By Zhongjie Lin
Under the current massive urbanization in China that has been regarded as the largest mass migration ever seen in human history, the Chinese government has taken bold steps to build hundreds of new cities to accommodate the swelling urban population and sustain economic development.
These top-down governmental initiatives represent a wholesale introduction of emerging ideas of planning and cutting-edge building technologies to address social and environmental issues during a period of unprecedented economic growth.
China’s national development agenda has a goal of 60 percent urbanization by 2030, which means that each year about 16 million rural inhabitants are moving into cities. In 1985, less than 20 percent of Chinese people were urban residents. Since then, the urban population has grown at a rate of about 1 percent each year and exceeded 50 percent of the national population in 2011.
I have studied China’s massive urbanization and emerging new towns since 2011. This project falls within one of the research themes of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars, namely “urbanization, migration and immigration.” I received a Wilson Center fellowship to conduct research in Washington, D.C. from November 2012 through May 2013 and am currently the only scholar of architecture and urban design at the center.
The Wilson Center is dedicated to fostering international relations to inform policy-making and to seeking solutions for significant global issues in political and social spheres. Fellows from different regions and academic backgrounds gather here. Although each focuses on an individual topic of international studies, the center provides great resources and opportunities for scholars to develop and share their work through symposia, talks and other public events. Fellows also make weekly work-in-process presentations that serve as productive opportunities to provide updates on their research, receive feedback and discuss common interests.
My presentation of China’s ongoing new town movement drew a lot of interest among scholars in Chinese urbanism, as it addresses several issues equally important to other regions in the world, including environmental challenges to human habitats, infrastructure for rapidly expanding cities and the economic and political implications of China’s growing urban society. The experience at the center has continued to broaden my perspective of the research project, which will help me in developing a book manuscript on China’s new town movement.
The Chinese government has announced it will build 20 new cities each year for 20 years. At least 400 new cities are expected to emerge by 2030. Whether and to what extent these new towns can succeed, however, is still to be seen. They face both technical challenges and, more importantly, barriers existing in China’s current socio-economic system, such as land and energy policies.
In any case, the rise of hundreds of new towns in the next decade will be a significant phenomenon to observe in China and will surely influence the rest of the world.
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Zhongjie Lin is an associate professor of architecture in the College of Arts + Architecture