Published June 19, 2014
Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village in southern China, population 175,000. Today, it’s a sprawling megalopolis of more than 12 million inhabitants, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.
Shenzhen’s explosive growth is just one example of the rapid, large-scale urbanization that has come to define contemporary China. Since 1979, when China opened its markets to foreign investment, the nation's urban centers have seen spectacular economic growth, spawning a mass rural-to-urban migration and unprecedented levels of urban development.
On April 19 and 20, the University at Buffalo Confucius Institute and School of Architecture and Planning hosted seven internationally renowned scholars in urban planning, political science and geography to consider the complex bureaucratic, political and economic forces shaping urbanization in China, as well as innovative planning and growth-management policies for the future.
“Building Out and Building Up: Understanding Urban Hyperdevelopment in Contemporary China” featured a series of panel presentations and audience discussion around topics such as transportation development, the changing shape of China’s urban neighborhoods, land control and property development, local and provincial governance structures, and China’s push for greener cities.
The two-day event engaged a broad audience of faculty, students and members of the community and was sponsored by the UB Confucius Institute in cooperation with the UB Asian Studies program and the UB School of Architecture and Planning, with partial funding from the Ibrahim and Viviane Jammal Fund for Global Planning Studies and the support of UB’s HSBC Center for Global Business Leadership.
Today, more than half of China’s residents live in cities, compared to only 20 percent in 1979. There are more than 160 cities in China with 1 million or more residents, and five “megacities” with more than 10 million inhabitants.
Particularly because the pace of urbanization is expected only to accelerate, leaders in China and around the world are increasingly focused on urban planning strategies to manage growth. Indeed, China’s urbanization has already had dramatic impacts related to environmental degradation, agricultural land loss, resource consumption, social and economic equity and changing urban form.
The symposium launches the UB Confucius Institute’s academic emphasis on architecture and urban planning. Leaders of UB's Confucius Institute believe it is the first Confucius Institute in the world to focus on these fundamental questions related to the historical development and future trajectory of the Peoples’ Republic of China.
“Urban studies is a fascinating perspective from which to approach an understanding of Chinese culture,” said Kristin Stapleton, associate professor of history and director of the Confucius Institute. “China’s rich urban history is often seen as unconnected to the urban boom occurring right now, but the legacy of urban life in previous eras easily captures the imaginations of people in China today, shaping how they understand cities and hope to see them develop in the future. Our Confucius Institute aims to help the rest of the world appreciate China’s urban history and the ways in which it influences planning in contemporary Chinese cities.”
Ernest Sternberg, professor and chair of UB’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning, added that, “Some of the world’s biggest urban challenges – from rural migration to the global energy crisis – are playing out at a magnified scale in China.”
“This symposium offers an important opportunity to examine urbanization in China through the lens of urban planning, and serves as an exciting start to our partnership with the Confucius Institute,” Sternberg continued, adding that UB, like other universities across the U.S., has seen an influx of Chinese planning students due to China’s increased investment in urban planning.
The first day’s events featured a panel on transportation planning featuring Zhong-Ren Peng, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, and Qisheng Pan, professor and chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. Peng explored the roots of China’s severe traffic congestion and urban sprawl, as well as potential public transportation solutions.
Qing Shen, professor and chair of the Department of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington, was scheduled to deliver the School of Architecture and Planning's annual Jammal Lecture at the symposium; due to illness, that lecture was cancelled and will now take place during the fall 2013 semester.
Li Yin, associate professor of urban and regional planning at UB and a co-organizer of the symposium, says many of the event’s speakers are at the forefront of an important shift in urban planning for China.
“China's unprecedented urbanization, urban expansion and rapid motorization have resulted in challenges that are pushing the nation’s policy makers and planners to move beyond traditional design-oriented planning to a more systematic and scientific approach using state-of-the-art technology.”
Events scheduled for Saturday, April 20, included a panel discussion on China’s rapidly evolving urban form. Weiping Wu, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, addressed the reconfiguration of China’s urban neighborhoods, while Nick Smith, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, examined the phenomenon of village urbanization in China.
UB graduate students who have participated in a joint course in history and urban and regional planning also played a key role in the program, presenting their research on the history of foreign involvement in China’s cities, social life and transportation in contemporary cities, and comprehensive planning for small cities in China.
As part of a panel on “Governance and the Environment in Chinese Cities,” Pierre Landry, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, explored political forces behind China’s “bureaucratic urbanization.” Alana Boland, associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, discussed China’s environmental governance and the genesis of its “eco-city” model.
The symposium concluded with a wrap-up session in which all participants and audience members reflected on key issues raised during the presentations.