Archive for April, 2011
For the past few days, I have been in China, starting in Beijing and now Shuozhou (Sho Joe) with the American Planning Association. We are helping the City of Shouzhou, which includes not just the city but the entire prefecture. As I meet with government officials, walk around the city and drive through the countryside, it is interesting to note similarities and contrasts with MoCo.
First, the landscape covers a city of about 260,000 people, adjacent sprawling development, and rural areas. The break between the urban and suburban is much quicker than our county, however the government faces challenges dealing with this diverse landscape.
As the city has grown, it has evolved around the established neighborhoods. Yet, it has often turned its back on these places. The road infrastructure surrounds the built places, creating very wide and pedestrian-unfriendly streets. Those roads carry traffic past neighborhoods and limit connectivity from one neighborhood to the next a la Rockville Pike. Neighborhoods once thriving with small businesses are now dependent on more centralized, grand-scale shopping in shopping malls.
Shuozhou is expecting rapid growth. City leaders are faced with deciding where they can grow. They have created a lot of open space within the urbanized area that is not well placed, is underuseed and looks sterile. Some corners contain parks on three or four sides, ruining any chance for active streetscapes.
One option is to build on these spaces and create smaller, integrated open spaces that encourage people to use them. Is there an incentive to re-examine the built area with the option for infill on underused sites?
Unlike MoCo, where land always has value, the only return on Chinese land is its sale by the government. That creates an incentive to sprawl by releasing more land for new development. Sort of like the many housing and transportation policies in the United States that work against infill and encourage building farther and farther out. However, the prefecture has very strict agricultural protection policies.
For example, if the city wants to expand the industrial park, there can be no net loss of farmland. Other ways of increasing farmland have to be found. One way is to improve the soils with high alkaline content so they can be put into active ag use. Another method is to consolidate small villages and use the vacated space for ag production. It’s a different take on transfer of development rights programs to preserve farmland.
This area is also a big producer of coal. Coal, a huge resource very close to the surface, permeates all aspects of the region. Yet, coal also is being used to assist the farm community with a policy that imposes a fee per ton to raise extra revenue to improve the social welfare of residents (social security, health care). A great example of land use integrated with social needs.
While North Americans think of the increasing carbon emissions in China, it is important to point out the steps they are taking to improve the environment. The scale of solar farms planned here are immense. And the Chinese are diversifying into wind power.
As I walk around the community, I can’t help but notice the effect of the air pollution. Air quality is noticeably bad, and everyone is working to improve on this. The urban tree canopy rivals that of MoCo, and the government has set targets for the urban and rural areas. In MoCo we are not quite there yet, although planners have just finished mapping the tree canopy. The forests being planted here are extensive, although this is a very dry climate. The Chinese need to consider what they are planting and the demands for water.
The consolidation of small villages allows the government to bring sewer systems to people who have been using septic. This will mean an improvement in groundwater quality. This is an issue for Maryland, where we have an ongoing debate about the management of septic systems.
And here lies a big difference between how land use becomes a function of the economic growth of a place and the quality of life. In China, the regional government establishes benchmarks through five-year plans that detail the use of land, production goals and linkages to the welfare of residents. Local agricultural land use is linked to the regional landscape as well as national food production.
There is a conscious effort to move closer to a “food to table” concept. Local officials are working to get more of the local product closer to the consumer and diversify the agricultural production so that the region does not just produce the milk, but manufactures milk products like yogurt rather than shipping the milk elsewhere for yogurt processing. It’s not only efficient, but greener.
Back home, I keep hearing about what is produced in the ag reserve, and about how the livestock raised in MoCo is shipped to Pennsylvania to be processed. Maybe we could do better.
The rapid growth in China as they move to a nation of consumers mirrors the suburbanization of America from the 1940s to the present. What happened in America is happening in China at a much faster and grander scale. Not only are the Chinese experiencing similar problems, they have gone past us in tackling the issues associated with such growth.
They have built huge car-oriented infrastructure, yet they have also invested heavily in public transportation such as rail, subways and upgrading their air transport system. So while our American Planning Institute team is here to help them think strategically about how their region will grow and become more sustainable, we are taking the opportunity to learn how they are working to build for a sustainable future on so many fronts.