Growth in China’s Cities Sees Very Little Green

As the fastest-growing metropolitan area on the planet, Chongqing, China, is the biggest city you have probably never heard of. Located on the Yangtze River in western China, Chongqing is a critical economic hub for the country and lures close to half a million people from the surrounding countryside each year. With 33 million inhabitants, its population already dwarfs that of Peru and Malaysia and shows no signs of slowing down.

Chongqing is not an anomaly in China. There is Changchun, Dalian, Zhengzhou – names that ring unfamiliar to most Western ears. In fact, Chongqing is only one of the country’s 166 urban centers with over a million inhabitants, cities that rival many of its well-known Western counterparts in size and energy. The proliferation of these mammoth metropolises in spans of years, not centuries, is unquestionably one of the biggest environmental concerns of modern times.

The numbers are staggering; by 2050, close to two-thirds of Asia’s population are expected to be city-dwellers. India and China are forecast to add 215 million and 400 million people to metropolitan areas respectively. 

These statistics show that urban planning should be the loudest buzzword echoing throughout the environmental movement. But instead of developing global cities with innovative ways to implement environmental safeguards, many politicians and planners are resorting to 20th century solutions for 21st century problems.

An environmental crisis of unmatched proportions is already raging throughout China, with ambient air pollution and lack of access to clean water feeding a cancer pandemic. Struggling with today’s growth concerns, China has done little to prepare for an unprecedented increase in demand for energy and water in urban areas, mostly because such decisions are decentralized and are the responsibility of local municipalities. Depending on how densely planned city planners construct these megalopolises, China could lose huge swaths of valuable arable land to sprawl. The country’s burgeoning car culture could render city highways impassible. Without proper leadership, these cities could become carbon emission epicenters instead of invaluable sustainable spaces. 

While China’s problem is unique because of its scope, megacities worldwide have adopted plans that reduce carbon emissions and grapple with the serious environmental concerns confronting the planet. PlaNYC 2030Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comprehensive sustainability plan for New York City which was adopted in 2006, outlines clear goals for ensuring air quality, reducing energy consumption, maintaining clean water, and combating global warming.

Central tenets in this plan include increasing the energy efficiency of existing buildings, planting a million trees within the city by 2016 and creating sustainable homes for an additional million people. Not only does the implementation of PlaNYC reduce carbon emissions, but it also aims at creating a better quality of life for city residents.

The concept of improving one’s quality of life is the driving force behind urbanization: people leaving the safe havens of their communities with hope of tomorrow promising more than today. Without confronting looming climate and consumption concerns with effective planning, cities like Chongqing will collapse under the weight of their own growth, and will take citizens’ quality of life and the environment down with them.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Danielle Schlanger

Graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

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