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Planning students explore urban sustainability in Chinese megacities

The Institute for Sustainable Solutions’ Travel Awards program helps subsidize student and faculty travel related to sustainability education. Here’s a report from the road. 

Last summer six Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students from Portland State University went to two cities in China—Beijing and Shenzhen—and worked for three months in the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (Beijing and Shenzhen offices) and Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen. 

The internship provided the students—none of them had visited China before—an opportunity to experience an Asian megacity and its inherent planning challenges firsthand. Many sustainability ideas from the US were shared with local planners as student interns joined teams on site visits and meetings with government officials. 

China’s top-down drive on urbanization has provided a spectrum of development lessons that make the perfect urban planning labs about sustainability. Students were exposed to the repercussions of unconstrained automobile culture and the cheap fossil fuel and were astounded by the unimaginable scale of urban development where a city of 2 million was called “small.” They also rode the best high-speed rail network to travel from city to city with ease, prompting questions about why a similar system hasn’t been implemented in the U.S. They started asking how social sustainability can be considered in a government with “economic growth at all costs” mentality, and debating on what kind of development models are more sustainable. 

Here are some quotes from the students, highlighting their experience in their own words. You can read more about their experience on the intern blog, Transplanet

 

Rebecca Hamilton: 

My summer internship in Beijing was a life-changing experience. Because of this trip, I truly understand what makes a transit system intuitive to a new user and what makes for a miserable and confounding experience. Living with the constant thick smog day after day brought me to a blunt and undeniable understanding of where the unconstrained use of cheap fossil fuels will lead us. Because of this internship, I now have a very deep and personal knowledge of our imperative as planners to work towards a more sustainable future.

 


Anna Wendt:

Portlanders are a proud people. We delight in our uniqueness, especially in the context of our urban planning efforts. We have some of the most progressive land use laws in the country, and celebrate our regionally elected government, Metro. However, with all those crowning achievements, Portland can barely hold a candle to the amount of effort and thought that goes into urban planning in China. China is truly the epicenter of the urban planning profession, facing unprecedented growth in its major, and, seemingly, minor cities, and doing so at an incredible pace. As I begin to think about what my future might look like and where I might find work, I have to wonder where opportunities will arise. As local governments across the U.S. begin to slash budgets and cut staff, the prospect of finding work within a planning agency seems rather dour. However, business couldn't be better in China! There is so much effort going into planning in China, and it has yet to reach its full capacity.

Social issues, in addition to physical design, are just starting to take center stage in China. This is signaling to young planners, such as myself, that innovation may not be coming from Portland, nor the U.S., but from China. 

 

Szilvia Hosser-cox:

My experience posed lots of questions about sustainability: about long-term consequences of certain planning decisions, and even whether cities can truly be sustainable. The experience made me think about density—Shenzhen and Hong Kong are the highest densities I have ever experienced—quality of life, fast vs. slower development, environmental issues and the importance of policy and decision makers. It also made me think about how past decisions such as the one-child policy or the hukou system, affect sustainability in China today both on the individual and societal levels. 

 

Jason McNeil:

Many western societies and economies have learned the lesson of prioritizing economic gains with little regard for environmental concerns, and that this will come about sooner than later in China. However, after talking with some very well informed and well meaning planners in China, I realize that the “economic growth at all costs” mentality has become deeply ingrained for many Chinese (particularly those with party ties). Social sustainability is also tied in with this, since the foundational legitimacy of the existing political and social structure in China rests completely on the ability of the current regime to continue to produce economic gains. As that slows, as it seems it inevitably will, the social and economic order will be threatened. Is a more inclusive governance structure, from the local community group to the highest levels, necessary for a sustainable structure? These are questions that are perhaps unanswerable at present, but worthy of study for any students interested in governance structures, economic systems, and urban development.

 

Jeremy Dalton: 

As one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world's fastest growing economy, Shenzhen, China is the poster child for the rapid urban expansion that is taking place all over the world. My days at the Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen were spent contributing to a handful of master plan projects from around Southern China. Because I had more exposure to American and European cities, I was mostly tasked with researching and presenting international case studies for UPDIS' projects. I presented to UPDIS staff on 20-Minute Neighborhoods, a popular planning concept in Portland with exciting potential for adoption in China. Everywhere I turned there was something new to learn about equity, sustainability, or urban form. The remarkable efficiency of the subway, the woefully inadequate stormwater management, the beauty of Lychee Park, the lack of pedestrian crossings along the massive Shennan Road; each day brought new lessons—both good and bad—for cities.

 

Pamela N. Phan:

I was able to observe Chinese planners at their best, and at their most ragged when under deadline. I also got to observe China Academy of Urban Planning and Design across the spectrum of their hierarchy, building relationships with the director of my studio (who has since been promoted to assistant director of the branch), mid-career planners who have worked between five and 10 years, several as project managers, new hires or “freshmen" as they are called, and interns from bachelor and graduate programs around the country.  I also was able to gain insights and perspectives from staff in engineering and the research departments, which were both outside of the particular studio I was placed in.  This variety of perspectives of the same organization and often times the same project, as was the case with the Quality of Life project, gave me a richer understanding of the challenges and benefits of planning in a Chinese firm.  

Yiping Fang is an assistant professor of Urban Studies and Planning.