Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

China's urban development

China Lab Guide to Megablock Urbanism
TOWN PLANNING / The eco-city is part of the innovation in China. From block, super block to mega block and eco block? Here we get an analysis of the years after Deng Xiaoping's "reform and openness policy".


In August, President Xi Jinping launched a "culture war" with an emphasis on the needs of ordinary people as opposed to the elites. The "war" started in 2020 with attacks on the private business world – especially property developers, landowners and "big tech". This autumn, the spotlight is on culture, education and entertainment: No to American "sissy TV". Faced with destabilizing factors such as inequality and the environmental crisis, President Xi Jinping needs to consolidate power. Covid-19 has also left its mark. He will promote the shift from an elitist, capitalist system to a more popular, socialist one – among other things by strengthening the independence of trade unions and removing hated working time regulations. The cities and homes are the axis of the power struggle with global repercussions – for example when the housing investment company Evergrande is threatened with bankruptcy and 1,4 million home buyers may lose their savings.

"Look to China"

In planning the future byis looking at international architectural and planning circles to the "Middle Kingdom" to understand the challenges and opportunities that rapid urbanization entails. In 1985, 20 percent lived off Chinas population in cities. It has increased by one per cent annually and is today over 60 per cent. Every year, 11 million housing units are built, and 10 to 15 superblocks are completed every day. "Megablock Research Project" is a knowledge-generating initiative started in 2008 by China Lab, a research unit at Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. "Summer school collaboration" between teachers and students at Columbia and the universities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen has resulted in China Lab Guide to Megablock Urbanism.

The super block is the typical urban unit in China with roots in millennia of history and the Stalinist architecture of the Soviet Union.

In the form of maps and data, the first part of the handbook presents 100 superblocks to compare approaches. Part two consists of eight articles with headings using words such as redefinition, history, urbanism, politics, economy, society, ecology and export. The aim has been to uncover development features that can be adapted, interpreted and used in other urbanizing contexts. Among other things, this involves redefining the "super block" – the typical urban unit in China with roots in a thousand-year history and the Stalinist architecture of the Soviet Union. A new prototype is being sought: the "mega block". It will solve social, ecological, economic and spatial challenges. The eco-city is part of the new thinking.

China Lab Guide raises important questions without offering so many solutions. It could have discussed demography, climate and, for example, the consequences of the population registration system "hukou" in more detail. It still casts a shadow over the lives of migrant workers.

The handbook was published in 2020 and contains articles that are more than ten years old. In light of recent developments, let's update some of the urban challenges facing China:

Cities within the city

In urban and housing policy, China has faced urbanization by building large-scale superblocks. With plots larger than 40 hectares and a population of over 100, 000-4 storey blocks are surrounded by walls. The result is inward-looking "cities within the city" that radically reshape social life. The blocks penetrate into the core of China's ancient cities, destroying arable land and entire village communities.

Up to 40 percent of arable land is loaded with heavy metals and other toxic waste

As there is no annual property tax, municipalities charge a one-off land tax when developers buy land. It can amount to up to 76 per cent of annual income. In order to cover increasing expenses for schools, hospitals, culture and so on, it becomes necessary to sell more and more land.

China Lab Guides analysis of the following years Deng Xiaoping's "reform and openness policy" in 1978 is particularly interesting to me. With it, the number of rural migrants grew from 150 to 800 million today: a new Chicago every two months. On the east coast, Deng established IMF-inspired "Special Economic Zones", and in 1995 he followed up with the shift from a Marxist planned economy to a socialist market economy, i.e. from residential as a social right to housing as a commodity. The market, above all the state, was supposed to provide people with housing.

Migrant workers

As economic opportunities opened up, foreign capital poured in to take advantage of an almost unlimited, low-wage labor market. Economic elites emerged inspired by Western lifestyles and ditto consumption patterns. Housing and property speculation increased with Hong Kong's "barons" at the forefront. At the same time, millions of migrant workers live in increasing numbers in overcrowded neighbourhoods, such as dormitories, converted containers and prefabricated barracks. Despite the liberalization of the population registration system (hukou), these have limited social and economic rights. At any time they can be sent back to where they came from.

Poverty abolished?

China's emphasis on urbanization as a strategy in the fight against extract poverty must be said to have succeeded if the one-dimensional "two-US-dollar-a-day goal" is taken as a basis. Urban growth in the country appears as a consequence, but also as a prerequisite for economic growth.

Economists in IMF (The International Monetary Fund) has long argued that in terms of poverty reduction, global urbanization is moving too slowly. This applies particularly to African countries. But the costs of China's form of urbanization are significant. Large areas have been reduced to environmental wasteland. More than 50 percent of drinking water is below international standards, up to 40 percent of arable land is contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic waste. 90 percent of cities have polluted air that annually causes 1,6 million early deaths. Groundwater are being emptied, large lakes and rivers are drying up, and wetlands along the coast are disappearing.

The eco city – bravado and bullshit

The eco-city, which was established to test green design and technology systems, has become a global movement. And China is leading the way. In Western countries, the eco-city is about nature, carbon reduction, limited car traffic and less consumption. In China, it is about economic growth, improved living conditions, greater mobility and social progress. Currently, China is building 285 eco-cityis. "The prefix 'eco' expresses purpose, bravado and bullshit," claims China expert Austin Williams in the book. He believes that more than 50 percent of cities will soon be labeled as "eco", "green", "low carbon", "smart" or "park". The effects can be significant.

Currently, China is building 285 eco-cities.

With a global wave of new cities, neither politicians, architects nor planners agree on what a good city is. One of the first things architecture students learn is the gestalt principle. This means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A city is not just pieces of a game that can be put together. It must be open to the unexpected: spontaneity, flexibility and initiative from below. And say yes to diversity and openness rather than control. Ultimately, the city should be a reflection of the common will of its citizens. Planning must also relate to parts of society that cannot be easily defined.

More of China Lab Guides authors point out that today's , ijing and other growing Chinese cities push the boundaries of what architects and planners can understand. They will therefore reduce the perspective to a "district-scale analysis" where the city is seen as seen by smaller neighborhoods or communities – and not as segregated superblocks. Such humanistic perspectives can give the megablock meaning.

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.

Related articles