China’s urban policy unit just met for the first time in 38 years. Here’s what it recommended

By Wade Shepard and CC Huang

On 21 February, when China’s State Council released a new set of urban development guidelines, it backtracked on many of the conventions that have defined the past two decades of rampant urbanisation. These new guidelines aim to produce a framework which will revamp and revitalise China’s cities – to create urban areas that have improved navigability, tighter-knit communities, better access to commercial and public areas, and are less resource intensive.

These new directives were taken from the recommendations derived from a rare meeting of the Central Urban Work Conference this past December – the last time it met was in 1978 – and come down from the top echelons of power in the country. They are, to put it bluntly, an enormous milestone that should have a drastic impact on how China’s cities develop into the future.

Over the past couple of decades China has been undergoing an unprecedented urbanisation boom. Cities across the country have been building hundreds of completely new sub-cities, districts, and towns, as China’s urban population jumped from under 20 percent in 1978, to 57 percent today.

The breakneck speed of urbanisation during this era often outpaced quality planning, and China gradually became a land of single-use, car-dependent, Soviet-style superblocks. This has resulted in a uniform urban landscape across the country – “a thousand cities with the same face,” as it is often put. Environmentally speaking, these water-heavy, land-intensive, and car-dependent sprawling new urban areas were horrendous. What’s more, over a million villages, myriad historic areas, ancient landmarks, and traditional-style urban neighborhoods have been razed in the pursuit of new land for building these new developments.

But for some time now there has been a budding consciousness among some urban designers, architects, and government officials that China’s brand of urbanisation was far from optimal — socially, economically, and environmentally — and that the country must build its cities differently. To this end, the central government stepped in to deliver this new set of urban development guidelines, which aim to apply principles of sustainable urban development to all cities across China.

"These new standards are an urban design revolution,” says Peter Calthorpe, a principal at Calthorpe Associates, an architecture firm that has been working to improve China’s urban areas. “They overturn the destructive Chinese model of superblocks, gated communities, and giant streets that has been too long eroding the livability their cities. [The authorities] have been testing these ideas for years, but now they are moving them to a scale that is unprecedented.”

These new guidelines support many urban design strategies that have been developed successfully in cities around the world, such as in New York, London, and Copenhagen. More specifically, these guidelines bring the following seven areas into focus:

12 Design Principles for a New Urban Default

By CC Huang and Lili Pike


City life in today’s China is taking new shapes. Chenggong, a new city district outside of Kunming, is being built in small blocks to tilt transportation towards walking and away from driving. Board a bus in Guangzhou, and the doors open all at once in subway-like fashion before the bus motors down an exclusive BRT lane, cutting congestion and costs. Other neighborhoods, such as Liuyun Xiaoqu, are reinventing their cityscapes by creating car-free zones where pedestrians can walk and shop without the hazards and omnipresent pollution of cars.

While we are continuously learning more about what makes human habitats both livable and sustainable, a consensus has emerged on the most foundational and necessary design principles. Last year, China Development Bank Capital, Energy Innovation, and Energy Foundation created the Guidelines for Green and Smart Urban Development to outline these design principles. The guidelines are highly aligned with the Chinese government’s recent efforts to redirect cities away from sprawl and towards sustainability.

We found that there are 12 that are the most important for urban designers, planners and developers to incorporate into the planning stage. Our approach quantifies these principles to prevent greenwashing. The beauty of these design principles is that they are simple – anyone can understand them and evaluate the sustainability of their own city.

Please download the full report here for details on metrics, best practices, and case studies.

Here is a quick rundown of our 12 Green Guidelines:

5 Things to Know…About China’s New Urbanization Guidelines

By CC Huang


On February 21, China’s State Council and the Communist Party’s Central Committee released a new set of guidelines (English coverage) for strengthening urban planning and development. These guidelines were borne out of recommendations from the Central Urban Work Conference this past December reflecting the nation’s new emphasis on urban sustainability. The last such meeting was held in 1978, when China’s cities were home to less than 20 percent of its population. By contrast, that number today is 57 percent.

This announcement represents a major step forward for urban development in China. For the past few decades, city planning was based on a car-dependent, Soviet model dominated by superblocks, wide roads, and single-use districts. By comparison, the new guidelines prioritize walking and public transit options over car use, preserve historical and cultural characteristics, and grow cities only within the means of their natural resources.

In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half of the global population was living in urban areas and the United Nations predicts two-thirds of the world’s population, about six billion people, will be city dwellers by 2050. As the world’s most populous nation, China’s urban development will set the tone as urban populations continue to grow worldwide.

The comprehensive principles included in China’s new guidelines range widely in scale, covering a city’s entire geographic boundary down to its streets, blocks, and buildings. They also offer guidance on municipal water, waste, and energy systems, which are important at all scales. Below, we elaborate on five of the key principles included in the guidelines:

A Visual Tour of Sustainable Urban Design Principles

By CC Huang and Lili Pike


Vast plots of land await development to house China’s soaring urban population.  If these new urban developments are based on superblocks or car-dependency, carbon emissions will continue to rise as quality of life diminishes. If these developments follow a dozen basic design principles, developers and local governments can establish a new pattern for sustainable cities. The scale and speed of China’s urbanization is unprecedented - whether the country’s urbanization proceeds sustainably will critically impact the world’s efforts to mitigate climate change. 

The 12 Green Guidelines provides an urban sustainability roadmap for Chinese cities.  The Guidelines were created for China Development Bank Capital (CDBC) to guide investment in more sustainable urbanization. The 12 Green Guidelines cover the critical aspects of urban development, which fall into three categories: urban form, transportation, and energy and resources. Each guideline is based on an important principle of urban sustainability, contains specific metrics to prevent greenwashing, and lists the relevant social, environment, and economic benefits.

This Prezi will walk you through each guideline, providing our rationale and key examples from China and around the world. While the 12 Green Guidelines were developed for use in China, they represent an emerging international consensus on sustainable urban development and could be used in any country.  

For a full explanation of each guideline, its full triple bottom benefits, and references, please see our 12 Green Guidelines report. 


Guiding Green and Smart Urban Development in China

By CC Huang and Lili Pike


In the lead up to last month’s historic Paris climate summit, China announced that it would “embark on a new pattern of urbanization.” With cities consuming three-quarters of the China’s energy, the fate of this initiative carries global significance.

What will China’s “new pattern of urbanization” look like? China Development Bank Capital, in partnership with Energy Innovation and Energy Foundation, recently introduced a set of guidelines to help define China’s new model for urbanization. The Green & Smart Urban Development Guidelines capture the most important lessons learned from global experience on how to build a sustainable city. These guidelines are in line with China’s new central government goals and designed with practicality as a priority to suit China’s rapid urbanization.

‘Green guidelines’ offer roadmap for China’s urbanization

By David Hatch 


There are roughly 200 “eco-city” projects underway in China, yet there have never been uniform standards to guide such projects. Wade Shepard writes for Forbes that a set of new urban design protocols provides a much-needed roadmap for the nation’s urbanization.

The new “Green and Smart Urban Development Guidelines” feature 18 principles that apply to every city in China. There are recommendations for curbing sprawl, spurring transit-oriented development, creating mixed-use neighborhoods and increasing public space.

The guidelines are the product of a partnership between China Development Bank Capital, the San Francisco-based consultancy Energy Innovation and the grant-making charity Energy Foundation China.

The new standards could have a significant impact because buildings could represent up to 40 percent of the nation’s energy use by 2030, the article notes. “They are something that China can actually use,” writes Shepard, author of Ghost Cities of China.

China’s Green & Smart Opportunity

By CC Huang 


What makes a great city? The breadth and diversity of the C40 network might suggest that the unique circumstance of each city’s development makes it difficult to generalize. And yet years of urban planning experience have allowed experts to extract some basic principles on what a great city entails. Great cities have great parks. Great cities have fantastic public transit systems. Great cities are built for people, not cars. Great cities are sustainable.

In the next 15 to 20 years, some 300 million people in China will move to cities, roughly the population of the United States. This gives China an incredible opportunity to build dynamic, livable cities that will benefit generations to come. Ahead of the COP21 meeting in Paris, China’s publically declared commitments on how it would reduce emissions in the coming decades had a substantial focus on urbanization, stating that China will “embark on a new pattern of urbanization.”

New Urbanization Guidelines Set To Fix China's Cities

By Wade Shepard 


The typical modern Chinese city leaves a lot to be desired — and everybody seems to know it. Their streets tend to be extremely wide, cutting off one side from the other, but are still clogged with traffic that is unhindered by road rules. Their expansive sidewalks would be good for walking except for the fact that cars park and drive on them. Their populations are housed within 500×500 meter apartment complexes that are shut up behind high gates, inhibiting street life — socializing is best done at the nearest shopping mall. Their appearance is monotonous, it is a common complaint that China has a “thousand cities with the same face.” Their buildings are generally built quickly and cheaply, only last for around 25 -30 years, and are extremely energy inefficient, often lacking insulation and double paned windows. Everybody seems to be in everybody’s way in these places, the carrying capacity of the streets, buildings, and public transportation systems seem stressed to the brink, and the particulate matter haze is sometimes so thick that you can’t see the tops of the buildings right in front of you. “We go into our apartments to hide,” a young woman from Taizhou once told me, perhaps with good reason.

And all of this is in a country that is still urbanizing rapidly and expects to see over 200 million more city dwellers by 2030. To government officials, the people in the streets, and foreign observers alike, it’s clear that China needs to do something about its cities.

As buildings will account for 40% of China’s energy consumption by 2030 and transportation produces a third of the particulate matter in big cities like Beijing, “green” is now the building buzzword throughout the country. Projects that are labeled green can more easily get funding from the central government, who offers massive subsidies for environmentally-minded urbanization initiatives. Partly, this shows China’s commitment to improving its environmental and urban conditions; partly, it’s just an excuse to build another new city — something which is often essential to keep the coffers of local municipalities from drying up. There are currently upwards of 200 eco-city projects in the works in China — and this is in spite of the fact that not a single one has ever been successfully built and populated, and many, like Huangbaiyu and Dongtan, end as city-sized flops. The Jiaotong-Liverpool University architecture professor Austin Williams once crunched the numbers and discovered that in many aspects London was actually more ecological than the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Ecocity, which is currently China’s best example of a purposefully built green city.

Part of the problem is that there are no standards which certify a new urbanization project as green, there is no eco-city seal of approval, and no official measures put in place to monitor these places to ensure that they live up to expectations. Until now.

China Can Smartly Build 10 New York Cities in 10 Years

By Lili Pike


Months before the December climate conference COP21 in Paris, 11 major Chinese cities pledged to peak their greenhouse gas emissions well before 2030. China’s 35 largest cities are responsible for 40 percent of national emissions, making urban sustainability efforts critical to the country’s overall climate change mitigation strategy. In advance of COP21, China promised to “embark on a new pattern of urbanization, optimizing the urban system and space layout, and integrating the low-carbon development concept in the entire process of urban planning, construction and management.”

However, record smog levels in Beijing during the Paris conference highlighted the gap between rhetoric and reform. The government responded with a limited ban on cars, but proactive rather than reactive strategies are necessary, especially considering China’s plan to drastically increase its urban population.

In an analysis of the country’s COP21 goals, China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy (NSCS) recognized urbanization as a significant challenge. The country’s urban population is projected to reach 1 billion by 2030, with 75 percent of the population living in cities by 2050. As farmers move to cities, their lifestyles will inevitably shift, which could lead to an increase in energy consumption. One study showed that China’s average urban resident consumed 1.4 times as much energy as the average rural resident in 2012.

But in this rush to urbanize, China also has an enormous opportunity to move toward a “new pattern of urbanization.” Chinese cities could fulfill their potential to be the most energy-efficient human habitat rather than stoking energy consumption.

China’s green urban planning can draw lessons from Portland and Stockholm

By Lili Pike

Out of industrial dust and ashes, the lakeside Hammarby Sjöstad district of Stockholm arose in 1999. Meanwhile, 5,000 miles to the west, the historical Pearl District of Portland, Oregon reawakened. Drawing on detailed case studies on Hammarby and the Pearl District completed under the aegis of China Development Bank Capital’s Green and Smart Guidelines, this article presents the critical lessons the districts’ sustainable development can offer China. 

China reports that a startling 200 eco-city projects are under construction across the country. Challenges facing China’s urban sustainability are legion. Many municipal governments are underfunded and rely on promoting sprawling development for additional revenue, planning practices in China are still largely car-centric, and accountability mechanisms can be weak. 

The Pearl District is a case of redevelopment and with Hammerby, new development. Both projects followed a similar development process: they set early and comprehensive environmental goals, aligned these with developers’ incentives, and created accountability systems to ensure the goals were met. 

Some 15 years after the projects broke ground, the districts’ flourishing economies, excellent environmental records, and vibrant communities prove that sustainability and growth do not have to be mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they can instead be mutually reinforcing. 

How sustainable cities can drive business growth

By Hallie Kennan and Chris Busch


The notion of sustainable cities usually conjures environmental themes, but sustainable urban design’s greatest impact could be on economic performance. By creating improved quality of life conditions for residents, sustainable cities simultaneously lay the foundation for wide-ranging economic benefits. 

The greatest competition in today’s footloose economy is the fight for human talent, and urban quality of life strongly determines whether cities can attract a smart workforce, as well as the innovative new companies employing them. 

Cities weren’t always ideal for business, and for decades the attraction of space and privacy drew people toward suburbia, with businesses following suit. But within the last decade people have begun returning to the city, and this trend symbolically accelerated in 2015 when millennials overtook Generation X as the largest generation in America’s workforce. 

This generation is often characterized as smart, single, career-focused and experience-driven — a group attracted to cities with walkable neighborhoods, public transportation options, educational opportunities and cultural activities. But more than just young adults are increasingly drawn to the features of urban living, and employees of all ages are working longer hours, pushing them to live closer to work to free up more precious leisure time.