Status and Trends of Global Urbanization

The Chinese Society for Urban Studies (CSUS), the Center for Design & the City at the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), and OTIS hosted the first Sino-U.S. City Design Summit in Zhuhai, China, July 16–17, 2013. The Summit was held in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s 2013 Conference on Urban Development and Planning. The Conference drew an audience of more than 1,500 Chinese mayors, government officials, developers, and city planners. At the Summit, delegate Chris Twinn of Arup considered human-scale, sustainable, and integrated planning in China.

I would like to share with you three particular, interrelated trends. From my experience of working some ten years on Chinese projects and living for three years in Shanghai, I believe that these particular world trends have specific relevance to China’s rapid urbanization context:

  1. The move away from grand plans towards the human scale
  2. The scale of imminent environmental sustainability step-change
  3. The trend towards more integrated, multidisciplinary master planning for delivery of wider aspirations

The Grand Plans Trend
It was the American Daniel H. Burnham who said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” This imperative inspired a generation and a movement that saw urban planning as the big intervention, as monumental, as the grand scheme of things, with a presumption that somehow appropriate detail and livability would simply slip into place beneath.

Their position was a reaction against the urban failings of the earlier Industrial Revolution in the West, with its social injustices and appalling pollution. In 1898, Ebenezer Howard, the English founder of the Garden City Movement, formulated a way forward, rejecting the high urban densities that in their minds propagated these worst excesses. Burnham’s manifestations of this approach also presented the grand boulevards and urban block format as the basis for the ideal urban master plan.

Yet both Burnham and Howard failed to anticipate the implication of subsequent general car ownership—its clogging of these grand boulevards, the resultant noise and all-pervading pollution, and the community dislocation it would cause. Also unanticipated were the advances in urban built form and technical systems that now allow dense urban living to deliver a high quality of life.

Jane Jacobs later set in motion a counter reaction with her book The Death & Life of Great American Cities (1961). In arguing that the foundation of any urban community should be at the human scale, she rejected large blocks and the monumental as the metric for successful urban planning. She associated this legacy of grand planning with an absence of attention to such vital social concerns as better housing, community cohesion, and day-to-day access to amenities.

The trend that Jacobs helped to initiate has continued to evolve, as bottom-up, community-scale master planning has become recognized for delivering more rounded and successful mixed-use communities worldwide. It also provides the framework for ongoing community development in response to changing needs.

Many existing world cities exemplify this approach and illustrate how the linkages of small communities provide the means for scaling up the human scale into megacities. Hence, London—with its multiple community cores, green belt, and economically dependent new satellite towns connected by mass transit—is a prime example of the value of bottom-up, human-scale community planning for the wider whole.

The Environmental Sustainability Trend
It was almost ten years ago that Arup was approached to develop the master plan for Dongtan Eco-city in the Yangtze delta. The program/brief from the client was to deliver the best of European thinking for future community planning. At that time, Europe had started looking at where it would need to be for 2020. It was creating a road map. Within the context of a future in which seven to nine billion people would share the planet’s resources, the Dongtan design aimed at using only its fair share. This approach involved kick starting a circular economy, including car-free areas, a full range of daily amenities within walking distance, zero waste to landfills, zero carbon in operation, etc.

The master plan design was very well received. However, as it transpired the skills needed for its implementation had yet to be developed in China—even at the level of lawyers, who were unable to embed binding environmental standards into development contracts…let alone what was needed to work through the supply chain to site implementation and quality verification!

As time has moved on, the commercial development sector has effectively redefined the default “eco-city” label as meaning little better than 15 percent improvement on business-as-usual. But, as has been shown repeatedly before, things move very rapidly in China. At the level of central government, there is an awareness that the current situation is insufficient for the future. Hence, the direction of travel is now towards a circular economy as adopted in the 12th Five-Year Plan. Up-skilling of the supply chain and end delivery verification has become the name of the game.

The question now is how fast and how far will Chinese environmental standard changes go. Are the standards being proposed by the West for use in China sufficient for China’s future needs? As an example of the dilemma, the Chinese carbon emissions per person for the built environment are currently less than a quarter of those in the USA. So if all China’s buildings, new and existing, were brought up to the equivalent of LEED Platinum to serve all their 1.3 billion people, this would almost double Chinese energy use. This includes expectations of increased floor area per person, appliances, and energy consuming devices—a lifestyle the West takes for granted. This level of increased Chinese carbon emissions puts our planet firmly on the trajectory for 6 degrees Centigrade (10 degrees Fahrenheit) of climate change. So, is what we are offering China good enough?

The indications are that China is going back to re-examine the environmental sustainability standards of the type offered by Dongtan, with a view to formulating a road map more applicable for China for how to get there.

The Integrated, Multi-disciplinary Master Plan Trend
A feature of leading urban development design has been its increasingly multi-disciplinary and integrated nature. While aspects of say, transport, have conventionally been coordinated to some level with elements of land use and commercial development enablement, the direction has moved on rapidly towards considerably more integration. This now extends across a far wider range of social, technical, and economic topics—with the aim of being able to deliver significantly better value from the overall development.

Thus, for example, careful application of built form, use mix, financial appraisal, and mobility strategies helps avoid the need for development road surface area, and in turn generates more built area, and with that, the generation of more prosperity. For the Chinese context, this helps increase the local municipalities’ land rights revenue while simultaneously reducing their current infrastructure funding deficits. Likewise, establishing early stage advanced building energy standards, coupled with peak demand profiling, allows a sustainability cost dividend by way of significantly reduced infrastructure capacity needs. Similarly, closer integration of the master planning with the development financial modeling would also allow municipalities to better assess the development financial potential and so be better positioned to negotiate a more beneficial split of benefits between the plot developers and the local community. Wider community engagement helps manage expectations and deliver wins for all.

So with best practice urban master planning becoming progressively more multi-disciplinary and integrated, this presents the opportunity to help move beyond the too frequently seen “cut and dice” approach to design. It counters the too often seen situation of aspirations slipping back when it comes to delivery. Instead, integration across disciplines and through delivery allows urban developments to deliver more fully on its social, environmental, and prosperity potential.

In Summary
These three trends come together to form one. Moving beyond the grand plans to the human scale, coupled with the new environmental impact step-change imperative, requires a far higher level of integrated multi-disciplinary urban design for its successful delivery. China has been maturing rapidly, and this collaborative working helps it deliver a more lasting urbanization legacy for the Chinese people as well as the planet as a whole.


With more than 33 years of experience, Chris Twinn specializes in the design and delivery of projects where sustainability—with its resource use, social, and financial aspects—is a key issue. His in-depth involvement in the design of fabric and systems for environmentally sensitive buildings, together with their Total Design integration with architecture, planning, and policy, has gained him recognition as a world leader in this field. He is based in Arup’s Shanghai and London offices.


Arup is an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants, and technical specialists offering a broad range of professional services. Arup’s recent work for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has reaffirmed its reputation for delivering innovative and sustainable designs that reinvent the built environment. Arup brings together broad-minded individuals from a wide range of disciplines and encourages them to look beyond the constraints of their own specialisms. This unconventional approach to design springs in part from Arup’s ownership structure. The firm is owned in trust on behalf of its staff. The result is an independence of spirit that is reflected in the firm’s work, and in its dedicated pursuit of technical excellence for its clients.

Featured image of Shanghai, China courtesy of Vishnu V.

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Posted in: Center for Design & the City, Community Engagement, Creative Placemaking, Design Leadership, Media Type, Print, Public Spaces, Sustainability
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