China not to follow “the dumber things” US did in urban development

Together, we are a match.” -- California-China Office of Trade and Investment opens in Shanghai

“Don’t follow the dumber things we did.” was the advice to the Chinese by Robert Weisenmiller, Chairman of California Energy Commission, in his closing remarks at the Sustainable Urban Development Forum on April 13 at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. It was one of the events of California Governor Jerry Brown’s trade mission in China, though the Governor himself did not attend in person.

The “dumber things” Mr. Weisenmiller was referring to was the US model of “car-driven” urban design, a typical example of which is the 1950s and 60s California with the construction of its freeway system. “But even then, it became clear that it was a real Cul-de-Sac,” Weisenmiller recalled, “our air in Los Angeles in the 60s was probably as bad as the air in Beijing today.” China should not blindly emulate the US, but rather to learn from its mistakes, he suggested.

Robert Weisenmiller delivering his conclusion speech at the Sustainable Urban Development Forum in Shanghai on April 13. Photo:

Earlier in the forum organized by the California Energy Commission and the Bay Area Council, Peter Calthorpe, Principle of Calthorpe Associates, renowned architect and urban designer who has been working extensively in China in recent years, gave a keynote presentation titled “Urbanization in the Age of Climate Change” in which he enumerated China’s urban development challenges and listed his major design principles that will help the Chinese cities to make their develop path more sustainable.

China’s main problem with urban design is its dramatically increasing dependence on auto use. The “Superblock model”, which is adopted in many Chinese cities to facilitate transportation with automobiles, has resulted not only in congestions, but also in deteriorating air quality and rising health concerns. Pedestrian, bike and public transit should be the focus of urban design, not the car, said Mr. Calthorpe. In other words, it should be “human-scale blocks” rather than “superblocks”

Peter Calthorpe delivering keynote presentation at the Sustainable Urban Development Forum in Shanghai on April 13. Photo:

A low carbon city design that will create active and vibrant urban communities should be guided by the following principles: promote walking; prioritize bicycle networks; support high-quality transit; zone for mixed-use neighborhoods; match the density of the street network with transit capacity; create compact regions with short commutes and increase mobility by regulating parking and road use.

Experiences from three Chinese example low-carbon districts were shared by their respective leaders: Ye Pengju from Changning District Shanghai, Han Yang from Chenggong District, Kunming and Zhoujian from Hangzhou Future Tech City, who later joined in a panel discussion on “Achieving Sustainability in New Town Development and Old Town Redeveloping”.

The forum also featured another MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) signing: Low carbon design for the Hangzhou Future Tech City. 



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