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China Needs a New Urban Policy
Milton Kotler

President, Kotler Marketing Group November 2011

China will build 6,000 new towns during the next two decades. This will be the most rapid urbanization in history. If China does it wrong, it will be the biggest urbanization disaster in history. If China does it right, it will set a new standard for urban planning and development for future cities around the globe: Urban Planning with Chinese Characteristics!

If urban planning and development just continue the practice of the past two decades, there will be unsustainable urban disaster, driven by errors in planning procedure; inappropriate design; development practice; infrastructure construction; architecture; materials; urban management; in community design; in economic concentration; and environmental degradation

    Let’s take a few examples:
  • ●      Planning: Master planning comes before clear economy and social place strategy.
  • ●      Design: Design is physical; it does not facilitate economic or social community strategy.
  • ●      Development : Developers do not follow Master plans
  • ●      Infrastructure Construction: Construction starts before strategic planning and constrains the viable shape of new urban and suburban places.
  • ●      Architecture: Celebrity driven, rather than human and community oriented.
  • ●      Materials: Poor materials undermine durability and degrade the environment.
  • ●      Urban management: Fragmented administration; technical mandates without community involvement
  • ●      Livability: Uniform “Life style” instead of diversified neighborhood communities.
  • ●      Economic value: No strategic industry rationale for new towns
  • ●      Civic Life: No planning and resources for neighborhood identity, involvement in planning and community life
  • ●      Sustainability: New towns and cities need distinctive Place brand identity and a renewable environment for decades to come.

What Can Go Right?

There are some well planned new industrial cities like Tianjin Binhai city and revitalized areas, like Xi Tian Di in Shanghai. There are also some successful new urban transport and eco systems, like the Guangzhou metro replacement’ BRT and Qinhuai’s water purification in Nanjing. But it is hard to cite successful new town developments. These would require: 1) Single owner control of the land parcel; 2) Pilot projects with exceptions to mandated planning rules.

There has to be more policy flexibility in the planning and development process to make successful new towns.
Good planning has to follow sound principles of Place Planning and Development.

What is Place Planning and Development?

The word “Urban” does not tell us what a City is for. A city, town, whether old or new, and revitalized urban districts are Places where people should live, work, learn, play, visit and interact with each other as a community and interact with other towns and communities.

If they are no diverse neighborhoods, then the city is a settlement of aggregated persons, families and businesses that have no communal bonds for affectionate and trustful life, economic vitality and social harmony. Physical settlements, however pretty they may be, will degrade and perish.

Kotler Marketing has four books on Place Marketing and has practiced its principle of strategy, development, design, marketing and management to attract people, investment, businesses and tourists to place destinations. We apply these same principles to urban planning and development in order to create Urban Places of vibrant economic growth and community life.

The Principles of Place Planning and Development

Place Planning requires a clear understanding of the purpose of a city. Economic and social strategies for urban places must precede master planning, design and infrastructure construction. Urban Places must have an intrinsic economic value and add collateral value to the surrounding metropolitan region and its industry clusters.

Place Planning harmoniously integrates the economy and community of urban places. Efficient planning of CBDs as a center of government, cultural institutions, service industries and high end real estate and amenities must complement the diffusion of commerce, creative industry, affordable housing, learning and social life in the neighborhoods. Citizen participation at the neighborhood level must balance central power at the CBD level.

The CBD must interact with neighborhoods and neighborhoods with each other. Urban Place Planning, development and management has to be as much social as physical. It has to be as human as efficient. Architecture and landscape design must enable the distinctive and authentic identity to the City. These principles attract talent, investment, business and visitors.

What is a City?

Historically there were clusters of independent towns. The most powerful town aggrandized, or more politely stated, annexed surrounding towns. The agglomeration became the “City.”

To this day, cities are “Downtown CBDs” (the annexing town) and “neighborhoods” (the annexed towns). Downtown is the seat of power, big business and finance. Neighborhoods are communities of people with the social residue of their former autonomy. They are a social fabric of families, homes, stores, businesses, schools, temples and churches, fire stations, libraries, restaurants and theatres.

People do not live in a city. Rich people live and work downtown. Ordinary people live in neighborhoods and either work in their neighborhoods or work or visit the CBD and industrial zones.

What Happened to the City?

The economic and financial growth of downtown expanded its boundaries by demolishing or gentrifying adjacent neighborhoods to make more room for hotels, office towers, high-end housing and high tech service industries.

Municipal government moved secondary industry and migrant housing to Greenfield districts, and developed residential suburbs for middle-income housing and high end condo and villa enclaves. Auto highways and mass transit connected the City center to neighborhoods and new suburban sprawl developments and towns. All roads led to “Downtown.”

Near-in neighborhoods decayed until they were cheap enough to be gentrified into high income life style districts. The social community of old neighborhoods was replaced by the anomic life style of young professional newcomers, living in well designed condo or rental flats.

Some old neighborhoods are historically preserved by Government because of special features, while other neighborhoods fight for their own preservation. Ad hoc neighborhood groups defend these neighborhoods. The cityscape may look like a pretty picture, but it is a power struggle and disaster for community.

Where Did This Happen?

It happened in the U.S. It is happening in China and rest of the developed and developing world.

What is the Result?

The rich get richer and fill the ever expanding City center. Middle class families move to suburban developments, separated from old communal networks and with no new community social fabric. Workers are shunted to residential towers adjacent to industrial zones, without nearby amenities. Poor people fall through the cracks! Most of the 78,000 reported protests in China are precisely about displacement and mobility.

The municipal drive for globalized centers and suburban surroundings has produced a double standard of architectural fashion and life style downtown and boredom in the surrounding settlements of people who are new to each other and have no ties to bind them.

Downtown is held together by wealth. Decaying neighborhoods and new makeshift districts have little to hold them together. The disconnection of economy and society is inhuman for people and dangerous for the State. As wealth accretes, society becomes enraged. Culture alone cannot bind this separation. We need to restore a community fabric to city neighborhoods and new towns, as well as connect them to the center city economy. Harmonious society is the goal of Place planning and development.

What Role Do Planners Play?

City planners are the front men for downtown developers, financiers and politicians. They focus on “downtown” enhancement and industrial resettlement. They work under the constant pressures of land sales for municipal revenue. They seek new models for their tasks from cities around the world, in order to copy, rather than invent.

Planners are driven by central policies of municipal finance, technology and green development, rather than human principles of commercial and social development. They are separated from economic planners, as well as from the people. They are technically, rather than economically or socially oriented.

What Role Should Planners Play?

The true mission of planners should be to plan new cities and redevelop old cities in a manner that harmonizes economic development with neighborhood community. They have to be social and economic planners, as well as physical planners. They have to preserve historic urban neighborhoods for current residents and newcomers in order to retain and augment the cultural identity of the existing cities and plan CBD and neighborhood balance in new towns. They have to involve residents in planning process.

Planners have to help the Government and the Party to find a new model of harmonious urban planning that combines economy and society, and execute that model.

What Role Do Designers Play?

Designers are hampered by preemptive infrastructure construction. They design around bureaucratic initiatives and roadblocks, rather than help bureaus design for viable economic and social strategy. As a competition-based professional they are driven by creative aesthetics and ecological innovations, rather the human livability and workability.

Urban designers focus on downtown commercial, financial, residential luxury and institutional prerogatives. They do not pay adequate attention to neighborhood design. They are often more interested in low carbon design and renewable energy technologies than community livability. China has become a world leader in battery and solar cell technology. The next natural step is to harness the other key renewable energy technologies in creating the next generation of regenerative cities and communities; places where energy is produced rather than wasted. But, we must beware of Eco-mania and balance new energy technologies with social principles of human community.

What Role Should Designers Play?

Design should serve people through humane design. Aesthetic and technological design is no surrogate for community. Master Planning has to integrate downtown attraction with neighborhood attraction. Neighborhood community design has to be a key element in master planning. Neighborhood design has to invite small business, light industry, crafts and services to neighborhood, so some residents can work in their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods have to be designed for safety, friendship, walking, shopping, fitness, learning, entertainment and community social life.

What Role Do Urban Agencies Play?

City management is driven by tax revenue for operations and economic development for jobs. It posits that economic development is the primary driver of social benefit through jobs and wage growth for the people.

Public managers primarily focus on service to CBD and industrial development. Health and social service provision for neighborhood community is a secondary interest. There are few incentives for robust neighborhood business and community life.

Managers engineer civic engagement, but do not confer legally empower community involvement. Their heart is in the right place, but they do not share their authority. This is community engineering, not community life.

What Role Should Urban Agencies Play?

Urban managers are qualified professionals and are trying to do a good job; but they work within the economic priorities of municipal finance. Neighborhood residents do not trust their allegiance to community interest.

Urban service management requires a broader government mandate and training to involve residents in health and social service program decisions. To do their job well, urban managers have to gain the trust of people. They have to share decision making with neighborhood residents and businesses.

The Central Government acknowledges this need for citizen involvement. China’s 207 Urban and Rural Planning Law calls for more participation at the local level and that comments by local people should be noted in the final plans. It also calls for more consideration of environmental and cultural conservation as part of the planning process and encourages an integrated approach from urban to rural.

There is a good opportunity to put this mandate to work. In 2012 the Central government is phasing out the Neighborhood Committee level of government. This creates a vacuum of connecting people to government. This vacuum can be filled by voluntary Advisory Neighborhood Councils. Voluntary Neighborhood Advisory Councils operate in the U.S. and Europe. They are spreading all over the world. These councils have legal standing in municipal for advisory recommendations on service management and zoning. They have small budgets and their members serve on an unpaid, volunteer basis. Neighborhood councils balance community interest and downtown power.

I organized the first legally mandated neighborhood councils in the U.S. almost forty years ago, so I speak from experience about their usefulness for dispute settlement and civic harmony. My book, Neighborhood Government, Lexington Books, 1969 is still in print.

How Should Government Mandate Place Planning?

I wish I knew the answer! I know the questions, but I do not know the answers. It is for municipal leaders, professional and neighborhood leaders to solve this problem of reconciling the municipal power of CBDs for economic and job growth with the community interests of territorial neighborhoods.

I want to sum up three essentials of Place Planning have to be faced. (1) Strategy must come before planning and design; (2) CBD power must be harmonized with neighborhood community; and (3) Neighborhoods require a legal framework for participation in local matters.

China’s Unique Urban Opportunity

The disconnection of economy and community is a crisis for all cities around the world, in both developed and developing countries. It is caused by the consolidation and globalization of industry, finance and trade.

It is an explosive crisis because the inequalities of downtown wealth and neighborhood decay. Dispirited neighborhood people are living without a social fabric of community. They express their rage in all forms of social distemper. Cities are time bombs that must be defused before they explode.

The whole urban world needs a new model of Place Planning and Development, and China is the only place where there is sufficient central authority, financial strength and ideological social commitment to devise this model. This cannot be done in the fragmented and competing authorities of Western democracies.

If China can plan, design and manage and the balanced city of downtown power and neighborhood participation, she will achieve the harmony she seeks and provides a felicitous road to urbanization for the rest of the world.

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