Guangzhou and a Glimpse into the Future: Changing China

Models of high-density, largely carfree urban development are being achieved without fanfare in Guangzhou, China.

This is an updated and edited version of the article Sustainable China by Karl Fjellstrom. He takes us on a tour through a place which is setting the standard for sustainable transportation and liveability in towns and cities across this rapidly developing nation. Here we see that elements of globalisation – industrialisation, consumption, population growth, and mass-movement of people – can be successfully balanced to create places with sustainability, liveability, sociability and profitability.

Millions of people in Chinese cities are witnessing a dramatic improvement in the quality of their housing, offices, and where they eat and shop. But what will happen to city liveability, traffic congestion, global oil consumption and climate change as more cities tear down once vibrant pedestrian and bicycle-oriented urban districts and replace them with the new, automobile-oriented residential and office towers that seem to be rising overnight along Beijing’s major arterials? Many experts combine a dim prognosis with a search for solutions from Europe and other international good practice locations.

Yet Guangzhou, the capital of the southern Guangdong province with 13 million inhabitants, shows that the search for solutions can be closer to home. If city planners can learn to facilitate rather than obstruct the kinds of positive revitalisation trends already taking place, while developers and designers can learn to reinvent the positive characteristics of more traditional communities in new real estate developments, Chinese cities will be well on the way to a sustainable future.

Models of sustainable transportation are being achieved across the city – in the historical core, socialist-era housing areas, urban villages, and some of the new developments. The common characteristics of each area include high density, extremely low car ownership and usage, attractive streetscapes, blocks broken up into pedestrianised walkways and streets, and an overwhelming reliance on walking, cycling and public transport. Finally, there are two “life-support” measures for these largely carfree areas: the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project and high parking costs.

Historic Core

Guangzhou’s historic core, continuously inhabited for 2,200 years, is typified by the Xiguan area of Liwan District, where the historic continuity of the city is immediately perceptible. Today, the area faces pressure for redevelopment. Office, retail, and residential towers sprout up wherever there is space, though in Guangzhou the city centre developments tend to use more of a plot-by-plot rather than a tabula rasa demolition approach. The result, when it is done well, is ongoing densification and gradual renewal resulting in a diverse mix of building ages that helps retain the rich urban fabric.

Despite the frenetic development, cars account for less than 1% of trips in Xiguan. One reason why car use is so low is the lack of space for driving and parking. Of the estimated 274 street segments and alleys in a 0.7km2 area in Xiguan, fewer than a dozen are accessible to cars. The rest constitute a dense and intricate network of pedestrian alleyways, rich in cultural, commercial, architectural and social features.

Socialist-Era Housing Areas

Several districts of Guangzhou are upgrading public spaces and walkways, and installing ground-level shops in previously walled-off apartments built primarily in the 1980s and 1990s. The result is a largely pedestrianised urban milieu in the carfree urban oases described following. The main opposition to this carfree urban revitalisation has come from city planning officials, who object to the change in use of the ground-level apartments from residential to commercial space.

The Jingtai Jie Street Committee of Guangyuan New Village has together with local residents transformed the area into one of the most liveable parts of the city. When the area was first built up in the 1980s, developers did not attend adequately to corresponding infrastructure outside the buildings, such as pavement, public space, sewer lines, and water, which left many festering problems. The Committee took over management of these elements, and in the past couple of years has made many improvements, including installing high curbs to prevent illegal parking and restricting car parking; building trees and seating into improved walkways; narrowing roads and intersections; widening walkways and building several parks; and allowing cycle rickshaws to replace motorcycle taxis.

Another example of carfree development is the West Jiangnan area of Haizhu District, where there is an extensive pedestrian- and bicycle-only network. The inhabitants, mostly Cantonese, enjoy their daily routines in clean and quiet neighbourhoods, free of the stress, hazards and noise of cars and trucks. In March 2009, a meeting of related street committees, the district government and the city construction bureau took the pedestrian-oriented development trends a step further, proposing that the area’s main traffic artery would in future be fully pedestrianised. In July, local media reported that these plans had been approved, construction would start in September, and be finished by the end of the year, ready for the Asian Games held in Guangzhou in late 2010.

Urban Villages

Guangzhou’s 138 “urban villages” are overbuilt, extremely dense areas of informal housing formed when farmland surrounding an agricultural village was converted to urban use and absorbed into the expanding city. The erstwhile villagers are now wealth absentee landlords, with villages occupied by migrants from other cities. Housing conditions are crowded and often unpleasant, but the villages nevertheless have some positive characteristics. Car ownership is virtually non-existent, because cars cannot enter the narrow streets. And since a citywide ban on motorcycles came into effect in January 2007, the street-life in the labyrinthine alleyways has become even more vibrant.

Most needs are met within walking distance, and the presence of the urban villages even in the city centre provides proximity to formal employment. For longer distance trips, inhabitants rely on buses. Two dozen urban villages line Guangzhou’s 23km BRT corridor (which is currently under construction), with village residents forming the bulk of the system’s passenger base. Bicycles are also an important transport mode in the urban villages.

There have been efforts to improve the living environment of urban village residents; demolishing some buildings to install parks, cleaning up waterways, and installing better security for the housing units. The positive side of poor housing conditions is that residents spend a lot of time on the streets, which makes for lively streetscapes and lots of neighbourhood interaction. Combined with the intricate networks of alleyways and continually changing impact on senses of sight, smell, and hearing, the urban villages provide a stimulating and attractive walking and social environment, and a unique transit-oriented form of development.

New Developments

As in other Chinese cities, Guangzhou’s newer high-rise apartment developments contribute to a sterile streetscape, facilitate automobile use, and penalise those on foot. Yet some provide a more positive model.

Junjing Huayuan, which opened in 1997, includes ground-level shops, free public pedestrian access (with controlled vehicle access), pedestrianised internal streets and 10,000 apartments, but with only 3,500 parking spaces. However, city planning officials are insisting on a higher provision of parking spaces in new developments and planning an expansion of 50,000 parking spaces in the city centre by 2010. The desired parking level of one space per apartment is not high by international standards, but in the context of Guangzhou’s urban density and limited road network, it is a recipe for gridlock.

Guangzhou has many models of high-density, sustainable urban development. District and sub-district government offices are at the forefront of moves by communities to take control of their living environment, revitalising the building stock, upgrading streets and public spaces, and restricting car access and parking. Often, such measures are opposed by higher-level planning officials.

Bus Rapid Transit System

The different kinds of neighbourhoods in Guangzhou, rely almost wholly on buses for longer trips, and the city has some of the world’s highest bus passenger flows. Bus speeds, however, are declining: now down to 11km/h or slower on many main roads. The new BRT system will remedy the problem of low bus speeds and greatly improve conditions for bus passengers.

Guangzhou’s new BRT corridor will transport more than 23,000 passengers per hour when it opens in mid-February 2010; more than triple the capacity of any other BRT system in Asia and the second largest in the world after Bogota, Colombia. At a cost of US$6 million per km, the BRT is 10 times cheaper than a subway. Walking still makes up 40% of all trips, but in a city where a third of trips are by bus, the BRT will significantly reduce travel times, saving more than 40 million passenger-hours annually. The BRT corridor is the first road built in over a decade with continuous segregated bike lanes, and the BRT stations will include bike parking and bike sharing facilities.

Parking: Expensive and in Short Supply

One of the main reasons car use is so low is the low availability and high cost of parking. The ratio of new apartments to parking spaces of around 3:1 for newer areas in the periphery often exceeds 8:1 in built-up areas, so availability of parking spaces is low. Meanwhile monthly parking charges are capped at 400 yuan (US$60), so developers prefer to sell rather than rent out the parking spaces.

Without one’s own parking space at home and work, and with so little available on-street parking, the “dream” of car ownership quickly morphs into a nightmare.

What’s the Recipe for Success?

Thanks to a mix of modern and old, good planning, and respect for existing public transport and urban design the city remains not car-orientated. The city has many local initiatives which deserve recognition, study and adaptive imitation in new developments in Guangzhou and other Chinese cities.

Other Chinese Cities

Guangzhou’s sub-district, local level improvements and BRT system are all oriented toward improving conditions for the large majority of city-dwellers in any Chinese city. Harbin in the far north has a nearly identical travel mode share for buses, bicycles, and pedestrians as Guangzhou. Cities such as Changzhou in the Yangtze River delta still feature more than half of all trips by bicycle.

In nearly all Chinese cities, cars still account for less than 10% of all trips. For this reason, the measures which are being taken in Guangzhou are not interesting curiosities with niche applications in selected neighbourhoods. Rather, they could form the core of a sustainable transportation policy for all Chinese cities to follow.

Bike Sharing in Hangzhou

Hangzhou, 160km southwest of Shanghai, has for years prioritised car travel over all other modes. The city’s famous West Lake is lined with international brand-name shops, high speed roads and even luxury car dealerships. Cars park and drive on walkways throughout the city. Yet amid the negative trends are green shoots of hope for a more sustainable future.

Opening in October 2008, Hangzhou now has a bike sharing programme with more than 25,000 bicycles and a dense network coverage of 800 stations; both projected to double by the end of 2009. The system is averaging more than 70,000 smart-card activated bike rentals per day. Stations are being rolled out rapidly, and high quality internet information and maps are provided, unlike the less successful recent experience with bike sharing programmes in Beijing. Hangzhou has also made bold improvements in other areas, improving upon an initially problematic BRT system, installing bollards to protect pedestrians, and expanding an innovative scheme to shelter cyclists from weather at intersections.

Article writte by Karl Fjellstrom, Vice Director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. By Unsustainable China? - Carbusters on 23 November, 2009 at 13:23

    […] text was written by Steven Heywood as a response to the article Guangzhou and a Glimpse into the Future: Changing China from issue 39 of […]

  2. By Tweets that mention Guangzhou and a Glimpse into the Future: Changing China – Carbusters -- on 5 January, 2010 at 19:50

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    […] chance for many of them to fairly easily change direction, and decide to go car lite. According to Carbusters, Guangzhou’s Xiguan region of the city still sports very low car usage (less than 1 percent […]

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