Crossing the river by feeling the stones Approaches to Sustainable Urban Development in China

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: China already has the highest numbe of,and largest cities in its history. According to recent statistics, Chinese cities were home to 52.6% of China’s total population at the end of 2012. If the current trend holds, it is predicted that by 2025 the Chinese urban population will be over 1 billion including eight megacities, each with a population of over 10 million. Urbanisation is part of a central strategy of the Chinese Government to aid development and gradually raise welfare standards. Meanwhile, environmental problems in China are getting more severe which now threatens the balance of sustainable development.To address the environmental challenges caused by and in cities and to balance its economic growth with social and environmental aspects, China has made itself a vast living laboratory for sustainable urban development approaches. Many city concepts such as green city, garden city, and eco-city and low-carbon city have been promoted and put into practicein the past two decades at different levels and scales. The reasons why so many concepts have been used in China are: the vague definition of sustainable development; different governmental departments have been engaged in promoting different concepts each with a different focus; the concept itself evolved over time. One common feature of these concepts is that none of them is well defined. However, there is a clear trend that the concepts are becoming more comprehensive regarding their coverage of more aspects of sustainability.Case analysis of the more popular concepts eco-city, low-carbon city, low-carbon eco-city, eco-civilization, and other experiences show, that the lack of definition of the concepts proves important barriers in practice. It’s not possible to clearly define these concepts because they are more or less value based, but it is desirable to develop more scientifically based frameworks within which urban planning can be carried out. Another barrier is that urban planning in China is implemented with a confused backdrop of a state operating somewhere between the old Soviet style of centralized planning and a growing market economy. Concepts like low-carbon and eco-city are introduced top-down and are hardly understood among local planners. There is also a danger that market actors make fundamental changes in well-developed plans during the implementation phase.In this thesis acase study carried out in the city of Xuzhou has shown that a process oriented and simpler framework for eco-city development with a clear focus on resource efficiency can be applied in a Chinese context. A three level approach has been used in order to escape from the trap of trying to find exact definitions for the concepts used in China. Depending on the ambition level chosen by acity, different planning methods should be applied and different sets of indicators should be chosen.What is needed in order to move forward in China is a more participatory planning structure at local levels including the public and NGOs. This is because of the values included in sustainability frameworks. If the development of a framework is not anchored in a broad participatory process, the likelihood of success is lessened. There is little evidence of such development in China today particularly when lack of legislation making local engagement in environmental issues more difficult. Takingin to account the subjective nature of sustainability frameworks, it is also clear that China has to develop its own narratives for sustainable urban development based on its own culture. The application of more or less ready-made western countries solutions for urban development has not been very successful in China.Looking into the future we can see that the global need for resources will grow in an almost uncontrolled way for several reasons and there are no signs that this phenomenon will phase out. This raises the question: is development based on ecological modernisation theory, which means we can decouple economic growth from environmental degradation by applying new technologies and system thinking, a feasible way forward, or do we need to find new more radical ways to change the urban metabolism based on totally new narratives for the future. The challenge for Industrial Ecology will be to tie together industrial metabolism with urban metabolism into models for increasing resource efficiency in the overall metabolism, including the use of natural resources from agriculture, forestry, mining and harvesting of resources from sea. Another challenge will be to connect awareness to action and find ways to see how results from Industrial Ecology methods can be used in practice in cooperation with actors in society.Industrial Ecologycan develop into more of a science for decision support in the planning of sustainable urban development. However new research as well as new methods is needed to handle the complex issues of the normative component in frameworks for sustainability and for expanding the thinking around ecological modernisation. Research in developing quantitative metabolic models hasto be complemented with the formulation of research questions together with practitioners and other disciplines (like urban planning, ecology, and social science) in how to promote more radical changes in urban metabolism. This will need the establishment of many movements in society aiming to formulate new narratives for the future. There are examples of such movements forchanging consumption patterns in society e.g. collaborative consumption, which is an economic model based on sharing, trading, borrowing or lending instead of owning.The Industrial Ecology community should have an overall vision to bridge the gap between science and practice toward sustainable futures for our society. Development of ideas to this end will be the focus of the next step in my research towards my Ph Dthesis. This will include qualitative eco-cycle models for more effective utilization of material and energy in the societal metabolism as well as new socio-technical models for integration of these models into urban planning routines.