China’s Soviet-Style Suburbia Heralds Environmental Pain

Take away the haze of air pollution and Waterfront Corso Mansions near Tianjin might seem like an urban idyll for China’s growing population of city dwellers.

Inside a gated compound, residential towers and houses overlook a lake and manicured gardens. What’s missing from the neighborhood are shops and amenities, turning the block and hundreds like it in the suburb of Meijiang into a giant dormitory for Tianjin, 40 minutes away by car.

“There’s no hospital nearby, no hair salon, hardly any restaurants,” said Wang Bo, 62, who lives with his daughter’s family in the complex and ferries his wife to work each day. “I have to drive 20 minutes just to buy vegetables.”

This is one of China’s superblocks, developments that are storing up a social, energy and environmental crisis by forcing millions of new urban middle-class residents to drive everywhere. As China’s ruling Communist Party convenes this week to debate an economic blueprint for the future, the Soviet-inspired urban plan pits municipal governments that rely on the land sales for a fifth of their revenue against Premier Li Keqiang, who is trying to balance urbanization with efforts to clean up the environment.

What the U.S. did in the 1950s with 160 million people, China is doing now with more than a billion -- moving to suburbia. Unlike the U.S. postwar sprawl, which mixed houses with schools, supermarkets and diners, the new Chinese commuters have to drive back to the city, or even across town for basic services, boosting energy consumption and emissions that have made the nation’s cities some of the most polluted in the world.

Li’s Task

China has shifted more than 300 million people into cities since 1995 -- about twice the population of Russia -- and Premier Li Keqiang must find a way to accommodate almost as many again from the countryside without further wrecking the environment and causing the nation’s fuel bill to soar. China’s metropolitan dwellers, already one tenth of the world’s population, use three times more energy than their countryside peers, according to the World Bank.

“If China doesn’t do the right thing now it will be locked into an inefficient infrastructure that leads to more congestion and more pollution,” said Shobhakar Dhakal, former executive director of the Global Carbon Project, an international scientific program hosted by the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan. “There’s an urgent need for the government to provide incentives for urban growth to follow a more efficient path.”

New Strategy

With China’s cities set to swallow another 276 million people by 2030, the nation needs a new strategy for municipal planning that brings residential and other land uses closer together with efficient public transport, said Peter Calthorpe, founder of Berkeley-based urban design firm Calthorpe Associates and author of “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.”

Under the superblock model, municipal authorities typically build four- to eight-lane highways to remote suburbs where they can sell building rights to developers on slabs of land about 500 meters square. The construction companies then erect apartment towers on the block separated from the rest of the community by fences and security guards.

Housing, industry and shopping districts are often zoned for different parts of the city, making long commutes the norm.

Even so, the rapid expansion of cities has helped drive average annual economic growth of 10.5 percent over the past decade, leading to better road and rail systems and increasing the incomes of millions.

Changing Landscape

“In the past 30 years China’s urbanization has transformed the landscape, upgraded public infrastructure and improved the quality of urban lives,” said Chang Jian, China economist at Barclays Plc in Hong Kong who previously worked for the World Bank. “There are problems, of course. Integrating hundreds of millions more migrant workers will be a challenge.”

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the Tianjin Planning Bureau didn’t respond to faxed requests for comment.

The superblock system has also boosted revenue for local governments who can sell rights for otherwise marginal land faster, at higher prices and with lower planning and infrastructure costs than for small parcels.

Municipal authorities in China, with a combined debt of more than 10 trillion yuan ($1.6 trillion), get about 21 percent of their revenue from land sales, according to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. That reliance on the property market for revenue “has become a chronic problem,” wrote Citigroup Inc. Hong Kong-based analysts Oscar Choi and Marco Sze in a Nov. 5 research note.

Same Dilemma

As many as 90 percent of China’s cities are built this way, said He Dongquan, director of the China Sustainable Cities Program in Beijing at the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that promotes clean energy.

“The question is: Do the mid-size, second- and third-tier cities build their way into the same dilemma as Beijing and Shanghai or do they take a better path,” said Calthorpe. “If they don’t, the environmental burden will be huge. You don’t have to wait for the catastrophe: It’s already here.”

Energy use and carbon emissions from transportation will probably triple to 30 percent of the nation’s total by 2030, according to He.

Policies that promote the use of public transport in more compact and integrated communities could halve fuel consumption and carbon emissions from transport by 2030, said He. Last year, China’s carbon emissions grew by 300 million tons, more than any other country and about a quarter of the global increase.

Superblocks are “the standard for virtually all new housing” in China, said a report last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Urbanism.

Waiting Taxis

Along the four-lane avenue to Meijiang from Tianjin, the towers of dozens of those blocks loom out of the haze. Two workers eating an early lunch crouch on the pavement next to the road, which is almost deserted of cars in the late morning. Near Bo’s complex, half a dozen light green taxis wait on a corner, their drivers chatting and smoking. A 10-minute walk down the road finds not a single shop or restaurant.

Bo, who retired two years ago, drives about 40 minutes morning and night to take his wife to and from work at the Tianjin Medical Center. Even his granddaughter has to be driven to kindergarten.

Tianjin’s 13.5 million people live in a city that is among China’s 10 most polluted, according to the environment ministry.

Polluted Air

“It’s really terrible,” said Lin Zhixin, 30, who lives in the same complex as Bo with her Korean husband and daughter, on a day when air pollution was five times the level the World Health Organization deems safe. “When I took my child to the hospital recently with a cough there were many other children there with the same problem. The doctor said pollution was partly to blame.”

Tianjin’s growth is being replicated across the nation’s cities. China’s total urban area is set to expand by 220,000 square kilometers -- enough to blanket Great Britain with metropolises -- by 2030, from a total of 80,000 square kilometers in 2000, says Karen Seto, a professor at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

More than half of that expansion is probably yet to happen, said Seto, who uses satellite images, rates of metropolitan population growth and the historical relationship between income and urban land area to estimate increases.

Rising Emissions

At stake is whether China’s carbon dioxide emissions leap four times to match U.S. per capita output or peak about two thirds lower at levels on par with France, which may enable cuts by other nations to cap global greenhouse gas emissions, wrote Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser in his 2011 book “Triumph of the City.”

Building compact cities around mass transit systems that balance commercial and residential areas would slash reliance on cars, preventing as much as 800 million tons of carbon dioxide in total from spewing into the atmosphere by 2030, more than emitted by Germany in 2011, Energy Foundation’s He estimates.

Poor planning threatens to reduce any gains China might make by reducing pollution from traditional industries. China’s cities eject more than 70 percent of the nation’s energy-related carbon emissions, about 80 percent of that from coal-fired power generation and industry.

As more people move from the country and increase energy use, the demand for power is set to climb. China’s coal-fired generating capacity will jump about 78 percent in the decade ending 2020, according to a forecast by China Development Bank.

Urban Path

“Because per capita energy use in cities is high and rising and the rate of urbanization is rapid, it’s inevitable that urban areas will increasingly determine the path of China’s CO2 emissions,” said Dhakal, associate professor at the Asian Institute of Technology’s School of Environment, Resources and Development in Bangkok, Thailand.

Spurred by the rising wealth and the current city design, China is putting about 20 million more cars on the roads each year. As much as 30 percent of PM2.5, the fine particles that pose the greatest health risk, is caused by transportation.

Superblock neighborhoods in Jinan, capital of Shandong province, consume two to three times more energy than other neighborhoods in the city mainly because they cause more trips by car, according to MIT’s Dennis Frenchman and Christopher Zegras.

China’s “pointlessly wide roads and squares” are rooted in Soviet-style city planning intended to “project Communist Party Power,” wrote Tom Miller in “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History.”

Jammed Roads

“The typical Chinese city is gray, ugly and congested,” wrote Miller. “The roads are jammed, the air filthy, the streets often unwalkable.”

Premier Li is trying to change that. China will adopt a “new type of urbanization” that puts the people at its “heart” and incorporates ideas of green and efficient growth, he said in March at a press conference in Beijing. The World Bank and the State Council’s Development Research Center are working on a report focused on urbanization that Li requested. It is scheduled for publication in December.

“Some of our priorities are building dense cities that keep people living close to where they work with better transport systems,” World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said at a briefing in Beijing in September. “If China breathes easier, the world will breathe easier, too.”

New Designs

Signs of change include experiments with new metropolitan designs in places including Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province.

When its new district of Chenggong became known as a so-called “ghost city” because its streets remained deserted years after completion, the local government turned to the Energy Foundation and Calthorpe to help it develop another part of the city. Four years later, that new suburb is under construction on 8.6 square kilometers of land, using “human-scale streets” with mass transit, bus stations and green spaces every 300 meters, said Calthorpe. Schools, hospitals, restaurants and jobs will all be available within compact districts.

In Beijing, some infill redevelopments have begun to create more livable areas including the Nanluoguxiang and Qianmen areas, said Fang Yiping, assistant professor at the PSU-China Innovations in Urbanization Program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

Human Scale

“They both attempted to create more human-scale urban spaces, and both are increasingly well received by the public,” said Fang.

Li Keqiang and his fellow Communist leaders have the opportunity of shifting the nation’s policy priorities at the conclave, known as a plenum, held in Beijing on Nov. 9-12.

A major obstacle to change is the local-government financing system that favors development of “excessive quantities of scattered urban land, at low densities, exceeding the level justified by demand,” wrote World Bank staffers Zhi Liu and Andrew Salzberg in a report last year.

City mayors and other senior officials are in office for three to five years and so have little incentive to try innovative approaches, said Seto.

“Once basic infrastructure is set in place it’s very difficult to change the form of the city,” she said. “There are still a lot of cities to be built. But they need pretty quickly to change what they are doing.”

— With assistance by Kevin Hamlin

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