China Should Send Western Planners Home


For centuries, the West sent missionaries around the world to spread various gospels. It is no different now, though the clerics tend to hold degrees from planning schools rather than those overtly specializing in theology.

This could also create tragic results as ideologies created in one context are imported into a totally foreign one.

China, which is creating a new future, needs to forge its own path for urban development. For one thing China is experiencing unprecedented economic growth on a scale unimaginable in the contemporary West. Over the past two decades, living standards have risen at a rate that may be unprecedented in world history. Gross domestic product per capita still remains below high-income world standards, at one-sixth that of the US level. Nonetheless, there is great regional disparity, with incomes in east coast urban areas above that of urban areas in the central and western regions

Yet in sharp contrast to the west, which has been heavily urban for over a century, China remains substantially more rural than urban. According to United Nations data, China’s population was only 40 percent urban in 2000. This compares to urban rates of over 70 percent in many high-income nations. But now people are moving in large numbers from rural areas to the urban areas, following the pattern of development that has occurred virtually wherever incomes have risen markedly.

The reasons for the move are also the same as they have been through history: Urban areas offer great opportunities and generally higher standard of living than rural areas. The United Nations estimates that by 2030, 60 percent of the Chinese population will live in urban areas. This represents a staggering migration – the movement of 350,000,000 people – a population greater than that of the United States and Canada combined.

Already, China has very large urban areas. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have 10,000,000 or more residents. A number of other urban areas have more than 5,000,000 people. Dongguan, the world’s largest unknown urban area is nestled between Guangzhou and Shenzhen on the Pearl River Delta and no one seems to know what its population is – estimates range from 7.5 million to more than 10 million. See Demographia World Urban Areas.

Western Planners Descend
To a cadre of western urban planners, developers and architects, China represents the ultimate market. Like the Christian missionaries, they come to China with a sense of both rectitude and guilt about their own countries. They admonish Chinese officials “not to repeat our mistakes.” The primary mistakes, they explain, are urban sprawl (a pejorative term for suburbanization) and automobile use. To go to planner heaven, they must eschew these steps and go straight to the ideal state of smart growth, transit dependence and new urbanist principles.

Chinese officials visiting the United States, Western Europe, Canada or Australia must wonder at the disconnect between the wasteland described by Western planners and the unparalleled quality of life enjoyed by people in the West. It is not without reason that the Chinese (and for that matter, the Indians, Indonesians, Nigerians, etc. ad nausea) would like to be rich like us. It is not without surprise that the hosts graciously listen, nod and, to their inestimable credit and good fortune of Chinese citizens, largely ignore the bankrupt advice.

You don’t have to be an American or European to realize that the automobile has created mobile urban areas in which employers and employees have far greater choices or that mobility makes labor markets more efficient. It is not a mistake that housing built on inexpensive land on the periphery of urban areas has made it possible for so many millions to build up financial equity in their own homes, or enjoy the kind of privacy that the more wealthy or well-connected have enjoyed. Nor is it a mistake that nearby inexpensive land has been developed by retailers and other businesses who are, as a result, able to provide lower prices than would otherwise be possible.

The West has achieved its unparalleled affluence because planners were unable to impose their will to prevent suburbanization and the expansion of mobility. They could not hold back the democratization of prosperity.

If planners had been in charge, mass low cost, relatively low density housing would not exist. Western nations would now be principally inhabited by renters rather than homeowners. Employees would be limited to those few places they could get on foot or public transport, rather than the whole urban area made accessible by the automobile.

There would be less wealth and it would be less broadly distributed. “Big-box” stores on the urban fringe would not have emerged, resulting in people paying higher prices with their smaller incomes.

Indeed, for any who might wish for China to stumble in its competition with the West, it is hard to imagine a more promising strategy than importing Western planning ideas and planners to China.

China should continue to develop commercial and industrial land on the urban periphery, while expanding the already extensive freeway system to bring production and prosperity to every nook and cranny of the nation. China should continue down the road of allowing people to live how they like, whether it is in the new high-rise luxury condominiums or the lower rise town houses and detached housing (called villas in China) that can be found throughout its urban areas. It is clear that China will continue to become more mobile (and thereby richer and more productive) as car ownership explodes and those who cannot afford cars increasingly obtain the same level of mobility with electric motorbikes.

The operative word here is “continue.” Generally, Chinese urban planning policies have been a substantial contributor to the nation’s rising wealth. It is to be hoped that the advice of the western planners will continue to be respectfully listened to and largely ignored. The people of China are entering an era of great new opportunity; they should not close the gates just as it arrives.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.

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China Should Send Western Planners Home

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I disagree with your

I disagree with your premise. While China does not want to get rid of cars (and I've never met a planner who does), it certainly does want to provide viable options:

"The West has achieved its unparalleled affluence because planners were unable to impose their will to prevent suburbanization and the expansion of mobility. They could not hold back the democratization of prosperity."

Certainly in the US, which is the most suburbanized country in the world, planners (and other government officials) had to massively intervene in order to ENCOURAGE the level of suburbanization. But you know that. And we all know you know that.

To this day, 99% of all zoning and land use laws ENCOURAGE suburbanization, mandate low density, etcetera. But you know that. And we all know you know that.

Without massive government intervention, the cities of the U.S. would be far more compact than they are. But you know that. And we all know you know that.

"China should continue down the road of allowing people to live how they like, whether it is in the new high-rise luxury condominiums or the lower rise town houses and detached housing (called villas in China) that can be found throughout its urban areas."

And in order to do that, it must...not make the same mistakes that we made, by making such things illegal almost everywhere, and continuing to make such things illegal almost everywhere.

Which is exactly what the Western planners are trying to tell them.

China is now making its way

China is now making its way towards progressive econoy. On the other hand the United States has been hit o recession since 2007. A lot of people are now looking for a mortgage revamp these days. A mortgage revamp, or a refinance, could be the key to saving the bacon of people with mortgage problems. The lending boom of the past few years had a lot of people sign up for ARMs, or Adjustable Rate Mortgages. The problem is that they were always adjusted up, making them less affordable and sending people running for cash advances to meet the minimum payments. Still, a lot of people are struggling with mortgages as many workers have been laid off, and many who retained their jobs have had to accept reduced salaries. A short term loan may help people ride out the interim time until a mortgage revamp.

Cox’s big problem is that

Cox’s big problem is that he only sees one way to impact housing affordability: change the supply of developable land. According to him, any policy that decreases developable land decreases affordability, end of story. What I’ve pointed out in previous comments is that the policies that seek to do this would also increase the amount of housing allowable per unit of developable land. The net effect on affordability is just a function of how much you want to change the supply of land AND increase density rights.

The reason we need to increase density rights is, of course, because the vast majority of zoning codes out there mandate low densities, therefore decreasing affordability. Yet the distortion that these codes have on the housing market does not seem to bother Cox. In fact, the developments they encourage represent consumer's free choice in an unfettered market. In his mind, it is only codes that mandate higher density that somehow become indicators of democracy run amok.

Matt, you hit it on the head when you said Cox peddles in straw-man arguments. Clearly, he has found his ideological niche and it quite comfortable staying there.

The Issue is Affluence versus Poverty

Thank you for the comments.

A few notes on Matt’s post.

I personally like much of new urbanism and have said that before. Moreover, I have always supported the idea that new urbanist designs (and for that matter any other designs) ought to be permitted.

The problem with new urbanism that its proponents are seeking to make it mandatory in planning regulations and even state law. It is important to recognize that architecture is a matter of taste, not universal principle. New urbanism should be thought of like Catholicism or Buddhism. It should be allowed, but not required.

It is true that suburbanization occurred in a planning regime. However, the implication is that the same planning regime continues. It does not in some places. Indeed, planning regulations do not allow suburbanization --- the building of inexpensive housing on cheap land on the urban fringe --- to occur in many places. In places like Portland it is largely prohibited. In much of California and other, it is so restricted that land prices have escalated to the point that virtually no inexpensive housing is being developed. All of that is occurring because of the economic impacts of scarcity --- growth management regulations that are too restrictive.

Yes, there are communities in which there is strong support for growth control measures. That does not make it right. It is inappropriate for the electorate, or their representatives to have the power to enact policies that consign others to a lower standard of living. This is democracy run amok.

That is exactly what restrictive growth management policies do. They raise housing prices significantly, making it impossible for lower and lower middle income households to purchase housing in entire metropolitan areas. For those who can afford the higher cost housing, their standard of living is retarded by having to pay much more for housing than in metropolitan areas with the traditional planning regimes under which most post-World War II American suburbs developed.

Thus, there is a far larger issue, largely ignored in these discussions. It is that growth management restrictions that make housing less affordable are inherently at odds with the American Dream and the promise of equal opportunity. These are issues not only in the United States, but also in China and throughout the world. The Chinese and many others would like to live as well as we do. And why not? We can only hope that they will, sooner rather than later.

The test of urban planning is not what its cities look like or how their design conforms to new urbanism principles. The test is the extent to which there is more and broader prosperity and poverty is reduced. These are the kinds of first principles on which urban planning policy should be based.

Wendell Cox

Reality is the bigger issue

I agree that growth controls, as practiced in some areas, may have exclusionary effects. My point is that they are not going away, because majorities seem to like the idea. In those places, rather than trying to torpedo the concept of growth management, I think opponents would be better off focusing on compromise. What are the negative side effects of growth management, and how can they be mitigated? This is what "smart growth" attempts to do (sorry to bring up another hot-button term). Smart growth tries to attain growth in housing supply and affordability while lessening the environmental degradation that causes people to become anti-growth. Unfortunately, the term has been co-opted by both the laissez-faire and anti-growth camps so that it now means whatever either side says it means.

Where there is no growth management yet, I can certainly understand why those with objections want to keep the option off the table. But China is no such place. There are plenty of controls already in China; it's a matter of how they are used.

Price of land

Since you're so concerned about the cost of living, you should probably be promoting new urbanist principles more than you do. The way I and a lot of other people see it is that suburban lifestyles, with its need to use the automobile for every need is an expensive endeavor. We saw the mere beginning of this expensive living arrangement this summer with gas prices, where people were spending a large portion of their incomes on automobile transportation (Not to mention the need for insurance and upkeep on their cars).

Suburban developments also do not promote walking or biking, which done daily can severely reduce health care costs for preventable diseases (heart diseases is the number one killer in America and obesity is clearly on the rise). We can only guess about the costs accrued from typical suburban lifestyles of heavy automobile use and sedentary lifestyles - which is not only a threat to individuals but also to our economy.

Not to mention that many things in typical suburban communities are increasingly expensive to build (wide roads, increased distances for underground utilities, sewers, etc.). The only thing I agree in this statement is that land on the outside of cities is cheaper, but you're completely avoiding the cost of servicing these fringe communities.

It's not appropriate for us to mandate that the Chinese choose NU over traditional suburbia, but given what we know about it, it is prudent that we promote more meaningful developments that address these issues as well as others.

"Yes, there are communities in which there is strong support for growth control measures. That does not make it right. It is inappropriate for the electorate, or their representatives to have the power to enact policies that consign others to a lower standard of living. This is democracy run amok."

Portland has voted, not only through its representatives but also the citizens that it WANTS restrictive growth controls. Measure 37, the measure supported (and passed in 2004) to the liking of many libertarians, was so atrocious that Oregonians severely (practically reversed) restricted that measure with voting in measure 49 in 2007. That measure not only passed greatly in Oregon, but also in rural communities that the measure preserved.

Clearly there are problems with the majority ruling the minority, but do you have a problem with the minority ruling the majority?

Many metro areas in the nation without urban growth boundaries had soaring housing prices. Yes, housing prices are a supply / demand issue, but the UGB in Portland has not greatly cut off the supply of homes - in fact there are too many on the market (Happy Valley, if you're familiar with the area) as shown by the recent national meltdowns. I don't think it's fair given the rising home prices of many cities in the US without UGBs to blame rising home prices in Portland on its growth boundary.

I like and dislike the UGB, but there's one thing that it does do well, and that's preserve the very thing that brings people to the area in the first place.

Simplistic, unfair, and reductionist

This piece is full of too many reductionist and straw-man arguments to address in the time I have available, so let me make just one counterpoint: if evil planners try to thwart democratic suburbanization at every turn, how is that the suburbanization of the U.S. occurred when the planning profession was at its most institutionalized? For the most part, planners enabled suburbanization through highway and infrastructure investment, and through low-density zoning codes. They certainly didn't stand in the way of it. This continues to be the case in most of America outside the big metro areas. It was the citizens themselves who began to demand growth controls when traffic congestion and pollution began to diminish the quality of life (see California, 1970s and beyond, as an example). We can debate the merits of the methods, but planners who deal with growth management are only attempting to give their consituents what they want.

New Urbanism, the author's bete noire and obviously the real target of this article, is something that a lot of people like (there continues to be lots of suburban product out there for the people who don't), but it can't be built in most places because of those low-density codes. NU is only asking (a) to be available as a developer option in suburban areas; and (b) to be the preferred choice in older cities that already reflect traditional urban patterns, as opposed to imposing an incompatible suburban template. It is not a conspiracy to deprive Americans of freedom of choice and standard of living, nor does it have that effect.

Libertarians will never admit that large majorities actually like land use regulation because it offers the hope of order and stability. Planners help meet this democratic preference--whether people want a suburban environment or something different. I have never met an American planner who was the stereotypical anti-growth tyrant that Cox always presumes. To the contrary, I have found U.S. planners to be vested in the task of balancing growth (necessary to meet the reality of population increase and demographic change) with community order (a democratically determined desire).

American planners actually do have a lot of insights to offer the Chinese. America has been through both industrial urbanization and widespread suburbanization, and we know from experience the benefits and side effects that come with each. Some of these side effects are negative, but perhaps they are not inevitable. The Chinese are wise to give U.S. planners a listen. How the Chinese react is their business.

Attack the strongest link, not the weak

Come on, Matt, there's no conspiracy against New Urbanism. Instead of being defensive about it, be proud of what it does well: give people a density choice where there formerly was none. That's a great thing in my opinion.

Cox's point is that the Chinese are importing an American product about which its sellers are weak-kneed, rather than supportive. Planners, instead of being proud of their role creating contemporary North American lifestyle, are busy distancing themselves from it.

Blaming traffic congestion on US urban planners is like blaming the cop for your speeding ticket. In no city in the US, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, does the public planner actually have policymaking power. He's simply the cop.

If anyone heard the recent story about Tyson's Corner on All Things Considered, there were many digs at the awful planning of that place. That planning was private-developer driven, not a public planner's dream. Instead, look at the urban land ownership establishment, and what benefits them the most.

For decades, developers only created what would surely sell with the least risk, which is more of the same. I commend New Urbanists for giving developers a path towards variety, rather than homogeneity. Where New Urbanists steer into dangerous territory, however, is their dream of improving society in general through focus on form, rather than function. As I was woefully quoted in The Economist recently, whenever architects start thinking they can influence social order, watch out.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL

East Meets West

I chuckle when Mr. Cox lampoons Western planners who admonish Chinese developers "not to repeat our mistakes." Indeed, as an architect and planner, I have said almost exactly that to my Chinese clients.

When asked for a single-family subdivision in a spectacular Hainan valley, I admonished them "no, there's a dark side to all this." And they calmly explained that we are the most successful country on the face of the earth and they want what we have - single family subdivisions.

Who am I to tell them no? They got what they wanted. Both the Chinese developer, and I, agreed that our past development patterns had problems - but that the West had a better solution.

China asks for Western planners precisely because we give good suburbs. As they grow, they need us less and less, and their suburbs are enormously popular and successful. As long as Chinese have a choice, some will choose the cities, and some will choose the burbs - and this humanist approach will give them more freedom.

Richard Reep
Poolside Studios
Winter Park, FL