes.....that wouldnt mean the homes are not sustainable? that wouldnt mean the design is incorrect? it only means that the execution infringes on basic human rights it doesnt impact sustainability

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Greg North

      yep - could be great innovation and eco-friendly, but could also be social engineering.

      they need to get rid of pollution first.

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  2. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, I fear a certain brand of westerners are too comfortable using China as an excuse to not engage in conversations about sustainability or take action and so will attack any good news coming out of china until it is overwhelmingly obvious that they are leaders in addressing climate change and sustainability.

    I found the article interesting and a great read, thanks for posting

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  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Garry Baker

    researcher

    I'm not so sure we can learn anything much from China unless they develop new and better technologies than we already have.

    As it stands, they simply have no option than to clean up their act - Their cities are environmental garbage dumps, where the air is unfit to breath, and yes, they may look flash, but that's about all. A number of them are now regarded as 'cancer central', such is their track record with the annual toll

    Added to this, their predisposition for a vast building spree has…

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    1. Sheena Burnell

      Observer

      In reply to Garry Baker

      Gary this is all too true unfortunately. As someone who lives there I read articles like this and try to reconcile this rosy picture with a country where even the Chinese are fed up with the growing incidence of primary disease including cancer, daily food scandals, disgraceful corporate governance (or lack of) and a truly frightening scale of soil, water and air pollution. Although laudable, efforts such as these are a drop in the ocean for China's rapidly looming environmental crisis and they need to do a lot more than have a few show-pony eco-cities.

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  5. Michael Marriott

    logged in via Twitter

    Terrific article, and very interesting to know what is going on in China. In particular what we can learn from China, rather than simply selling them rocks. We need to be thinking beyond resource extraction and about the knowledge economy: adaptation is going to depend on innovation and new ways of thinking, building and design.

    For those interested in sustainability and design I highly recommend "Sustainable Urbanism and Beyond: Rethinking Cities for the Future".

    Over 300 pages, it has some great essays by some of the world's leading designers, architects and thinkers on transitioning our cities.

    http://watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/book-of-the-week-the-beauty-of-sustainable-urbanism-and-beyond/

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  6. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    "Eco-cities strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions by producing energy through renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass"

    Actually, I think you'll find the main thing they're using as a scalable, high-density, high-availability carbon-free replacement for coal is actually nuclear power.

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  7. Mark Lawson

    senior journalist at Australian Financial Review

    I have no objection to the article as such, but as one of the other posters have commented it is difficult to see what China would have to teach us about these matters. Australia already has buildings up to five green stars (I think, or have they got to six?) with all the energy conservation and waste water recycling measures mentioned. I know in some new communities they have duel reticulation systems to recycle water for non-drinking use and so on.. my impression from the article was that China has some way to catch up.. as for the renewable energy sure there are a lot of test systems like there are here, but China doesn't have a renewable energy target.. This leads to absurd results with a lot of wind turbines being built but, anecdotaly, a proportion not being connected because the grids are not legally compelled to buy the energy (my potentially faulty recollection is a third, but this could have changed).

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