700 Mountains Flattened for New Desert City

Late last month, premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang declared that boosting the country’s urban population, which passed 50% of the total a year ago, was China’s most promising avenue for further development. From Caijing:

China has already entered the middle-income stage of development, but the development is “unbalanced”, especially when it comes to the widening gap between town and country, Mr. Li said.

Disparity means potential, in other words, China’s biggest potential for development in the coming decades lies in the process of urbanization, he added.

[…] A UN report, titled Urban and Rural Areas 2011, predicted that nearly 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas by 2035. Over the next two decades China will build 20,000 to 50,000 new skyscrapers and more than 170 cities will require mass transit systems by 2025.

At The New York Times on Tuesday, however, Henry M. Paulson Jr. argued that China must rethink its approach to urbanisation.

A flawed system of municipal finance is driving debt, corruption and dissent, while unsustainable urban planning has yielded polluted cities that are destroying China’s ecosystem. Yet China’s future requires continued urbanization, which, absent a new approach, will only make the problem worse.

Cities can, however, be part of the solution: better urban policies can put China on a healthier path forward, economically and environmentally.

[…] Getting China’s urbanization right will matter to us all. Fortunately, many in China understand this, and cooperation with the United States government, corporate world and nonprofit sector, including my own research and advocacy institute, is bringing them the tools they need to prioritize design issues in their cities and adapt infrastructure plans now. These tools include instruction in sustainable practices for government leaders, public education in environmental issues and specialized training for the country’s urban planners.

China must adopt this new approach quickly, before vast infrastructure investment makes the current model irreversible. By 2025, China is projected to have a staggering 200 cities with populations over one million. America has just nine.

Widespread adoption of Paulson’s new approach may be some way off. The Financial Times’ Simon Rabinovitch noted this week that a 50-storey steel ring set to dominate Liaoning’s Shenfu New Town has attracted international derision for wasting resources and adding “little to no real social value”. The Guardian’s Jonathan Kaiman reported a twenty billion yuan scheme to level 700 mountains on the outskirts of Gansu’s provincial capital, Lanzhou, despite grave doubts about the financial viability and environmental sustainability of plans for the site. Lanzhou was rated China’s most polluted city in a 2011 air quality survey by the World Health Organisation.

Liu Fuyuan, a former high-level official at the country’s National Development and Reform Commission, told China Economic Weekly that the project was unsuitable because Lanzhou is frequently listed as among China’s most chronically water-scarce municipalities. “The most important thing is to gather people in places where there is water,” he said.

Others also pointed to the financial risk of building a new city in the middle of the desert. “All this investment needs to be paid back with residential land revenue, and I don’t see much on returns in these kinds of cities,” said Tao Ran, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “If you have a booming real estate market it might work, but it seems to me that real estate in China is very, very risky.”

In an email interview, a China Pacific Construction Group spokeswoman dismissed criticisms of the project as unjustified. “Lanzhou’s environment is already really poor, it’s all desolate mountains which are extremely short of water,” said Angie Wong. “Our protective style of development will divert water to the area, achieve reforestation and make things better than before.”