For years, Peter Calthorpe worked to help transform the urban landscape of China, producing plans that he thought offered a viable alternative to the soul-crushing traffic, choking pollution, and gated communities in that country’s growing cities.
The urban planning visionary figured that change would come slowly, so he was stunned when China’s State Council unveiled a set of standards last February that he described as an “urban design revolution.” The guidelines upend the status quo by calling for cities that are more walkable with plenty of access to public transportation, open green spaces, and housing that is more energy efficient and built to last—all concepts that Calthorpe has long advocated.
The directive comes from a high-level group of Chinese officials who last met in 1978, when roughly 20 percent of China’s population lived in cities. The country’s urban population has been steadily climbing since then, reaching 56 percent last year.
In an interview, Calthorpe spoke to ULI about how the new standards address this explosive growth and the involvement of his Berkeley, California–based design firm, Calthorpe Associates, in promoting sustainable development in China.
Q: Why has the rate of urban development in China been so phenomenal?
They’re trying to lift people out of poverty. In China, when people move from the country to the city, they get decent schools, sewer systems, parks, social services, hospitals, and job opportunities. Remember, China is engaged in the biggest city-building project in the history of mankind. It expects to add 300 million more people to its cities in the next ten years.
Q: What does the typical Chinese city look like today, and how did it evolve?
Before the 20th century, the traditional Chinese city was a fine-grained fabric of courtyard housing and small streets. But through the 1950s and 1960s, just after the Revolution, the Le Corbusier modernist tradition took hold and gave rise to the “superblock.” Initially, the superblock was a mixed-use community, about a quarter mile [0.4 km] on each side, with factories, housing, shops, and schools. As the factories grew larger, they became segregated from their communities, and housing became segregated from employment areas. Superblocks soon had isolated uses.
Q: How did these isolated uses affect the quality of city life?
As this new pattern of development accelerated and wealth accelerated, cars came to dominate the ever-larger streets, making them less pedestrian-friendly. People would have to walk a quarter mile to get to intersections, and once they got there, they’d have to cross eight or ten lanes of traffic. Mortality rates for pedestrians and bikers shot up. The less hospitable the streets became, the more people wanted to retreat from the street and live in gated communities, which brings us to where they are today. Now, a typical superblock can be up to 30 acres [12 ha] crammed with 10,000 people in high rises. A human-scale block of 2.5 acres [1 ha], typical in most U.S. cities, has about 700 people. One is a small city dominated by strangers; the other is a community where people know and recognize one another.
Q: The central government’s new standards ban gated communities. What type of housing would replace them?
The high rises will remain. China is rightly committed to high-density development. But what they’ve been practicing is high-density sprawl, with public spaces that aren’t functional and streets that are auto-oriented. By reshaping the urban form into smaller blocks and narrower streets, they can create both a more walkable environment and places that are safer and better social opportunities. There are still a lot of small local shop owners, so the sidewalks can be lined with interesting and useful retail activities—cafés, restaurants, and local services—that make the walking trip valuable. You can have a great urban environment with high density and tall buildings. Look at New York; it’s wonderful in terms of being a walkable city. The DNA of a city is really set by the scale of its streets and its public spaces—the places between buildings more than the buildings themselves.
Q: The standards also discourage car use, promote more biking and walking paths, and aim to ensure that people living in urban centers are within 500 meters [547 yd] of public transportation. Are city dwellers ready to end their love affair with the car?
I think there’s no choice. People are in love with cars, but they can’t get anywhere in them. The congestion levels are so monumental that moving around in a car is impossible in many of the larger cities. A 60-mile [97 km] traffic jam stopped a highway outside of Beijing for 11 days in the summer of 2010. People need alternatives. You can’t build the kind of density that they’re building and expect single-occupant vehicles to function. Manhattan wouldn’t function if most people didn’t use transit and their feet. That’s why the idea of designing urban centers around transit is so important. It’s to make sure that people have choices wherever they are.
Q: How have you helped shape the discussion on sustainable urban growth in China?
About six years ago, the Energy Foundation [a grant-making organization with a big presence in Beijing that focuses on climate change issues] asked us and other designers such as Jan Gehl to do pilot projects to demonstrate that there’s a better way than superblocks and highways for China’s cities. We’ve now worked in seven cities on plans for a population of 4 million, and we’ve done two large-scale regional plans that frame development for another 13 million people. Most of the work was for areas that were designated for growth. We laid out the blocks and streets, detailed the street sections, and zoned all the land for mixed use and TOD. And in each case it worked.
Q: Are these plans a reality yet?
They’re in the midst of being built. These were untested ideas for China. A lot of people six years ago said, “You’ll never undo the superblock. It’s an important part of the culture of modern China.” But being able to work with cities and developers, we found there are ways to create a transition, and the government saw that it was feasible and desirable. In addition to deadly air pollution and congestion, there’s the climate change factor. They are scientific realists over there, and they understand that livable cities will reduce carbon emissions and that renewable energy will be a big business that provides lots of jobs.
Q: Were you expecting the government to release new standards, let alone ones that are so in sync with your thinking?
I didn’t expect it, to tell you the truth. This is really a sweeping vision for how to change the direction of urban development in China. I thought they’d move along with piecemeal standards, some for roads, [some] for regulatory plans, and so on. I did not expect this grand, almost philosophical statement. I’ve been surprised at how quickly the government moved, and I’d like to believe that our work helped influence their thinking. Many of their standards correspond to the ones we’ve been advocating and testing. But most of the influence is from within—there have been many hands on this.
Q: Was there a tipping point for the Chinese government?
I think they realize that the cities have reached a crisis point. First, there’s the air quality. The cities are dangerously smoggy. Second, the traffic congestion threatens to compromise the economy as it becomes more difficult to move people and goods and services around. Third, China is committed to reducing carbon emissions. When you solve for livability—moving away from cars and toward transit and biking, integrating jobs and housing closer to one another, having mixed-use communities where a person’s trips and services are nearby—you reduce carbon emissions. Significantly, China imports most of its oil. The more auto-dependent they are, the more they are dependent on foreign oil, so that’s another motivator.
Q: Are these standards mandatory, and how long will it be until the effects are seen?
There are measurable elements that will become mandatory. For example, it quantifies the street density [and] the distance to transit, and requires that 40 percent of all trips in a city are made by transit. This really controls how investments are made in major infrastructure—roads versus transit. The effects are already being seen in the sense that planning departments and designers are adopting these ideas.
Q: Will the standards be applied to all Chinese cities?
They will. In China, they often write different standards for different-scale cities, and they scale the cities to three sizes. It’s a good way to do it because Beijing, for instance, is very different than a small third-tier emerging city. The high-level government group that released these standards is saying, “Here are the principles and direction we want to set.” Their departments of transportation and housing and urban development and other regulators are all going to have to do updates to their standards as a result of this.
Q: Many of these standards are in place in other countries. Why do you view them as a dramatic change in China?
The new standards do read like a list of ecological best practices that have developed around the globe. Cities have evolved for thousands of years, and they have a historic wisdom that we are collectively relearning. It’s a big change for China, though, because it’s been using an outmoded planning paradigm developed in the ’30s by the modernists—“Towers in the Park.” That paradigm failed us and many Western cities and it is failing them now. The problem is the scale of city building in China is so large that a failure will impact not only the viability of their cities, it could decimate the global economy and ecology.
Q: The government is calling for architecture that preserves Chinese culture—an apparent about-face from the radical designs seen in cities like Beijing. What brought about this change in mentality?
They’ve come to realize that they’ve been destroying their identity and cultural continuity as well as the environment. In a way, we did the same thing in the U.S. when urban renewal gutted our cities in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t have historic preservation laws. Piece by piece, great historic buildings came down. In China, the superstar architecture world was wreaking havoc with buildings that looked like they were flown in from outer space. Now, the government is saying [to] focus more on durability, function, and energy efficiency. To modern architects it is controversial, ambiguous, and challenging—to find an architecture that relates to place and climate rather than image.
Q: Do you consider yourself an antimodernist?
I am for modern architecture, but I want it to be historically, culturally, and environmentally connected to its place. The construction quality and materials in China are such that buildings barely last 30 years. The government is now basically saying, “Let’s make buildings that stand the test of time.”
Dina ElBoghdady was a longtime business reporter at the Washington Post.