Baltimore and Beijing: A learning expedition to China

Stewart Pickett with graduate students and faculty in Prof. Zhou’s lab.
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Famously Rampant Urbanization

This last summer, I had the pleasure of being hosted as a Visiting International Professor by the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences in Beijing. This center is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and is the home of the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology. My goal in spending three months in China was to learn about its form, magnitude, and rate of urbanization. The speed and novelty of urban growth in China are exceptional. Although some countries have faster annual percent rates of conversion of population from rural to urban, none has a greater absolute number of participants in the process. Nor do other countries rival China in the extent of the creation of new cities virtually from scratch across broad regions. It is a perfect place to help put our work in Baltimore in a larger perspective. In addition, researchers in China are excited and very well prepared to share their new knowledge about urbanization with the rest of the world.

China has for thousands of years been a largely agricultural country.The establishment of the People’s Republic saw the proportion of rural residents in the solid majority. Although Chinese cities boast histories reaching back thousands of years, they were mostly distinct settlements, often retaining ancient defensive walls and sharing key aspects of their city plans. However, starting from the late 1970s, with the establishment of new policies, the growth of its cities, and the transformation of its population from predominantly rural to mainly city-dwelling, took off.

Chinese urbanization is more than simply the growth of established cities, however. The idea of urban agglomerations, more recently conceptually deepened in terms of urban megaregions, was one that originated to capture the extraordinary spatial scope of urban change in China and elsewhere in Asia. There are 23 planned megaregions or urban agglomerations in China (Fang 2011).


Urban district rising on recently converted agricultural land between Beijing and Tianjin.


Urban megaregions require understanding urban change in an inclusive way, as something that embraces old city cores, new neighborhoods, novel extensions within large urban administrative units, the engulfing of ancient villages by dense and often high-rise urban fabric, the replacement of agricultural villages by mixed industrial settlements, the demolition of villages and their replacement by superblocks of gated high-rise condos or apartment buildings, and even some modest development of villas, or what we in the U.S. would call single-family houses with yards.

The richness of the kinds of change and the spatial mosaics produced are novel and not well researched at this time. Chinese urban ecologists recognize a pressing need to understand the environmental implications of this long list of transformations.

Shifting Policy Landscape

Coming from the United States, I had the impression that China’s strong central government would make urban policy easy to understand, and would also make rational urban plans the norm. What I learned however, was the existence of a complex, multi-level and multi-sector process of urban change. In addition, I learned of a fluid policy landscape. For example, until late July of this year, urban residents had to be registered. This excluded many people who wished to migrate from the countryside from full participation in urban life and its amenities. Children of unregistered residents were not permitted to attend public schools. Furthermore, unregistered rural migrants were often crowded into less-than ideal rental units.

In July 2014 the central government announcemed that this policy, labeled hukou, would apply differently depending on the size cities. Although the intent is to more evenly spread urbanization across the spectrum of cities, there may well be an pulse in migration to cities as a result. The social and ecological consequences will be not only interesting, but very likely potent.

The revision of the hukou policy is situated within a larger trajectory of policy evolution in China. The previous central government policy prioritized industrial development. The term “development” is used all over the world and is the stuff of headlines and political slogans. However, it strikes me that most uses in the public discourse in China and elsewhere are rather vague and loaded. In the past, given the evidence on the ground (and in the heavy, polluted air!) development in China suggested an industrial pathway, and China’s prowess as a maker for the world has been rightly recognized as a result. But the term development, again based on my personal observations of the culture of consumption that has saturated the big cities with global brands, automobiles with foreign name plates, familiar fast food restaurants, and multi-story shopping malls, also implies a growing emphasis on the provision and acquisition of luxury goods. The urbanization policy now driving demographic and spatial change in cities, suburbs, with its implications for villages and rural life, shifts emphasis to domestic consumption as a driver for development.

Of course industrially based economic activities and infrastructure will continue to be built and operated in China. But the new emphasis on urbanization intertwines with a new national policy on the environment. How these two strands will be reconciled and whether there are the desired environmental – and human well being – outcomes, remains to be seen.

Chinese urban ecologists are concerned to be part of the dialogue, and many ecological leaders are well placed to help urban planners and municipal authorities to improve the ecological processes and services within their jurisdictions. I did, however, see evidence of some shortfalls in linking ecological and urbanization processes.

Shortcomings in Contemporary Urbanization

One problem is the sheer speed of urban development. An interesting and salubrious institution in many large Chinese cities is the city planning museum or planning exhibition hall. I visited three of these: Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. In some cases, a glance at the current iteration of the city regional plan was jarring in its dissonance with the facts on the ground. Much of the greenspace promised by the current plan for Beijing had already disappeared under roads and buildings. An aspect of the plan that was clearly successful was the protection of the mountain districts in the extensive megacity administrative boundaries of Beijing. These lands were well preserved under the rubric of protecting the air and watersheds on which the city depends, although as a plant ecologist I was interested to know how much impact the transplantation of large, mature trees from the forests into new city and urban developments affected the source stands.

Tianjin’s urban plan seemed to have clearer bioecological content, and establishing boundaries to protect sensitive forests, lakes, seacoast, and rivers was a part of the plan. Lands were set aside for parks for urban residents as well, and restoration of wetlands formerly devoted to agriculture in the city boundaries was called for. The ecological rationale for such conservation and restoration was well laid out in Tianjin’s exhibition hall.

Another issue is the predominance of an economically driven real estate industry, a social institution not unknown in the capitalist west, of course. My naïve view of the communitarian nature of the Chinese state did not prepare me for the news about the power and efficiency of the private real estate juggernaut in China.

The final shortcoming was the nature of many eco-cities. As an ecologist and an urbanist who thinks that sustainability is a reasonable strategy for visualizing multi-dimensional improvements in urban social-ecological systems, I had high hopes for the eco-city idea. However, eco-city developments seem to emphasize a rather narrow suite of strategies, such as engineering efficiencies, multimodal transportation and density, improved onsite stormwater management structures, supplementation of energy sources with renewables, such as wind. They also have generous street tree plantings and green courtyards in the high-rise residential blocks. However, the eco-city developments, which were conspicuous in the impressive city models in the planning exhibitions, and evident on the ground in many places, had significant lapses in my view. I highlight several below.

The rich diversity of commercial opportunities scattered throughout the older urban neighborhoods and even in larger villages, were relegated to centralized shopping malls in the eco-cities. Three was little to invite residents to interact on the street, and although the individual residential clusters apparently provide recreational amenities behinds their gates, the life on the street seemed depauperate. This seems to violate one of the tenets of functional urbanism, and was a great disappointment to see so often. Altogether, the utility of the sustainability concept, which calls for the joint attention to ecological integrity, social functionality and equity, and economic vitality, seems to be poorly realized in much of the urban growth that I saw in China.

Visualizing Urbanization: Opportunities for Enhancement

China also offers insights into the visualization of urban change, a problem that is widely shared. The process of land conversion and of remaking existing cities is so striking that it is frequently and compellingly represented by a few contrasting colors on GIS maps. Derived from aerial imagery, such maps represent core urban zones in red, agricultural areas in yellow, and forest and grassland in shades of green. Because the shifts over five or ten years are so great, such color contrasts over time tell a powerful story.

But such coarse classification of urban lands – red blob mapping -- neglects much of the subtlety of urban form. This is due to both the frequent use of coarse spatial resolutions on the order of 10s of meters, as well as to the fact that these classifications are blind to the rich array of ways in which people actually use different patches. And here I do not mean use in the sense of simple zones like commercial, industrial, or transportation areas. Nor does even recognizing the height of buildings reveal key social and ecological relationships that different spatially recognized patches might possess. There is a great opportunity in China to break down the land covers within urban and urbanizing areas into more specific categories, while recognizing the three dimensional structures of patches. This approach is one that was pioneered in Baltimore, and I look forward to exploring it with Prof. Weiqi Zhou and other colleagues in China. The detailed spatial heterogeneity of city regions is a key dimension along which ecological and social understanding have been demonstrated to advance.

This sort of theoretical perspective on cities also matches very well with the concerns and practices of urban designers, including architects, landscape architects, planners, as well as sociologists concerned with the patchiness of human institutions and social arrangements. Once more subtle land cover maps are available for Chinese urban regions, the opportunity will arise to understand the social structures, norms and policies, governance arrangements, and of course, the bioecological patterns and processes that exist in those heterogeneous structural mosaics. The power of fine scale, highly conceptually resolved land classifications in Chinese cities and their rampantly changing urban regions has hardly been tapped.

The Reach of Urbanization

The impact of urbanization in China – or anywhere for that matter -- is not something that is confined to cities and their expanding fringes. Rather, the growth of cities in China touches even distant villages and rural areas. Indeed, the national urbanization policies mentioned earlier in this essay guarantee that the link between urban and rural changes will be strong.

One thing that I explored with Prof Weiqi Zhou and members of his laboratory, was how the continuum of urbanity can be used to advance the understanding of the regional nature of China’s urbanization.

The continuum of urbanity identifies four dimensions along which the structures and processes of urban change play out: Livelihood, lifestyle, spatial connections including local, regional, and global, and the social and biophysical nature of specific places. The continuum of urbanity is a conceptual ordering of the shift between urban and rural influences and processes (Boone et al. 2014). It is not necessarily a literal transect on the ground, but rather the idea applies to various scales and can be used to understand the effects of urbanization at local, regional, and global spatial scales.

The four components of the continuum of urbanity examine 1) how people support themselves and whether and how they participate in formal and informal economies, 2) the nature and expression of their social identities and the implications of social identity for consumption and symbolic decisions, 3) the spatial scope of influences and material connections, including long-distance linkages or tele-connections, and finally 4) the interaction of the other three dimensions with the biological, physical, cultural, and social environments of specific places. Such specificity of place can apply to very local or to broader areas. In describing the interaction with place, it is important that sometimes features of the bio-geo-cultural environment act as constraints on the other three dimensions of the continuum of urbanity, and sometimes the environment is in fact changed by the processes represented by the other dimensions.

It is clear that the continuum of urbanity plays out in China in many ways. The connections between cities and villages are diverse and impactful. Some villages are swallowed up into expanding cities, with consequent changes in livelihood and lifestyle. Some villages continue to exist, but become sites of industrial production as factories excluded from polluted cities relocate to rural areas, while some are converted to tourist economies, for example. In other cases, villages are bought out and the land converted to high-rise, gated apartment blocks with the associated transportation infrastructure.

And the continuum of urbanity does not stop at China’s borders. As the official policies to generate a more urban, domestic consumer-based society move forward, a rising middle class demands more meat, for example, which alters land use and livelihoods as far away as Australia and the Americas. Pig farming, migration of fruit bats to cities, and shifts in bat-borne disease risk are outcomes of the continuum of urbanity that spans from China to Australia.

The continuum of urbanity represents a useful way to organize research on the extensive effects of urban development in China. It can focus on fine scale heterogeneity within cities, as called for above, or it can expose the continental and global effects of urbanization. The mutual relationships of urban regions linked in a global system are eliciting greater attention in the world of economics, and ecology will change at both ends of any urban teleconnections.

An Urban Ecological Future

The changes in China’s urban realm, and its megaregional, continental, and global reach are vast research frontiers. To summarize what I learned in China:

1. There is great need for describing, modeling, and working with spatial heterogeneity at refined conceptual resolutions and at various spatial grains.

2. Social phenomena and dynamics need to be better connected with ecological and physical data and representations of urban change.

3. The connections between both former and persistent-but-altered rural zones and villages with cities are an open research task.

4. Addressing the shortcomings of some “eco-city” approaches, and applying sustainability as a linked set of social, environmental, and economic goals are important challenges.

The richness, speed, and nature of Chinese urbanization are a useful intellectual foil to the specific history and trajectory of urban change in Baltimore. China defines at least one extreme of the conceptual space that all urban social-ecological research and application occupy. Opportunities for comparison and for collaboration are great.

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