China's sustainability challenge: interview with Dr Qiu Baoxing

Dr Qiu Baoxing, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, People’s Republic of China, also member of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize Council, shares his insights on the various challenges of building sustainable cities in China.

Qiu Baoxing

You have been a strong advocate of preserving cultural sites, which are often razed in the pursuit of urban planning. In the context of building sustainable cities, how do you balance development against the preservation of buildings?

Qiu Bao Xing (QBX): China is currently witnessing unprecedented rapid urbanisation with a huge number of rural migrants entering cities and a great amount of land under construction. Many local governments are pushed by short-term benefits to eradicate historical and cultural sites for large scale infrastructure construction or real estate development.

For example, when I took office in Hangzhou in the 1990s, I found the Hefang Commercial Street, known for its architecture, to be literally torn into pieces. For the sake of building new commercial facilities, the ancient trees were whacked (hacked?), local residents were relocated, and the land was reorganised for bidding. The city’s government ordered “an immediate surgery” to preserve this cultural site. Preserving the urban cultural vein was of great importance to leave the next generation with a sense of belonging. Also, preservation ought to be undertaken gradually and cautiously, as we repaired the blocks one by one as if it was an organic process. When the renewed Hefang Street was reopened to the public a year later, the citizens loved it. The commercial street now boasts a traditional elegance with modern commercial convenience. In 2011, an international rating institute estimated that the present value of Hefang street was more than 10 billion RMB.

Hence, preserving historical and cultural sites and building modern cities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. China needs to treasure her historical and cultural heritage, not just for this generation, but also for future generations.

A sustainable city is one that can efficiently utilise its resources at the same time as having a minimal impact on its environment. Do you see China achieving this?

QBX: We inherited a long and splendid farming civilisation. where our ancestors tried to minimise impact on the environment. Our civil construction used to be called the craftsmanship of soil and wood, in contrast with nomad civilisation of rock architecture.

During industrialisation and urbanisation, China has used 7% of global arable land, 7% of fresh water, 6% of oil and 4% of natural gas to support the urbanisation of -a fifth of the global population. Admittedly, this has caused serious land, water and air pollution problems.

China is aware of these problems and is determined to embark on a new route of resource-efficient, environmentally friendly, intensive and compact urbanisation. At the 7th Asia-Europe Meeting in 2008, the committee put forward the Beijing Declaration on Sustainable Development to call for collaborative actions for sustainable development. After that the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD) initiated the ASEM Eco-City Network to promote international cooperation for the planning of eco-cities. The Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin, for example, was set up as the world’s first nation-level eco-city, combining advanced low carbon emission industry and transport, renewable energy and recycling techniques.

Following the model of Tianjin Eco-city, we now have dozens of cities embarking on eco-cities projects, such as Caofeidian, Shenzhen Guangming district, Zhuzhou, etc. With international cooperation as well as our favourable domestic policies, I am confident that China will be able to achieve the goal of building more sustainable cities.

Sustainable cities need to address both future challenges and the needs of today. How do you see Chinese cities planning for the future and will these cities be sustainable in the long run?

QBX: Last year, President Hu Jingtao’s report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China stressed the importance for China to pursue comprehensive, balanced and sustainable development, to fully implement the overall plan to promote economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological progress.

Some city decision makers used to be short-sighted, focusing on economic growth and quick development. This has led to serious problems such as the erosion of public greenbelts and historical sites for commercial use, clear-cut functional zones, and over-motorised urban sprawl.. We have come to the crucial point of transiting from the former “high consumption, high pollution and high carbon emissions” to a green and low carbon path.

There are two cores to the building of sustainable cities in China -.urban compactness and diversity. Compactness means a lowest (minimum?) density of 10,000 capita per square km in a built area with public open space and natural scenery. Diversity means resilience in the following aspects: street style, location choice, architectural and gardening art, industrial and urban-rural relationship.

Recently, many of China’s municipal governments have revised their development goals and methods, placing more emphasis on building liveable and sustainable cities. For example, other than the aforementioned eco-cities, Wuxi, Tangshan, Changsha and Qinhuangdao also plan to follow the footsteps of Tianjin. These eco-cities are planned for about 300,000 residents, with Transit-oriented Developments and green transport, while encouraging recycling and energy efficiency. These cities are leading the trend of urban development in China now. Pioneers are often faced with obstacles and challenges ahead, but this is an irreversible global trend, and we are working on it.

You recently spoke about green development strategies to develop China’s smaller towns: “The initiative is to establish 200-500 small towns and promote the development of large, medium and small cities and small-towns in the urban system of the country.” How do you plan to achieve this and what sustainability measures are you planning to undertake to build these towns?

QBX: In June 2011, the Ministry of Finance and the MOHURD jointly proposed to develop green towns. Our first step is to support seven pilot green towns with central subsidies for the general execution of green and low carbon development for two to three years. Then, during the process of execution, both ministries will invite consultants to help summarise the experiences. The green towns will be carefully evaluated using a system of sustainable indicators.

In August 2012, another seven towns including Gu Beikou town of Beijing, Haiyu town of Jiangsu, Mudong town of Chongqing were listed as pilot cities. These towns are selected from the eastern, middle and the western parts of China to adjust the evaluating indicators such as per capita land use, sewage treating rate, greening area for different regional situations.

As for specific measures of sustainability, these green towns have to take into consideration two levels of planning. First, they have to complete a general plan of execution, covering development goals, major measures, fiscal budget, policies for infrastructure and public services construction in light of reducing energy consumption per GDP growth, carbon emissions and major pollutant emissions. Second, each town has to detail specific measures in the following five areas: renewable energy such as solar and surface geothermal resources, green building and energy-saving renovation for residential areas, town sewage and garbage treatment systems, environmental pollution prevention and treatment, as well as local business and trade. These five areas are crucial for developing sustainable towns. The future urbanisation of China relies on vitality and health of these green towns.

Do you see public-private partnership as the way forward to building sustainable cities? How do you see cities in emerging economies achieving this, especially when poor governance happens to be a major deterrent?

The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) is a fairly new mode for financing municipal affairs, combining the advantages of “top-down” guidance and “bottom-up” innovation. However, the Chinese government has been cautious promote this widely; Build-Operate-Transfer is still a more predominant mode of financing municipal affairs.

The PPP method requires the government to grant certain private businesses a long-term franchise for building and running a municipal project with preset risks and benefit sharing contracts. Since China is undergoing rapid urbanisation and industrialisation with market legislation needs to be improved, there are many uncertainties in fulfilling the contracts. Also, Chinese municipal affairs have long been highly planned and controlled by the government. Without adequate information and legal constraints, it is still premature to promote PPP in China.

Other emerging countries such as India and Brazil are facing the same challenges. I want to emphasise three basic features of sustainable governance: integrity, legitimacy, and innovation.

What do you think cities need to fundamentally invest in before embarking on the sustainability route?

QBX: A city needs to invest widely and hugely at the beginning. However, we have to clearly draw the line between what the market can do and what the government can do.

For example, France’s experience tells us that central governments should strengthen their direct investment and subsidies to generally guide pilot cities and promote policies. While private investments can be encouraged in energy-saving buildings, renewable energy application and some quasi-public services, the government should focus on social and environmental planning for the whole society. In areas such as urban historical sites renewal, ecological and natural resources preservation, pollutant control and inspection and so on, long-term fiscal inputs are necessary for the whole nation.

Therefore, the government’s involvement in the sustainable development of cities is not only in direct investments, but more importantly in the setting up of strategic approaches and guidelines for such developments. Among which, planning is the most important governmental tool in shaping the urban future and regulating the growth process. O

This article was first published in May 2013. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.

Qiu Baoxing

Dr Qiu Baoxing
Dr Qiu, was formerly the Vice Minister of China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and is a veteran in urban studies research and implementation. He was in charge of urban planning, urban infrastructure construction, building energy savings and technology, natural and historical heritage protection, water pollution prevention and town and village development. He is also President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies, President of Urban Planning Society of China, and Chairman of IWA China Committee. He has been the major leader in Leqing County, Jinhua City, and Hangzhou City of Zhejiang Province between 1984 and 2001.

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