China Should Send Western Planners Home

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Uncategorized, Urbanization (historic), Wendell Cox (historic)

For centuries, the West sent missionaries around the world to spread various gospels. It is no different now, though the clerics tend to hold degrees from planning schools rather than those overtly specializing in theology.

This could also create tragic results as ideologies created in one context are imported into a totally foreign one.

China, which is creating a new future, needs to forge its own path for urban development. For one thing China is experiencing unprecedented economic growth on a scale unimaginable in the contemporary West. Over the past two decades, living standards have risen at a rate that may be unprecedented in world history. Gross domestic product per capita still remains below high-income world standards, at one-sixth that of the US level. Nonetheless, there is great regional disparity, with incomes in east coast urban areas above that of urban areas in the central and western regions.

Yet in sharp contrast to the west, which has been heavily urban for over a century, China remains substantially more rural than urban. According to United Nations data, China’s population was only 40 percent urban in 2000. This compares to urban rates of over 70 percent in many high-income nations. But now people are moving in large numbers from rural areas to the urban areas, following the pattern of development that has occurred virtually wherever incomes have risen markedly.

The reasons for the move are also the same as they have been through history: Urban areas offer great opportunities and generally higher standard of living than rural areas. The United Nations estimates that by 2030, 60 percent of the Chinese population will live in urban areas. This represents a staggering migration – the movement of 350,000,000 people – a population greater than that of the United States and Canada combined.

Already, China has very large urban areas. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have 10,000,000 or more residents. A number of other urban areas have more than 5,000,000 people. Dongguan, the world’s largest unknown urban area is nestled between Guangzhou and Shenzhen on the Pearl River Delta and no one seems to know what its population is – estimates range from 7.5 million to more than 10 million. See Demographia World Urban Areas.

Western Planners Descend

To a cadre of western urban planners, developers and architects, China represents the ultimate market. Like the Christian missionaries, they come to China with a sense of both rectitude and guilt about their own countries. They admonish Chinese officials “not to repeat our mistakes.” The primary mistakes, they explain, are urban sprawl (a pejorative term for suburbanization) and automobile use. To go to planner heaven, they must eschew these steps and go straight to the ideal state of smart growth, transit dependence and new urbanist principles.

Chinese officials visiting the United States, Western Europe, Canada or Australia must wonder at the disconnect between the wasteland described by Western planners and the unparalleled quality of life enjoyed by people in the West. It is not without reason that the Chinese (and for that matter, the Indians, Indonesians, Nigerians, etc. ad nausea) would like to be rich like us. It is not without surprise that the hosts graciously listen, nod and, to their inestimable credit and good fortune of Chinese citizens, largely ignore the bankrupt advice.

You don’t have to be an American or European to realize that the automobile has created mobile urban areas in which employers and employees have far greater choices or that mobility makes labor markets more efficient. It is not a mistake that housing built on inexpensive land on the periphery of urban areas has made it possible for so many millions to build up financial equity in their own homes, or enjoy the kind of privacy that the more wealthy or well-connected have enjoyed. Nor is it a mistake that nearby inexpensive land has been developed by retailers and other businesses who are, as a result, able to provide lower prices than would otherwise be possible.

The West has achieved its unparalleled affluence because planners were unable to impose their will to prevent suburbanization and the expansion of mobility. They could not hold back the democratization of prosperity.

If planners had been in charge, mass low cost, relatively low density housing would not exist. Western nations would now be principally inhabited by renters rather than homeowners. Employees would be limited to those few places they could get on foot or public transport, rather than the whole urban area made accessible by the automobile.

There would be less wealth and it would be less broadly distributed. “Big-box” stores on the urban fringe would not have emerged, resulting in people paying higher prices with their smaller incomes.

Indeed, for any who might wish for China to stumble in its competition with the West, it is hard to imagine a more promising strategy than importing Western planning ideas and planners to China.

China should continue to develop commercial and industrial land on the urban periphery, while expanding the already extensive freeway system to bring production and prosperity to every nook and cranny of the nation. China should continue down the road of allowing people to live how they like, whether it is in the new high-rise luxury condominiums or the lower rise town houses and detached housing (called villas in China) that can be found throughout its urban areas. It is clear that China will continue to become more mobile (and thereby richer and more productive) as car ownership explodes and those who cannot afford cars increasingly obtain the same level of mobility with electric motorbikes.

The operative word here is “continue.” Generally, Chinese urban planning policies have been a substantial contributor to the nation’s rising wealth. It is to be hoped that the advice of the western planners will continue to be respectfully listened to and largely ignored. The people of China are entering an era of great new opportunity; they should not close the gates just as it arrives.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”