How Cities Are Shaping China’s Future

In hardly any other country, urbanization is progressing as fast as in China. A study conducted by the World Bank concludes that by 2030, around 70 percent of the Chinese population will be living in cities - more than a billion people. How can this development be human and sustainable? A panel discussion within the series "Engaging with China".

Robert Bosch Stiftung | December 2016
China im Gespräch Stadtmacher 1200
Anita Back

Not many megatrends are shaping the 21st century as strongly as the increasing level of urbanization. Around the world, millions of people are moving from the country into cities in hopes of finding work, educational opportunities for their children, and a working health care infrastructure – in other words, they are searching for a better life.

And no other country is experiencing this phenomenon as intensely as China. A study conducted by the World Bank concluded that, by the year 2030, around 70 percent of the Chinese population will be living in cities – more than a billion people. Currently this figure is barely more than 55 percent. This means that urbanization in China is happening more rapidly than the global average, which is an enormous challenge for administration, urban planning, and the economy – but also for the identity of each individual.

Spotlight on sustainable urban development

An event from the "Engaging with China" series held at the Berlin Office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung addressed the question of how to tackle these challenges within the framework of urbanization. There was plenty to talk about: "Will the citizens of China, in particular the motivated middle class, continue to be satisfied with their quality of life in the face of the increasing urbanization?" asked Thomas Henneberg, Robert Bosch Stiftung project manager responsible for the discussion series, in his opening address before an audience of some 80 guests. This would have to be the case for the urban transformation of the country to be considered a success. "This is why sustainable urban development is of central importance for the future of China," Henneberg added. Nadine Godehardt, deputy director of the Asia research group at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs – SWP), led the proceedings at the event

Katja Hellkötter highlighted the basic necessity of designing China’s cities with livability in mind. "The connection between culture and nature is at the center of city living," says Hellkötter. For years, she has been working towards the successful exchange of ideas between Germany and China on this topic. In Shanghai in 2009, she founded the Constellations International agency; today, she is the head of the agency’s Berlin office. Since 2016, she has been in charge of the City Makers China–Germany program, which focuses on the concept of a more livable city, for the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and Hellkötter presented the program’s recommendations at the event.

According to Hellkötter, the idea of culture includes not only cultural institutions, but primarily the connection that residents feel with the urban community. And then comes the basic human need to live in harmony with nature.

Chinese Community Gardens

Pan Tao from Shanghai can relate with Hellkötter. He was sitting next to her at the podium for the event. For years, Pan Tao lived, studied, and conducted research in Germany. When he returned to China, he took with him one of the most German ideas imaginable: the community garden.

Six years ago, around an hour’s drive south of downtown Shanghai, he founded the Ecoland Club, an 8.5-acre organic farm where urbanites with a yearning for some green can have their own little garden plot. He leased the land from the local authorities.

The project is a huge success. "In the beginning, my wife and I just wanted a weekend getaway from the concrete jungle," Pan Tao says. But he must have struck a nerve with his idea, since all of the plots are taken today. Three hundred people are already participating in the project, and the waiting list is long. "We have truly become a little community." Friendships have been forged, and children have a place to play outside. "Something special has developed from this weekend activity."

WeGarden – Metropolitan Islands of Green

By now, Pan Tao has successfully brought that special something into the city center. He now operates four community gardens there – islands of green in the metropolis with 24 million inhabitants. They call them "WeGardens" – an homage to WeChat, the successful Chinese version of WhatsApp, according to Pan Tao. By the end of next year, there will be more than 100 such community gardens in the whole of Shanghai.

The idea has even spread beyond just Shanghai. In other big cities like Beijing – but also in growing cities such as Changsha – there is plenty of demand for community gardens, which make a significant contribution to quality of life, as Pan Tao explained. "My hope is that, in ten years, we have a million urban gardens in China," he says. That would bring China level with Germany, the homeland of the community garden.

Hellkötter says that Pan Tao’s project enriches urban life and therefore fits perfectly into the City Makers program. "We’re looking for people who shape spaces in a unique way," she says. "China needs more people like Pan Tao."

She highlighted how important the partnerships between German and Chinese cities – as well as the interdisciplinary, vertical collaboration across several levels – are to improving the quality of life in urban centers. The City Makers program offers the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences and to use existing structures such as city partnerships to implement new approaches and ideas for sustainable urban development.

(Julian Heißler, November 2016)