The Institute has contributed to the elaboration of the joint report by the World Bank and the Development Research Center of China’s State Council, Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization, which lead to major recommendations for reforming urban planning and design and a new model of urbanization for China:

  • Cities can also make better use of existing urban land through flexible zoning, with smaller plots and more mixed land use, which would lead to denser and more efficient urban development.
  • In cities, basing the government prices for industrial land on market value can encourage land-intensive industries to move to smaller, secondary cities.
  • Linking transport infrastructure with urban centers and promoting coordination among cities would encourage better management of congestion and pollution.

 The 10th International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building & New Technologies and Products Expo has been the occasion to present the recent work done by the Urban Morphology Institute for creating more compact and resilient cities in China.

1st slideRessources:


Containing sprawl is the key challenge for Chinese cities

New urban developments in Chinese cities contribute to sprawl and to the decrease in densities. About 95 percent of urban growth in China happens as low-density edge or leapfrog growth, while a very little percentage of growth happens by infill and urban redevelopment. The building of new towns and economic development zones on the edges of existing cities serves local governments in their competition to attract capital and foster economic growth. The new expansion zones are often planned and built at rather low gross densities because of the size of road infrastructure, setbacks, and open spaces. For example, Binhai New District in Tianjin Municipality is being built at roughly half the density inside Tianjin’s third ring road. Chenggong is another example. It is a new town 15 kilometers from downtown Kunming, with an area of 160 square kilometers, or 2.6 times the size of Manhattan. The planned gross floor area ratio (FAR)—the ratio of a building’s total floor area (gross floor area) to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built—in Chenggong is 0.87, much less than the FAR of 3 to 4 in dense European cities.

Infrastructure costs

If sprawl continues at its current rate, urban areas will triple in land size by 2030. Based on empirical data from more than 50 cities worldwide, and with the expectation that the urban GDP will grow 2.5 times and the urban population will grow 1.5 times, urban energy consumption will triple. Sprawl will be responsible for 59 percent of this growth in energy consumption, while demographic changes and GDP will be responsible for just 12 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Containging sprawl, therefore, is extremely important for managing energy consumption and building more sustainable cities

Urban sprawl—with rapid growth of low density areas at the urban periphery—has led to congestion of transport arteries and contributed to pollution. Moreover, it has increased resource use and carbon emissions in three ways: longer commutes and more private motorized trips have increased urban transport fuel consumption; larger living space per person has led to higher per capita energy use for home heating, cooling, and power consumption; and infrastructure has been used less intensively than it would be in dense urban cores, lowering economies of scale and increasing the capital, operating, and maintenance costs for infrastructure services.

Price and regulatory instruments can enhance density, sustainability and economic efficiency

density China

China is not yet taking full advantage of the benefits of density. For example, an additional 4.2 million people could be added to the Guangzhou population before it reached the same density profile as Seoul without adding more land. The great benefit of doing so would be more efficient use of existing infrastructure and services, thus reducing the demand for new land and infrastructure. Similarly, Shenzhen could accommodate another 5.3 million people if it were redeveloped to the same density profile as Seoul. Not only does densification enhance efficiency, it also reduces carbon emissions and infrastructure costs. Chinese cities are already moving in the right direction with densities showing an upward trend. Beijing increased density by 50 percent on average in medium-low density areas (5,000 to 7,500 people per square kilometer), and by 48 percent in very low density areas (fewer than 1,000 people per square kilometer) between 2000 and 2010.

To enhance density and nurture innovation and the service sector while slowing the speed of a physical expansion, local governments need to refine urban planning capabilities by strengthening price and regulatory instruments in their planning repertoires. By allowing developers of industrial, commercial, and residential areas to bid competitively for land on a more equal basis, land use will become more efficiently allocated both in the urban cores and on the periphery. In most cities across the world, land prices shape density and land use, subject to restrictions put in place by land use regulations. If land prices are high, developers will build high-density, high-rise office buildings, shopping centers and apartments. Higher densities generate greater need for infrastructure services (electricity, water, waste water). But they also support environmental sustainability by being better suited to public transport. To be sure, density must not overwhelm infrastructure. Yet it is equally important not to underuse infrastructure by imposing low-density caps where infrastructure can support higher ones. Hence the need to coordinate land use and density with infrastructure.

Coordinating land use planning with housing, infrastructure, and financing

It is critical that land use be coordinated with infrastructure provision that meets current needs as well as projected future demand. Higher densities in cities can drive economic growth, but they also require additional infrastructure investments to ensure that the benefits from density are not overshadowed by congestion, environmental, or other costs. China has a unique historic opportunity to optimize and intensify land use on a large scale along major urban transport corridors. The urban rail network will reach 3,000 kilometers by 2015 and double that by 2020, with over RMB 4 trillion in cumulative investment. The high speed and express rail network is also expected to reach all major cities of more than 500,000 people by 2020. Development can be focused along urban transport corridors. Along with public transit improvements, certain corridors could be assigned higher development intensities, and local governments could channel land conversion quotas to these areas by allowing transfer of land conversion quotas from slower growing areas outside the corridors. To foster more coordinated development around transport nodes, changes in zone ordinances should be simplified, allowing higher FARs, population density, and building heights around transit stations and specially designated boulevards and plots. Land use regulations can encourage a mix of residential, commercial, and special industrial uses (media and entertainment) and confer the right to adapt and reuse commercial buildings as housing, especially in boulevard and transit station areas.

To that end, planners should promote infill development that maximizes the use of existing infrastructure and services, including public transport, to encourage investment in the existing urban fabric. Planners should also direct growth to locations where it would support the provision of key community facilities such as schools and health facilities. An important tool that local governments have to direct growth is their expenditures for capital improvements such as streets, parks, and schools. Linking those expenditures to a long-term strategic vision can be a powerful motivator for private investment consistent with the vision. That would include the development of a capital improvement program that specifies needed urban service improvements over time and identifies sources of funding.

 Land value capture mechanisms should replace land leases to finance infrastructure development. Experiences in cities like Hong Kong SAR and Tokyo show that ”capture value”—an infrastructure financing concept that seeks to capture land value created by new infrastructure, particularly transit—is effective not only for sustainable finance but also for more efficient and sustainable urban development. Value capture is particularly well suited for financing transit infrastructure in dense, congested settings, where a high premium is placed on accessibility and where the institutional capacity exists to administer the program. Accessibility benefits, which get capitalized into land values, present enormous opportunities for recapturing some of the value created by transit investment.

 Moving from superblocks to small, well-connected, mixed-use plots provides significant (co)benefits

Small blocks allow more density and agglomeration economies. Chinese cities could be redeveloped within the existing built urban footprint by dividing superblocks into smaller blocks and increasing intensity inward rather than directing the growth outward toward spatial expansion. Redevelopment within the existing footprint would create more compact cities, would foster short-range accessibility and interactions, would diversify the economic fabric at the local scale, and would decrease the environmental loads of cities. Small blocks in the Chinese context can achieve an average gross FAR around 2.5—doubling at a minimum the FAR of the current superblocks. A finer-grain urban fabric could be obtained by subdividing the superblocks into small blocks of 100–150 meters a side and reorganizing the spatial layout by constructing additional medium-rise buildings that redefine the boundaries and internal structure of the block. China’s unprecedented effort of the past three decades to build large structures has left space to build the intermediate and small elements in the space in superblocks left empty by the low building coverage ratio. Filling in this empty land with new low-rise dense and continuous construction, recreating vibrant streets inside the existing blocks, and connecting the whole city by narrower streets running from block to block with walking and cycling paths is a challenge—but it is also a source of new profits generated by the use of high-value existing urban land. Subdivision of land leases and market opening to smaller-scale investors are key for incremental densification. Land leases should be subdivided into smaller plots, and financial mechanisms created, to foster the coexistence of a few large projects with large-scale finance, a medium number of medium-scale projects, and a myriad of microprojects financed by small and private local initiatives.

 A high density of streets with a good balance of different street sizes promotes walking and cycling. A high density of narrow streets with close intersections creates a vibrant, safe, and walkable urban landscape. Destinations tend to be within walking distance, and the system of close intersections enables the pedestrian to change direction easily. The connectivity of streets of different sizes ensures the continuity of public space that is an essential feature for walkability. The differentiation of street widths goes along with a differentiation of travel speeds. Narrow streets are designed for low-speed traffic with bicycle lanes, while larger streets can accommodate faster traffic. Local street patterns should be integrated with surrounding networks to provide flexibility and accommodate changes in built and social environments. Street networks should, in general, be connected at all scales and in between scales. Connected or “permeable” networks not only encourage walking and cycling but also lead to a more even spread of motor traffic throughout an area and so avoid the need for distributor roads. A development with poor links to the surrounding area creates an enclave, which encourages movement to and from it by car rather than by other modes. New developments and alterations to existing street networks should be designed with multiple access points that connect with, and complement, existing street patterns.

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