March 22nd, 2013


Adjunct Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley

Director of Urban Design and Planning at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP


China's urbanization is creating new cities at a mind-boggling rate. Gleaming office towers are rising all over the country and massive amounts of land are being converted to residential and commercial use. Is China growing in an energy and carbon smart fashion? How will that country shape 21st century trends in architecture, land use and urban living?

Jiang Lin, senior vice president of Energy Foundation and chair of The China Sustainable Energy Program, is working to address the massive urbanization challenge in China. “Over the next 20 years there are roughly 350M people moving from countryside to cities in China. That’s equal to the entire US population,” he said. “How do you design cities in a way that is both environmentally friendly and also livable? It’s a huge challenge.” On a per capita basis, “the average Chinese doesn’t use 1/10th the energy the average American uses.” Lin said that if they follow America’s footsteps into urban sprawl and high-consumption patterns, there won’t be an easy way to get out of the global warming trap. Most of the consumption will happen in the cities, he added, so getting the cities right is essential. “But that’s true for the world as well,” he added.

According to Ellen Lou, director of Urban Design and Planning at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, sees bright spots in China, particularly in the transportation sector. The Chinese government spends a lot of money in building out their transit infrastructure—subway, light rail, high-speed rail and bus rapid transit. “This is the case in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, as well as in second- and third-tier cities. Instead of building more freeways, they built subways and light rail.”

Lin explained his company’s role in China’s first bus rapid transit system. And regarding high-speed rail he said, “In the last five to six years, China came out of nowhere and built one of the largest high-speed rail networks in the world. That’s a tremendous benefit in thinking of laying down infrastructure for the future. To have a minimum impact on the climate, you really have to build infrastructure right.” The other bright spot Lin sees is China’s move toward clean energy sources. “It’s become the largest renewable market in the world, both in terms of deploying wind and solar, but also manufacturing them.” But aren’t they also producing coal-fired plants, about a plant per week? “It is still true,” he said, “but you see the balance is shifting. It used to be that most of the investment was going into fossil fuel. Now close to half, at least a third of investment in power plants, is going to cleaner sources.” He went on to say, “To support the growth, they need power. And that’s one of the critical challenges facing China.”

Lou and Lin both spoke of a growing awareness in China regarding the costs of pollution as well as debates about how to deal with it. “I think it’s a very healthy sign,” Lin said. “People are recognizing the problem. People are putting different opinions on the table. They’re discussing what are the right solutions.” Is the growing awareness because of a rising middle class? “When you are hungry you just worry about your next meal and make money,” Lou said. “And I won’t say everybody, but generally they’re doing a lot better, so they are a lot more conscience about environment.”

Lou spoke of her involvement in a major project in Guangzhou, wherein her team brought an integrated approach to planning. When they raised the concern about sea level rise, there was some pushback. Because some parts of the area flood every year, however, the issue did get some attention. “But the determination to do it, to work on the problem, that’s going to come slowly,” she said. “That’s the hardest one, I would say, of all the measures we recommended.”

Lin focused on the need to make a city attractive for those who live there. “To have towers across the city is not a solution for the future,” he said. “The focus is really about changing your design to serve the needs of the people instead of building the cities as products.” It’s not about how to build a city that holds the greatest number of people, he added, but “how do you build a city that satisfies the needs of the people and makes it the most attractive. And that’s how you want to think of cities.”

Jiang Lin, senior vice president, Energy Foundation; chair, The China Sustainable Energy Program
Ellen Lou, director, Urban Design and Planning, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP