The Urban Transformation, China Dream, and an Urban Planning Strategy

The Urban Transformation, China Dream, and an Urban Planning Strategy

This essay is an attempt to comprehend the “new urbanization” (新型城镇化) put forward by Chinese central government as an important national strategy for the next decades – what it means to a new typology of economy, the upgrading of industrial structure, reform of social benefits system, and most importantly next urban planning and design. Several issues were identified and examined, in comparing this refinement process with the extensive urbanization China has gone through in past 30 years. Then, an urban strategy was proposed for future urbanization – a creative conservation and renewal process of unique local culture and life style. In taking the urbanization to the next level, the strategy is envisioned to enhance the attractiveness of new cities, improve urban life quality, and draw people by promoting culture-related public projects, programs and tourism development.

The State Vision

The Prime Minister has indicated that the core idea is “people’s” urbanization, with an emphasis on the quality of urbanization (in comparison to the fast urban expansion since 80’s), and a goal of benefiting the people’s lives and improving farmers’ wealth condition. As China’s economy is going through a shift from export-based economy to one that is more dependent on internal consumption, the urbanization is considered to provide tremendous potential of booming needs.  The transformation of 1 billion Chinese rural populations to urban population is unprecedented for China, and if succeeded, will be a great contribution to the world. Above data Source: McKinsey & Co. report “Preparing for China’s urban billion” March 2009 

The Core Tasks in Realizing “China Dream”

Many have considered the current urbanization as an “upgraded” version of the past urbanization. The following key tasks are identified to discuss the reform and breakthroughs needed for the process to move forwards and upwards:

  • Industrial structural adjustment: promote employment opportunities, innovative entrepreneurship; develop services industry, and new industries with higher added-values.
  • Household registration system reform (Hu Kou reform): Out of the total population defined as urban, i.e. 650 million people, there are about 200 million migrant workers who still haven’t been fully urbanized. Although they have non-agricultural jobs in the city, they do not enjoy urban welfare benefits. The current urbanization is expected to solve this issue – improve the social benefits of the “floating population”, by possibly removing the restrictions about rural and urban “residential cards” (Hu Kou).
  • More intensive land-use and environmental conservation: will there be vast amount of land use increase for new city building? Answer is No. The main tasks will be to improve the land use efficiency and intensity for urban construction. Newly added development land will be strictly controlled. At the same time, the conservation of agricultural land and unique natural landscape characteristics and resources is highly recommended.
  • Diversified financing channels: the funding solution for 25,000 billion RMB investments needed in the next 3 years. Unlike the past urbanization, the current process will demand a close collaboration of local governments, social organizations and private capitals to fund for the new projects. Encourage social capital to participate in the investment and operation of urban public facilities.
  • Cultural heritage conservation and renewal: early in its tenure, China’s new leadership group has advocated “China Dream” as the national philosophy for the new development era. The meanings of such vision are not limited by the achievements of GDP growth, modernization and a more open and international society. It defines a comprehensive set of values and unique leadership China can offer to the world. And it’s strongly relevant to the promotion and development of its own culture. The future renovation of city building is to be found in the creative renewal process of unique local culture and life style.
  • Life style transformation: one of the important qualitative goals for the new urbanization is the wide spreading of urban civilization and life style in rural population. Non-agriculture employment and urban living condition have transformed rural population to urban residents in a basic sense. Looking forward, urban related life style, consumption pattern and social interactions will further promote and enhance the living quality of urban population, and move the urbanization to its advanced level. Public spaces and programs that encourage leisure activities, idea sharing, communications and self improvements at multiple dimensions will be in high demands in the new transformation.

The Planning Strategy

Past thirty years of urbanization has produced monuments – mega cities, extensive landscape transformation, and miraculous economic growth. The fast process has also resulted in issues – environmental degradation, culture and history destruction, and “ghost towns” everywhere without much Ren Chi in them. As the groundwork has been laid out, what the future “refinements” should be to improve the quality of urban life, remediate the problems during the urban “great leap forward”, and boost the happiness and confidence level of urban dwellers besides iconic monuments?  How to build new cities that attract people to live, work and enjoy has created new challenges for the private, public sectors, sociology scholars, policy makers, as well as urban planning and design professionals.

The author believes in a solution of enhancing the attractiveness of places by promoting its culture – introducing public spaces, programs, and tourism developments that have deep roots in local context. Other than the international townscape that has been overwhelmingly produced during the fast urban expansion, this strategy will be focusing on finding the lost mystique and charm of the places and life style, integrating unique cultural characteristics into place making and programs. It will also promote related service industries that are revenues generating, operational through a close collaboration of local government, private sector and sometimes social organizations.

Topics as follows are identified as key strategies to New Urbanization Phase Planning and Design:

  • Historical context and cultural DNA
  • Tourism appeal – park, open spaces
  • Urban leisure projects – culture and creative parks
  • Hotel and tourism products – affordable and local hospitality
  • Traditional activities as tourism attraction
  • Urban renewal – renovation of the old neighborhoods/building with new functions

References for this article – (Books, videos, blogs and columns on Urbanization)

 Urban Planning in Singapore – the Transformation of a City, Oxford University Press (320 page)

The Endless City: The Urban Age Project by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank’s Alfred Herrhausen Society, Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, 2010

Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, Jeffrey Hou, 2010

The Trend of Urban Migration, Doug Saunders,

The Arrival City, Doug Saunders,

Urbanus, Selected Projects 1999-2007, China Architectural Industry Press

“China Real-time Report” Column – The Wall Street Journal,

“Forum on China’s Urbanization” 凤凰城市网, Phoenix Media 凤凰咨询,

“Facts about China”,

Blog on City Planning on “Landscape China” 景观中国-城市规划,

Blog on Tourism Planning on “Landscape China”景观中国-旅游规划,

William Holly Whyte by Project for Public Spaces,


Cao, Yujun, Principal, Detailed Planning Dept, Beijing Tsinghua Urban Planning and Design Institute

Dr. Lin, Peng, Planning Director, China Investment Group

Liang, Hao, Principal, Planning Studio at China Academy of Urban Planning and Design

Dr. Zhang, Yajin, Principal and Director, ISA Internationales Stadtbauatelier, Beijing

Qian, Qian, President, Reasonable Fantasy Design Group, Shenzhen

Li, Feng, Design Director, Winfirst Development Group, Xiamen

Scott Slaney, Principal, Terrain Studio, San Francisco

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