The Chinese capital, Beijing, has suffered from notoriously bad air quality, as shown in this 2013 image.

The Chinese capital, Beijing, has suffered from notoriously bad air quality, as shown in this 2013 image.

heller2_800China and the United States are the world’s largest energy users and greenhouse gas emitters by a great margin. They are also the most powerful and influential nations on earth and therefore can have the greatest leverage on the direction taken globally in managing the environment. National policy is the primary tool for achieving the goal of a healthy, controllable, and prosperous future. A review of these two great nations’ current policy status is illuminating.

We hear constantly that China is polluted. Dispatches from reporters and expats in Beijing sound like an environmentalist’s dystopian nightmare, full of traffic jams, tainted baby formula, and personal air purifiers. Residents plan their days around air quality reports; there’s even an app for that.

Poor industrial and urban planning—or lack of planning—has left China in this state. After Mao’s era in the 1960s and 1970s left the country financially devastated, the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping believed that the only way forward was economic growth at all cost. In major urban centers such as Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai, factories were given work quotas to fulfill. Also, China’s population was rapidly urbanized in order to create a working consumer class: the government began to have rural residents move into cities on a large scale, a trend that continues. With such a single-minded focus, strategizing how these cities would actually fulfill the needs of their residents was given lower priority, and the result is apparent throughout the country.

But while the international media go on at length about China’s pollution problems, what is noticeably missing from recent reports is how seriously the Chinese government has been pursuing solutions. During my visit to Guangzhou in 2007, Mayor Zhang Guangning explained it to me like this: China had spent decades worried about the quantity of life, but this had left people unhappy. To him, what really mattered was the quality of life. China had to shift from red (communism and industrialization) to green (environmental responsibility).

The Battle for Beijing

Of China’s first-tier cities, Beijing suffers the most from pollution. In response, the Municipal People’s Congress of Beijing, the main local political body, has been working hard to improve the city’s notorious air quality. In 2011, the city restricted the number of vehicles that could be registered in the city, instituting a lottery system for license plates, with a limit of 20,000 per month. Since then, the limit has been reduced by more than half. The city has been phasing out the use of vehicles that do not meet Euro 1 emission standards, set by the European Union in 1992, disallowing cars older than 15 years. This year, the Municipal People’s Congress passed landmark regulations that include, for the first time, concrete targets to lower total emissions and increased fines for top polluters.

Because Beijing is the nation’s capital, China’s top officials live and breathe the consequences of their environment. They do not ignore that their citizens are unhappy with the erosion of the quality of life. Quite possibly that fact has become the driving force behind China’s commitment to becoming a more sustainable nation. There is a concerted effort on everyone’s part to make China sustainable, from central government ministers to regional and local officials throughout the country.

China plans to add 28,000 miles (45,000 km) of high-speed rail lines by 2015. Below: The Guangzhou South Axis transit-oriented development. Light rail and metro create the framework for density.

Response to Climate Change

Over the past decade, the Chinese central government has passed a series of directives and regulations to improve the nation’s environment. In 2011, the government passed the 12th five-year plan with goals to reduce carbon intensity to 12 percent below 2010 levels by 2015. It also included the goal to add 28,000 miles (45,000 km) of high-speed rail lines, allowing people to travel across the country more efficiently both in terms of time and energy use. In June, the cabinet adopted ten new antipollution measures designed to introduce public accountability and imposed more regulations on the types of fuels that may be burned.

Three central-government agencies are primarily responsible for national environmental policy: the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Under MOHURD, the ministry I know best, the key players are the China Society for Urban Studies (CSUS) and the China Association of Mayors. NDRC has its subsidiary, the China Center for Urban Development, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection oversees the Environmental Development Center. Working in concert with the leading academic institutions and a broad spectrum of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), these ministries provide research and recommendations to assist in formulating policy to address China’s problems.

Their aim is to develop the highest level of expertise in sustainable design—through their own efforts and by learning from the international community. Close ties between China’s academics and the government have resulted in the university system’s direct involvement in policy formulation. The government also works directly with professionals and companies. Minister Qiu Baoxing of MOHURD has created a series of national and international sustainability forums, including the annual International Conference on Green and Energy-Efficient Building and New Technologies and Products Expo, which attracts a broad spectrum of experts from around the world. MOHURD is researching alternative energy sources, investing extensively in solar and wind power. MOHURD also has enlisted the help of foreign companies, such as my own, international architecture and urban design firm Heller Manus, to help redesign their cities.

The Greening of Guangzhou

From 2006 to 2010, Heller Manus developed the design of the new urban center of Guangzhou. Instead of being optimized for traffic and commerce, the downtown area is carefully planned for walkability, transit-oriented development, and conservation of water and energy. The intent is to shrink the city’s carbon footprint, emphasize and preserve its cultural and natural context, and improve the lives of residents. Green space reconnects the city with nature, making the district more pleasant, as well as absorbing carbon and helping mitigate the urban heat-island effect. Another essential part of the planning process was to transform the waterfront: it is becoming a place for both recreation and transportation.

As of the China Green Tech Report 2013, prepared by the China Greentech Initiative, an international NGO with many government and industry partners, 200 prefecture-level cities (municipalities that rank just below provinces in the Chinese system) have plans to develop low-carbon eco-cities. Heller Manus is working on projects similar to that in Guangzhou in about a dozen cities around China, and is beginning to collaborate with CSUS. Partnering with foreign companies to help create eco-cities is an essential step in the movement toward a greener China.

Eco-City Planning

Creation of an eco-city involves three fundamental components—sustainability, green mobility, and livability. Sustainability involves embracing green technology and green action through policy; examples are reduction of energy use through advanced technologies and personal practice, water conservation, and recycling and composting. Green mobility is the implementation of planning and policy to get people out of their cars and walking, riding bicycles, and using public transportation. The most critical component is livability—the sum of quality-of-life amenities that make life in the urban environment worthwhile. It is the combination and integration of these elements—with emphasis on strong policy, good urban planning, and cutting-edge green technology—that will get us to the sustainability goals that the planet must achieve.

The Guangzhou South Axis transit-oriented development. Light rail and metro create the framework for density.

The Guangzhou South Axis transit-oriented development. Light rail and metro create the framework for density.

Efficient High-Speed Rail

Concurrent with the creation of eco-cities is China’s implementation of a nationwide high-speed rail (HSR) network to connect urban centers, increasing their potential for commerce and societal integration, and making travel faster and less of an environmental strain. Although it was not smooth going in the beginning, including a major accident on a medium-speed train, the system has proved to be more successful than either China or the rest of the world could have imagined.

When a trip that once took 22 hours can be completed in only eight—as is the case between Beijing and Guangzhou—it becomes a viable option. In fact, the rail link between Beijing and Shanghai, a four-and-a-half-hour journey, handles as many as 100,000 passenger trips a day. In the past six months, more than 180 million people have traveled on HSR, and a staggering 1 billion people ride a train in China each year.

About 80 people traveling on HSR leave the same energy footprint as one person traveling by jet airliner. Not only that, but travelers pay half as much for a high-speed rail ticket as for a comparable airline ticket. This is a powerful statement about how policy and technology can help create a more sustainable future. China recently announced a proposed HSR line linking Beijing and the northern city of Zhangjiakou in conjunction with its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Zhangjiakou line, on which work is to begin this year and be completed in 2017, would reduce rail travel time from four hours to only 40 minutes. This is clearly a game changer for competing for the Winter Olympics.
Half of China’s passenger rail service is now high speed. A total of 4,894 trains are now in service, of which 2,660 are HSR, running at more than 124 miles per hour (200 kmph). With more than 6,000 miles (10,000 km) in operation, China has the largest HSR network in the world, and work has begun on 14 new HSR lines that will add another 2,300 miles (3,700 km) to the network.

HSR trains are pleasant to use, comfortable, and rigorously on time. In addition, as it links more urban centers, the rail system is knitting the country together in ways that are yet to be understood. China’s fundamental land use patterns are being altered by the HSR network: the economic growth of cities with HSR stations and hubs—and the impact on properties surrounding these stations—is comparable to that near seaports and railroad stops during the early Industrial Revolution.

heller5_619Learning from China

If Beijing and China as a whole have provided a bleak window onto the future of expanding urban centers, it is hoped that their start down a road to recovery could be a model for tackling the problem. Last year, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said Beijing is leading the world in climate-change response through its latest policies. Although it will take years for China’s efforts to counteract the damage already done, even in the short term its actions have been sweeping. Efforts in cities like Shanghai, Dalian, Tianjin, Chengdu, and Guangzhou have begun to effect dramatic reversals of the environmental damage.

While all this effort is made in China, and in some other countries such as Denmark and Germany, a myth pervades in many quarters that sustainable urban design can only function as a feel-good, palliative measure—that the benefits will only manifest themselves in a future that people today may not live to see. The reality is that planning and policy focused on sustainability can and must help now. Implementation of policies for sustainability can create proper growth, restore the environment, and, perhaps most important, make cities great places in which to live and work. Ultimately, it is part of the strategy for saving the planet.

Unfortunately, in the United States, Congress still cannot agree whether global climate change is an issue at all, much less one that requires its attention. People in the United States tend to avoid the fact that they, along with the Chinese, are the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases.

In the 112th Congress, 113 climate-specific bills were introduced; 55 of them were designed to block action that would address climate change. This year, the 113th Congress has introduced a mere 51 climate-specific bills, 13 of which are designed to prohibit action.

As a result and symptom of the gridlock, the Amtrak rail system is placed at a continual financial disadvantage. Even though ridership increases every year, funding is constantly under threat in Congress. To his credit, President Obama has been an advocate of green planning but has been unable to move that agenda forward in Congress. Unlike past years, in this year’s State of the Union address Obama did not even mention urban planning or green transportation in his comments on climate change. Instead, he focused entirely on U.S. energy production and consumption, as he has in recent speeches on the environment. But promoting green planning and transportation should be the backbone of any policy designed to reduce energy use. One can speculate that the badly divided Congress may have led him to skirt the issue.

heller6_619But all is not lost. During a recent visit to China, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged, as did the Chinese central government, to recognize the need for urgent action on pollution and climate change. As the two largest world economies, they will commit to sharing information on plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions in the years following 2020 and to “commit to devote significant effort and resources to secure concrete results,” Kerry said in his formal remarks. This is a huge step forward for the United States. What remains to be seen is whether Congress can be convinced to act with as much seriousness.

We are running out of time. Rain patterns are changing. Ice thaws sooner in the spring. There is severe drought in California, and much of the rest of the United States spent last winter paralyzed by snow and flooding. Super storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 are becoming frequent occurrences. Development strategies can no longer be about partisan politics. To keep up with the rest of the world and to protect the planet, the United States needs to increase its research and development in green technologies such as HSR and green city design.

The time has come for a federal plan to support green urban planning and infrastructure. As it now stands, if cities want to go green, they are forced to do it themselves, allocating money from already-tight budgets.

Cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Austin, Chicago, and New York continue to grow and attract a bright, young workforce despite the recent but easing economic downturn. A major factor in this attractions is the quality of life these cities offer, including a commitment to sustainability, public transportation, and amenity-embracing land use. They have generous amounts of public green space and encourage public activities like farmers markets. They are easy for people to get around in, promoting multiple choices for transportation ranging from bikes to trains. This year, San Francisco, joining other cities around the world, instituted its own bike-sharing program. With a focus on sustainable infrastructure, green cities will continue to grow and prosper. A federal plan could help less-fortunate cities like Detroit get on board.

When one looks at the severe air pollution problems in China and the extremes of weather being experienced in the United States and elsewhere around the globe, it should be remembered that these are recent phenomena. When I first started working in China ten years ago, the air was much cleaner and air pollution was rarely discussed. The past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the problem, as well as acknowledgment of the environmental and broad economic impact it is creating. On the horizon is the issue of rising sea levels, which would have a profound and direct impact on the shorelines of countries around the world. These problems and their causes must be universally acknowledged, and the effort to address them must be undertaken by everyone.

A comprehensive green urban planning initiative would help secure a better future and create more urban environments that people want to live in. China has shown it does not matter how much “quantity” of life you have if you have no quality of life. Now China is showing it is committed to the goal of a high quality of life for the future. The United States also needs to embrace that goal if we are to save our planet from a deteriorating and dangerous future.