In the past 30 years, China has successfully urbanized 500 million of its total population—1.3 billion. China’s urbanization has come at the cost of losing some of its most fertile land, polluting 75 percent of its surface water, and tearing down most of its old cities because of its unwise spatial strategy for urban development. China’s urbanization is on an unsustainable track. During the next 30 years, another half billion new immigrants will need to settle in hundreds or even thousands of new cities, but where should the government build these cities? In this paper, I argue that instead of continuing the current urbanization and development track of expanding cities in the coastal deltas and flood plains and attracting immigrants to these cities, China should pursue an alternative regional and local strategy of building new cities on the foothills at the edges of the major plains and basins.

In many respects, especially in terms of economic progress, China’s 30 years of unstoppable development driven by rapid urbanization has been a huge success, establishing China as the second most powerful economy in the world. But it has failed in some more fundamental aspects, particularly with regards to grain security, as the government must feed a projected 1.5 billion Chinese population by 2040, and establish environmental sustainability for both the urban and rural areas. It is an unsustainable trend that China must reverse. A time period of 30 years is sufficient for us to reflect on the mistakes China has made and the lessons that we can learn from those mistakes. While we cannot change the past, such observations can help shape a better future for China by providing a direction for China to follow in the future. This is also useful for other Asian countries such as India, considering that China is only halfway in its urbanization process and a few steps ahead of many other developing countries. I should note that these lessons are taken from the perspective of a city planner, primarily looking at the physical aspects of urbanization in China, rather than its political, social, or economic aspects.

Unsustainable Strategy for Urban Development

In 1978, the Chinese government made a dramatic shift in its industrialization and development strategy. Moving away from Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Third Front” strategy, which favored inland development to increase national security, China’s new top leader Deng Xiaoping’s open policy and coastal development strategy gave priority to the fertile and flat coastal flood plains, with the aim of attracting foreign investments to these areas. This complete reversal in policy immediately redirected the immigration wave from the remote mountainous inland to the coastal cities. This drastic change ended the movement of “up to the mountains and down to the villages.” From 1962 to 1980, 18 million urban youth, a considerable number given that the urbanized population was only 134 million in 1980, were sent to remote, rural areas. By 1980, most of them had returned to their home cities, just as the massive immigration movement toward the coastal cities and existing big cities began. The impetus for building new cities in choice locations was tremendous, as illustrated by Shenzhen, a new city that in 30 years grew from a small town of 30,000 residents in 1980 to a new city that grew to 13 million people.

However, Shenzhen is a rare case, as the momentum for building these cities dwindled. The Chinese city planners were simply not prepared for this explosive energy of urbanization that had accumulated for decades. Thus, they missed the opportunity to plan and organize wisely the spatial patterns for urbanization that could have avoided many of the problems China faces today. Instead of planning new cities at more sustainable locations and regions, the rapid urbanization process simply occurred in existing cities, by converting agricultural land into industrial enterprises and development zones. The influx of immigrants into these old cities, most of which were established hundreds or even thousands of years ago, proved problematic as they could not meet contemporary needs for transportation and infrastructure for such a large population. Eventually these old cities may have to be torn down and almost entirely rebuilt.

Recently, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has identified three priority major city clusters (mega polis) and eight important city clusters in China. Three of the most fertile coastal plains were given the top priority for development: Bohai Bay region (including Beijing, Tianjin, Tangshan, etc.), Yangtze River Delta (including Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, Hangzhou, etc.), and Pearl River Delta (including Guangzho, Shenzheng, Fushan, etc.). The other eight important city clusters also take over the floods plains along the Yangzi River, Huaihe River, Liaohe River, Heilongjiang River, and Yellow River, as well as the most productive basins including Sichuan Basin and Guanzhong Basin. Undoubtedly, for pure economic efficiency, these regional developments may appear obvious. But will these regional developments undermine the long-term sustainability of China’s urbanization with regards to food production, the ecological environment, cultural heritage protection, and the cost of combating flood and rising sea level because of climate change?

Grain Security Under Threat

To feed its future theoretical peak population of 1.5 billion, China needs to have a minimum cultivated land area of over 120 million hectares (ha). China has now 121 million ha of arable land (7 percent of global arable land) growing food for a population of over 1.3 billion, or roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. That is only 0.08 ha per capita which is only a quarter of the world’s average rate. Of this arable land, only a third, accounting for 12 percent of the national territory, is flat and productive land, distributed on the flood plains along the major rivers, and in basins. Unfortunately, this is where we find the most populous cities and where the immigration and population concentrations are now happening. In the past three decades, urban expansion and associated land use in China has eaten up 10 percent of the arable land, mostly the productive landscapes in the eastern coastal area. Beijing, the capital, has doubled its population in 25 years, and the urbanizing area has expanded 700 percent.

Similar growth patterns can be seen in Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other large cities located on major flood plains. On average from 1986 to 2006, the area of urban buildup in China expanded threefold, while the expansion in the flood plains in the delta areas was twice as much. The loss of fertile soil resulting from urbanization is not just because of urban building, but also because of the numerous development zones and rural construction (both settlements and enterprises) associated with the urbanization in the metropolitan areas. There is no doubt that if this trend continues, China’s urbanization, including city building, infrastructure, and associated industrial land uses, will further reduce this fertile land, the land that used to produce over 70 percent of the nation’s grain.

The loss of agricultural land is not just in quantity but also in quality. According to numerous observations, such as those in the special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and Environment, environmental and ecological degradation in the major city cluster areas are very serious, which in turn affect the soil conditions between the city clusters. The inappropriate disposal of municipal waste, air pollution, and acid deposit, and the use of polluted water for the irrigation of farmland, results in contamination of soil around the metropolitan areas. In recent reviews, it was found that about 50 percent of peri-urban areas in the Pearl Delta area suffered from soil pollution by heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons. According to China’s EPA official data, 12 million tons of grains are contaminated each year with heavy metals that have found their way into the soil. “Soil pollution is worsening,” said Zhou Shengxian, Minister of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China. According to incomplete statistics, about 10 million ha of arable land in China have been polluted.

Unending Flood Control Battle

In addition to the dramatic decrease of the most fertile land in these areas, another direct cost of this “Down to The Plain East” development strategy is flood control. China’s most productive east coast areas are highly susceptible to the monsoon climate. Most of the annual precipitation is concentrated during the three months of summer. While floods have been a blessing for creating fertile soil in the delta areas and flood plains, they have been the number one natural disaster in China throughout its history of the agricultural era, a time when the grain accounted for 90 percent of China’s GDP and 90 percent of the national population were peasants. It certainly would not be a big deal if these flood plains remained as rice paddies today, considering that agriculture accounts for only 10 percent of China’s GDP. But flooding becomes a serious problem when cities on the flood plain become the sites of massive immigration.

Based on our own calculations, major flood plains in east China cover approximately 1 million square kilometers, roughly 10 percent of the national territorial area, and these flood plains are concentrated over 100 large and medium-sized cities, all of which are growing at a speed of over 6 percent annually, accommodating for 50 percent of the national population and contributing to 70 percent of China’s GDP. The flood distribution in China is dire: 50 percent of China’s population and 70 percent of the GDP is produced in the most risky ?ood zones. Each year, over hundreds of billions of Chinese yuan is spent on building one or five hundred-year flood protection walls. Official statements show that the annual direct cost of flood damage is over 100 billion yuan (US$ 63 billion) and affects 161 million individuals. In 2010, floods affected a total of 134 million people with direct economic losses of 176.5 billion yuan (US$ 111 billion), said the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. From 1998-2006, the state made investments of 170.6 billion yuan (US$ 107 billion) in consolidating flood control facilities. Beginning in 2011 for a total of ten years, 4 trillion yuan (US$ 635 billion) of investment (about 10 percent of the 2010 GDP) will be allocated to national hydrological engineering, 38 percent of which will be used for flood control. Flood control is an unending battle and will be more costly as urbanization continues to encroach on flood territory.

China’s Urbanization Has Only Just Begun

The bad news is that we have already used some of China’s most fertile soil and ecologically sensitive areas; the good news is that China is still in the early stages of urbanization. Thirty years of fast urbanization has moved almost half a billion people from rural areas to the cities and increased the urbanization rate from under 19 percent in 1979 to 50 percent today. But at the same time, it has brought China to the brink of crisis in terms of food security and ecological security. The Chinese central government certainly has a sense of the crisis at hand. Compared to the GDP driven local governments, the central Chinese government has a much clearer, far-sighted perception of the crisis, and in 2006, the People’s Congress announced that the minimum amount of 120 million hectares of arable land is the “Red Line” and must be protected by law.

In 2007, Wen Jiabao emphasized the importance of making this Red Line untouchable in his annual Government Work Report. In several situations during the past couple years, both Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao stated that the top priority for the land use planning is to protect fertile land, and to that end, the Chinese government will implement a severe land-use control policy in protecting the arable land and maintaining ecological security. Unfortunately, this Red Line pressed the local municipal government to reclaim the so-called unused land, which is virtually all the critical, ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands and alluvial flood plains along the watercourses. This has lead to the filling up of lakes and ponds, and the building of high flood walls to narrow down the rivers in order to claim more buildable land, which causes even more serious ecological and environmental problems.

What a greatly contradictory situation when the top priorities of urbanization and development are given the most productive fertile land in the flood plains and basins, which are ecologically the least suitable for cities. Where are the other 500 million new immigrants (in addition to over 600 million urban residents today) to go in another 30 years from now? Theoretically, 2040 is when the Chinese population will peak at just 1.5 billion and urbanization rate will reach 75 percent. Where should China build, arguably, hundreds or even several thousands of new cities to accommodate such a big population, a population larger than United States and Russia together, almost equivalent to the population of European Union?

Foothills Strategy: Another Urbanization Pattern

Not up to the mountainous west, not down the flood plain east—my proposed strategy is to build cities at the foothills between the mountains and the low land, leaving the productive flood plains and basins alone for agriculture and ecological recovery. The high speed train technology, a booming service industry, and the new economy all demand a better natural environment, minimum environmental impact, natural landscape, and a clean environment. Furthermore, the aging population (it is expected that about 30 percent of the national population will be older than 60 in 2040) is looking for a slower paced lifestyle. The proposed foothills strategy would make all of these goals feasibly, both regionally and locally.

Regionally, the new cities would be planned along the foothills of the great plains and around the big basins. Mainland China has a clear terrain sloping from west to east, forming a flight of three steps. The first step consists of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with an elevation of over 4000 meters above sea level. The second step includes the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, Loess Plateau, and Inner Mongolia Plateau, where some of the largest basins are distributed, including the Sichuan Basin. The third step mostly consists of the Main Three Plains and hilly land which is bounded by the Great Hinggan Ridge-Mt.Taihang-Mt.Wushan-Mt. Xuefeng on the west and the ocean on the east, where current urbanization is concentrated. This topographic pattern allows new cities to be built along the foothills of the first step and along the edge of the major basins which is not too far away from the existing main cities in the plains. Thus, economic efficiency would not be lost. These cities on the foothills would use minimum productive agricultural land down on the plains, avoid flooding problems, and have the benefits of access to forested mountains and quality fresh water.

Each foothill city or town would have one or more centers formed around the light rail stations, which would be connected to high-speed train stations. Many foothill cities or towns will be connected by high-speed train and transits to form a linear chain of cities, or a necklace shape if the chain is connected at the ends to form a circle. At the national scale, the major chain of cities in the shape of “S” would be formed along the foothills at the edge of the Main Three Plains and hilly land at the South East coast, along the Third Step of China’s topography. The city density on this chain would vary because of different regional natural and cultural conditions, especially water resources.

At a regional scale, except for some large plains, the country’s landscapes are characterized with basins, both large and small, and these flood basins are surrounded by mountains with foothills in between—examples are the Sichuan Basin, Guanzhong Basin, Dongting Lake Flood Plain, and Boyang Lake Flood Plain. In the current urbanization situation, cities are planned and built right upon the flood plain. New cities could instead be planned at the edge of the plains, on the foothills to form a ring, or ‘necklace of cities’, instead of a sprawling ‘pancake’. Some of the major city necklaces could be either distributed on the foothills around the edges of flood plains or basins, or at the foothills around the mountains on the plain, including a Sichuan Basin City Necklace along the foothills of Sichuan Basin, or Guanzhong Basin City Necklace along the foothills of the Weihe river flood plain. This foothills development scenario, with one major “Chain of Cities” plus several “Necklaces of Cities”, is a big contrast to current “T—shaped” development pattern and city clusters in the plains. These cities on the chain or necklace would be constructed with the most advanced knowledge about ecological urbanism and sustainability, such as TOD (transit-oriented development), mixed use, high density, and pedestrian-friendly policies

Each individual town or city on the chain or necklace of cities would be an independent satellite city, with a population around 100,000 to 300,000 thousand, thriving on service industries, especially healthcare, education, consulting, tourism, and information. Each city would occupy around 500 to 1,500 ha on the foothills, backed by mountains looking down the plain, with green corridors and ravines in between for water and biological processes. The chain or necklace of cities would not be meant to replace the existing megacities, but rather act as an improvement of current urbanization.

Beijing’s Chain of Foothill Towns

For the foothill strategy, an interesting, specific case to look at is Beijing. Beijing’s current development strategy is to expand east and south toward the coast, and take over the most fertile flood plain. The foothill strategy would provide Beijing a completely different scenario for development over the next thirty years and a way out from the current dilemma of unstoppable urban development, environmental degradation, and restrictive arable land protection by the central government. The capital was planned to accommodate a population of 18 million by 2020, but just 7 years after this comprehensive plan was approved in 2004, the population has already reached 20 million. One would not be surprised to see Beijing’s population reach 30 or even 50 million by 2040, given that China itself will theoretically reach a population of 1.5 billion by 2040 and that Beijing is an attractive center for nationwide immigration. Beijing has an area of 16,410 square kilometers, 39 percent of which is fertile flat plain (about 40 percent of which has already been built up). However, the rest of Beijing is mountainous with an elevation above 65 meters. In between the elevations of 65 to 300 meters are foothills occupying an area of 4,420 square kilometers, with a gentle slope ranging from 2 to 20 degrees.

According to ecological and development suitability analysis, at least 30% of this area is buildable, or roughly 1,500 square kilometers. The rest could be allocated for natural protection and cultural heritage preservation, which means that another 30 million new immigrants could be settled in foothills, saving the remaining fertile plan for agricultural and ecological recovery. In this sense, the spatial capacity of Beijing would be around 50 million, with the 20 million in the existing plain city with increased density and improved public space and transportation, and another 30 million in 100 to 300 new foothills cities surrounding Beijing at the northwest foothills, each city with a population that varied from 100,000 to 300,000. These smaller cities would be linked by public transit to form a chain of towns and also linked with radiating public transits to the existing Beijing core city on the plain. Our pilot study of the foothill strategy around Beijing suggested that the foothill strategy would not only save much of the fertile land on the plain, but would also be more attractive for real estate developers, local farmers, and municipal government.

The Foothill Strategy’s Feasibility and Challenges

The proposed foothill strategy would have the advantage of the coming wave of China’s new economy, which includes the fast development of information industries and service industries in China that do not have to depend much on the existing heavy industry and port foundation previously built in the existing cities on the east coast. Rather, the service industries are looking for better ecological environments, and foothills provide an ideal location.

The foothill strategy would also have the advantage of the aging population in China. By 2040, over 400 million Chinese will be more than 60 years old. The foothill landscape integrated with medical and health care services would provide the most ideal residence environment for such an aging population.

Furthermore, the foothill strategy would be well-suited for the booming high-speed train industry in China. Unfortunately, the current construction of the train lines will only passively link the existing big cities, rather than orient the building of future cities with a national urbanization strategy in mind. However, the momentum is still present, and the Chinese government can easily allocate billions of dollars to stimulate the economy by building new high-speed train lines alone the foothills to connect new cities.

The foothill strategy can also be well integrated with the new socialism countryside movement and balance the uneven development situation between the east and west, and between the mountains and the plains. By building new cities along the foothills, tremendous GDP growth will benefit the vast rural areas, especially the less developed mountainous areas away from the existing central cities.

Physically, the most momentous challenges for the foothill strategy include drinking water supply and transportation infrastructure. But compared to the flood control expenses, and drainage system engineering in the flood plains, the foothill cities could be more economical to build and maintain. Another challenge will be the protection of the sensitive eco-tone at the foothills and the aquifer, which shall be dealt with care during the planning and design of the cities.

The unprecedented speed and scale of urbanization in China is a threat to the sustainability the great nation’s relationship between the people and the land. At the same time, this is an unprecedented opportunity to heal or reinvent the good earth that will inevitably affect the future of the nation. China cannot afford to follow the current trend of development and urbanization that sacrifices its precious land for grain production, fresh water, and other resources in the ecosystem. Revolutionary thinking about sustainable development, ecological urbanism, and smart growth are all urgently needed, and an alternative scenario of development pattern must be envisioned and implemented. The foothill strategy is an alternative strategy based on the lessons learnt from the relentless use of fertile land in past decades. Physically, it is possible because of the national and regional geographical characteristics of the Three Steps and numerous flood basins surrounded by foothills. Technically, it is feasible because of the advancement of high-speed trains and city-building technology; socially and economically, the foothill strategy meets the needs of the new economy and the aging society. The foothill strategy is not simply a strategy for development—it is a strategy for survival.  

Kongjian Yu is Visiting Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and founder and Dean of the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. He also founded the award-winning design firm, Turenscape.