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Originally published November 16, 2013 at 8:08 PM | Page modified November 17, 2013 at 9:20 AM

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China’s suburbia harboring a crisis

Unlike the U.S. postwar sprawl, which mixed houses with schools, supermarkets and diners, the new Chinese commuters have to drive for basic services, boosting energy consumption and emissions that have made the nation’s cities some of the most polluted in the world.


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20 years from now when these "Superblocks" are empty and dilapidated, China... MORE

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Take away the haze of air pollution, and the Waterfront Corso Mansions near Tianjin might seem like an urban idyll for China’s growing population of city dwellers.

Inside a gated compound, residential towers and houses overlook a lake and manicured gardens. What’s missing from the neighborhood are shops and amenities, turning the block and hundreds like it in the suburb of Meijiang into a giant dormitory for Tianjin, 40 minutes away by car.

“There’s no hospital nearby, no hair salon, hardly any restaurants,” said Wang Bo, 62, who lives with his daughter’s family in the complex. He ferries his wife to work each day. “I have to drive 20 minutes just to buy vegetables.”

This is one of China’s superblocks, developments that are storing up a social, energy and environmental crisis by forcing millions of new urban middle-class residents to drive everywhere.

As China’s ruling Communist Party convened earlier this month to debate an economic blueprint for the future, the Soviet-inspired urban plan pits municipal governments, which rely on land sales for a fifth of their revenue, against Premier Li Keqiang, who is trying to balance urbanization with efforts to clean up the environment.

What the U.S. did in the 1950s with 160 million people, China is doing now with more than a billion — moving to suburbia.

Unlike the U.S. postwar sprawl, which mixed houses with schools, supermarkets and diners, the new Chinese commuters have to drive for basic services, boosting energy consumption and emissions that have made the nation’s cities some of the most polluted in the world.

China has shifted more than 300 million people into cities since 1995 — and Li must find a way to accommodate almost that many again from the countryside without further wrecking the environment and causing the nation’s fuel bill to soar.

China’s metropolitan dwellers, already one-tenth of the world’s population, use three times more energy than their countryside peers, according to the World Bank.

“If China doesn’t do the right thing now it will be locked into an inefficient infrastructure that leads to more congestion and more pollution,” said Shobhakar Dhakal, former executive director of the Global Carbon Project, an international-scientific program hosted by the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Japan. “There’s an urgent need for the government to provide incentives for urban growth to follow a more efficient path.”

Under the superblock model, municipal authorities typically build four- to eight-lane highways to remote suburbs where they can sell building rights to developers on slabs of land about 500 meters square.

The construction companies then erect apartment towers on the block, separated from the rest of the community by fences and security guards.

Housing, industry and shopping districts are often zoned for different parts of the city, making long commutes the norm.

Even so, the rapid expansion of cities has helped drive average annual economic growth of 10.5 percent over the past decade, leading to better road and rail systems and increasing the incomes of millions.

“In the past 30 years, China’s urbanization has transformed the landscape, upgraded public infrastructure and improved the quality of urban lives,” said Chang Jian, China economist at Barclays in Hong Kong who previously worked for the World Bank. “There are problems, of course. Integrating hundreds of millions more migrant workers will be a challenge.”

Revenue boost for cities

The superblock system has also boosted revenue for local governments, which can sell rights for otherwise-marginal land faster, at higher prices and with lower planning and infrastructure costs than for small parcels.

Municipal authorities in China, with a combined debt of more than 10 trillion yuan ($1.6 trillion), get about 21 percent of their revenue from land sales, according to Goldman Sachs.

As many as 90 percent of China’s cities are built this way, said He Dongquan, director of the China Sustainable Cities Program in Beijing at the Energy Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that promotes clean energy.

“The question is: Do the mid-size, second- and third-tier cities build their way into the same dilemma as Beijing and Shanghai, or do they take a better path?” said Peter Calthorpe, founder of Berkeley-based urban-design firm Calthorpe Associates and author of “Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change.” “If they don’t, the environmental burden will be huge. You don’t have to wait for the catastrophe; it’s already here.”

Energy use and carbon emissions from transportation will probably triple to 30 percent of the nation’s total by 2030, according to He.

Policies that promote the use of public transportation in more compact and integrated communities could halve fuel consumption and carbon emissions from transport by 2030, he said. Last year, China’s carbon emissions grew by 300 million tons, more than any other country and about a quarter of the global increase.

Bo, who retired to suburban Meijiang two years ago, drives about 40 minutes morning and night to take his wife to and from work at the Tianjin Medical Center. Even his granddaughter has to be driven to kindergarten.

Tianjin’s 13.5 million people live in a city that is among China’s 10 most polluted, according to the environment ministry.

“It’s really terrible,” said Lin Zhixin, 30, who lives in the same complex as Bo with her husband and daughter, on a day when air pollution was five times the level the World Health Organization deems safe. “When I took my child to the hospital recently with a cough, there were many other children there with the same problem. The doctor said pollution was partly to blame.”

China’s “pointlessly wide roads and squares” are rooted in Soviet-style city planning intended to “project Communist Party Power,” wrote Tom Miller in “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History.”

“The typical Chinese city is gray, ugly and congested,” wrote Miller. “The roads are jammed, the air filthy, the streets often unwalkable.”

Premier Li is trying to change that. China will adopt a “new type of urbanization” that puts the people at its “heart” and incorporates ideas of green and efficient growth, he said in March at a news conference in Beijing.

The World Bank and the State Council’s Development Research Center are working on a report focused on urbanization that Li requested. It is scheduled for publication in December.

“Some of our priorities are building dense cities that keep people living close to where they work with better transport systems,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said at a briefing in Beijing in September. “If China breathes easier, the world will breathe easier, too.”



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