Front loading sustainability in Chinese city planning

Mark Hewlett | 23 Jun 2014 | Comments

Tailoring Atkins’ Future Proofing Cities approach for China’s next phase of urbanisation.

If you ask anyone whether “sustainability” and “resilience” are important concepts to take into account when planning urban environments, they’ll doubtless say yes.

But why are these ideas so important? Sure, we all have a general understanding that a built environment is “sustainable” when it’s having a minimal effect on the natural environment, and that “resilience” has something to do with the environment’s ability to recuperate, but what do these terms really mean?

Simply put, sustainability stems from the simple principle that everything humans need for our survival and well-being depends – either directly or indirectly – on our natural environment.

Resilience is indeed the environment’s capacity to heal or “bounce back” after these human-derived assaults. While the natural environment is often surprisingly quick to recover, skilled planning can maximise the environment’s ability to absorb such punishment and recuperate.

The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) defined sustainable development many years ago as: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It’s therefore unsurprising that sustainability and resilience are also key topics in Atkins’ quest to create “future proofed” cities.

It’s this focus on balancing both the future and the present that drives Atkins’ approach in China. When planning for a nation that is becoming urbanised at an unprecedented rate, the temptation is to sacrifice the sustainability of the future for the sake of today’s pressing development demands.

Nevertheless, it’s a trade-off that can be minimised or even removed through factoring in the use of sustainable methods from the earliest planning stages. As climate change becomes more of a problem, it is also increasingly important to consider factors like traffic, energy use, water use and how to deal with waste in new cities – right from the very beginning.

When one thinks of what an “unsustainable” environment might look like, visions of 19th and 20th century U.S. and European landscapes featuring huge polluting smokestacks (and their consequent air quality issues) often spring to mind.

The aim is to avoid past errors – for example, those made in the late 19th / early-mid 20th century in the U.S., the Industrial Revolution in the U.K. and other failed development models.”

Today, these errors can largely be attributed to the fact that Europe industrialised early, when the environmental impact of the built environment was often not properly considered. China’s newly developing cities fortunately have the advantage of learning from Europe’s mistakes.

China’s unprecedented economic and social transformation has been accompanied by mushrooming growth in energy and other resource use, giving rise to increasingly severe environmental problems.

The new urban forms which have developed in China over the past 10-15 years, with more isolation of uses and higher reliance on private cars, are leading to not only more carbon intensive, polluting and congested development, but also loss of street life and local community.

With this in mind, environmental and sustainability considerations are now beginning to be incorporated into new city or town planning from the earliest stages, as opposed to introducing measures to reduce environmental damage after construction, which was the case in many European cities.

In terms of the environmental indicator systems used in China, the focus is shifting – going from merely deciding what things to measure and which targets to set, to defining the steps and actions required to achieve those targets.

These factors were key drivers in the development of our recently issued Eco-Low Carbon (ELC) Urban Planning Methodology. Funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Prosperity Fund, preparation of the methodology was led by Atkins supported by the China Society for Urban Studies (CSUS), working closely with China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) and the FCO. Officially launched in Beijing in May 2014, the methodology is aimed at providing a blueprint for ELC urban planning in China (see here for more information).

Sustainable urbanisation is increasingly recognised as a crucial underpinning for economic development in China. Over the past few years the term ‘ecological civilisation’ has come to prominence as a key concept encapsulating the balance needed between development and nature in China’s transformation from an industrial civilisation to a sustainable one.

The concept forms an integral component of China’s initiatives to promote a new type of urbanisation which emphasises both the quality and type of urbanisation as well as quantity.

This new type of urbanization naturally requires a new type of urban planning – one that puts ELC objectives front and centre, with a strong emphasis on the integration of the technical, procedural and conceptual aspects of the plan. It also calls for a deep understanding of the local context – leading to “human scale” development that is in harmony with nature and offers strong “place making”. Also important is to incorporate partnering to finance ELC development through green credit initiatives.

Key areas of focus in the ELC urban planning methodology also include more compact, mixed use and transit oriented development, and community-oriented facilities, all closely adapted to China’s highly distinct and widely diverse local context.

The ELC urban planning methodology is closely aligned with our global Future Proofing Cities (FPC) initiative. The FPC approach provides city planners and managers with a holistic, integrated, solution-focused framework to address the key global challenges of the 21st century of human induced climate change, resource scarcity and ecological degradation and to develop truly sustainable cities. FPC concepts and methods have been adapted and tailored for Chinese urban planning based on international and Chinese best practice.

ELC planning has the potential to deliver substantial improvements over the long term, inspiring successful outcomes, creating less polluting, more resource efficient, lower impact Chinese cities – in short, higher quality urban development that’s more in harmony with natural systems.

The central role of urban planning, with ‘front loading’ of ELC approaches and methods from the earliest stages, is recognized as vital in implementing the Government’s National New Urbanisation Plan (2014 – 2020), which sets out a clear vision of green eco-low carbon smart develop­ment. Increasingly, “ELC planning” is becoming synonymous simply with “good planning”.