Date: 8th March, 2012

Xiao Wunan: Urbanization needs a New Mindset

(Source: China Real Estate Business)

‘China is now a powerful nation, but as it has flexed its muscles, this has overshadowed the expression of spiritual and philosophical discoveries. Mr. Xiao Wunan, Executive Vice-Chairman of Asia Pacific Exchange & Cooperation Foundation, used this metaphor when talking about the urbanization process in China.

It has been 30 years since the process of 'reform and opening began. In addition to the miraculous rate of economic growth, this process has also produced another phenomenon that has put China in the world spotlight: the continuous process of urbanization. However, rapid growth also hid some serious problems from view that are now becoming increasingly apparent: environmental degradation, urban diseases, the hollowing out of industry, the rising cost of social management, cultural clashes and others.

At present, China's senior leadership and concerned ministries of government are attaching great importance to these problems, which have also received the attention of the international community.

Mr. Xiao Wunan believes that a major contributor to the problems mentioned above is that China has overlooked the role of a 'humanistic spirit' during the process of urbanization. China has drawn on some successful examples of urbanization from the experience of western countries. This has included putting up a lot of office towers, flourishing central business districts, large mansions and endlessly expanding urban traffic and transport systems. Yet, at the same time this development has disregarded making the most of China's own rich cultural inheritance and the other factors that go into the creation of a suitable living environment - in other words the factors that help to raise a city's 'happiness index'.

Over the past few decades exports, capital investment and consumption have been the three engines of China's economic growth. Due to the global financial crisis, and debt crises in the US and EU, China's export markets have begun to shrink. Accordingly, the government has written a number of emergency measures for boosting domestic demand in China into the 12th Five-Year Plan, and accelerating the pace of urbanization is the best possible strategy for achieving such a goal. However, the thinking behind the future urbanization process should link development with a new ideology to address problems left over from previous decades. Under the condition that emphasis is put on improvements to the environment, this process offers the opportunity to promote a new concept of 'humanistic living', which is fully in accordance with the targets and spirit of initiatives promoted at the sixth meeting of the World Urban Forum convened this year by the United Nations' Human Settlements Programme.

On March 1, we interviewed Mr. Xiao Wunan about the problems accompanying the process of urbanization in China.

Reporter: The UN Human Settlements Programme held its World Urban Forum 6 in Naples, Italy in September this year. It is reported that the UN HSP is promoting a new concept with its' Urban Futures: New Mindsets - North meets South'. What are the core values behind this concept, and why is such a new mindset about urbanization needed?

Xiao Wunan: For many developing countries urbanization is a good way to promote social development, improvements to living standards and economic development. At the same time there are externalities that go along with urbanization, primarily the degradation of ecosystems and the environment, the regional hollowing out of industry, increases to the costs of social management, clashes of cultures and others.

Looking at some of the immigration cities in China, and perhaps some of the emerging urbanization driven by the real estate sector, there are clear cases where industrial development cannot cannot support long-term expansion to employment, where local officials gamble away state subsidies playing mahjong, and where the industrial base has begun to 'hollow out'. Such areas lack a mechanism for sustainable development, which has resulted in a 'brain drain' and other factors contributing to the phenomena of 'ghost towns' and 'empty nests'. The UN Human Settlements Programme once assisted an impoverishes region in Kenya to pursue urbanization based on improvements to living conditions such as access to potable water and health care for a population of about 1 million people. This effort did not win the support of the local people, however, and even led a a rejection and violent protests in opposition. A main reason was that during the stage of project design inadequate consideration was given to complicated factors such as local cultural and religious practices.

What we should note that although urbanization can drive economic growth, the problems that accompany urbanization cannot be ignored, otherwise the benefits of urbanization will be ruined. This acknowledgement is behind the goals UN-Habitat  set for the 6th session of the World Urban Forum in Naples, including 'new mindsets' for urban development. Objectively, these goals can assist developing countries as they make future plans related to urbanization. The core focus of the World Urban Forum this year can be summarized as the following: balancing urban development with the environment and social harmony, and realizing a humanistic spirit in urban construction.

Reporter: What is 'a humanistic spirit’ in urban construction?"

Xiao Wunan: We have to think about this issue from several different angles: first, what are the end goals of urban construction and development? One of the answers is to pass along the cultural DNA of a people and ensure that it will be preserved into the future. Second, what should the core values of urbanization include? It should include making it more convenient for common residents of a city to work, live and travel. This has been neglected during the past 30-years of urbanization in China, and the link between convenience for residents and urbanization has been overlooked. Thirdly, do cities have a sustainable future? Cities need to create ambitions for the future in the hearts of their residents. In order to do there has to be an environment where there is room for individual development; otherwise residents will feel lonely and dejected. If there is no room for development, and few new opportunities for employment and individual growth, young people will live without dreams and will leave in pursuit of places like South Africa and the west where they see opportunity. Finally, what is the role of urban management? This is to provide a humanistic and harmonious living environment through the management of public safety and the application of rules and laws. These are areas where problems have arisen during the process of urbanization in China. The humanistic spirit of urbanization embodies goals and ideas that that have to be considered during the process of strategy and policy setting, but first requires a change in thinking about basic ideas related to urbanization.

Reporter: You have traveled through many countries and cities around the world. How would you compare the process of urbanization in China with what you have observed in other countries.

Xiao Wunan: This is a tricky question, as China is constantly adjusting, changing, developing and progressing, so I can only speak based on some subjective perceptions.

I think many in cities in China lack their own characteristics, and many imitate other big cities abroad in their planning, construction and overall aesthetic. Are there any major differences between the architectural styles of Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Nanjing, etc., when observed from outside the window? The answer is self-evident. Additionally, many big cities are constructing central business districts focusing on technology and finance, and overlook the geographic advantages and regional characteristics when designing the city. The extent of regional differentiation is shrinking, and at the same time so are the competitive strengths of each individual city. It is quite appropriate to say that Chinese cities are all created in the same image.

Furthermore, overall urbanization often lacks strategic considerations. I recall that back in 2000 after a light snow, that the traffic in Beijing was paralyzed. This resulted from design problems with the  2nd and 3rd ring roads in Beijing. Additionally, the Grand National Theatre, Jingxi Hotel, Military Museum and Beijing West Railway Station are all located within a couple of square kilometers just to the west of the Great Hall of the People. They could all easily be identified as 'targets’for terrorist attacks, so the security implications and consequences are a bit frightening. This is another area where planning and construction falls short of the humanistic spirit of design.

Reporter: As China's urbanization continues along this path, what are the adverse implications for future development?

Xiao Wunan: Actually these effects have already emerged. Practically speaking, the environment and natural resources have been damaged, and this reduces the overall happiness of urban residents. In the long run, such unsustainable modes of urbanization could contribute to social instability, not to mention the problems of income inequality and perceptions of a lack of fairness and justice in society. As things become more complex they become harder to control.

Reporter: How can China break free from problems such as environmental deterioration, urban diseases and the wealth  gap between the rich and poor, etc. while still realizing its sustainable development?

Xiao Wunan: To a certain extent,the concept of 'power of the people' through governance needs to be implemented successfully. This can be done on the basis of 'scientific development', by promoting inclusive growth, and by linking the economic benefits from urbanization to improvements to the overall economic growth model. At the same time, China should embrace indigenous culture and tradition during the process of urban planning and construction without imitating what other countries have done. China is said to be a laboratory for global architecture, and without passing judgement on that I will simply share the following viewpoint: one hundred years from now, the basis on which people will judge a city includes its culture, spirit, and the aesthetic meaning that the architecture leaves behind, not the cold cement and steel.

Reporter: Actually, we learned that the UN-Habitat has sponsored a ' 2012 International Student Design Competition’ to promote urban developments. Can you please explain the objectives of this competition?

Xiao Wunan: The Asia Exchange and Cooperation Foundation is pleased to be the co-sponsor of this competition, and I am also the Chairman of the competition. I do hope Chinese students can be more active to take part in the competition and looking forward to seeing them win awards.

The initial intentions behind hosting this international competition are: first, as China's population ages, its demographic dividend shrinks - both of which impact the sustainability of growth in the future - we hope that students can draw attention to this social problem. We expect that they can express concern for older members of society through their designs, emphasizing humanistic care and enjoyment.

Secondly, we aim to stimulate concern in young people where it comes to the environment, and hope that they can use renewable resources like solar and wind power, not to mention recyclable materials in architectural designs, to create buildings with even low carbon emissions and that are environmental friendly. Young people are energetic and full of initiative spirit, and we hope that the concepts raised in this competition will inspire them to incorporate sustainability into urban planning and building design in their future careers as architects and urban planners.

The ultimate goal is this: cultivate young talent who will be full of aspirations and dreams for the future of urban planning, design and architecture in China.