Paving Over Hunan? The Portland Model for China


For two centuries, people have crowded into urban areas, seeking higher standards of living than prevail in the rural areas they abandoned. Nowhere is this truer than in China. In just four decades, it has risen from 17.4 percent to 55.6 percent urban, adding nearly 600 million city residents. This has been accomplished while lifting an unprecedented number of people out of poverty.  

Yet in the future, China faces tough urbanization challenges. The United Nations forecasts that another 200 million residents will be added to the cities by 2035, increasing the urban population by nearly another one-third.

Los Angeles Style Suburbs in China?

For years, western planners have sought to impose their visions of the future on China's cities (see: China Should Send the Western Planners Home). There are more recent rumblings from Britain. Writing in The Guardian, Bianca Bosker finds considerable fault with Chinese cities. In criticizing China's perceived copying of US and European models, her article conveys an impression that detached housing (called "villas in China) makes up a large part of China's suburbs, as in the United States ("Why Haven't China's Cities Learned from America's Mistakes?" with an intriguing subtitle "Faceless estates. Sprawling suburbs. Soulless financial districts ... are in vogue in China").

Having traveled widely within all but two of China's 25 largest cities, I would have to disagree. You have to look hard to find detached housing in China. This is quite unlike the case in US suburbs, as well as those of Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and elsewhere.

In fact, the suburban areas of Chinese cities are largely high-rise and mid-rise multi-family buildings, with their attendant high densities. Detached housing has accounted for between 4 and 6 percent of new housing floor space. The actual percentage of detached units is probably smaller, since their average floor space of detached housing is greater. The type of housing in the photographs at the bottom of the article (Figures 2 through 6) is typical of China's suburbs.

Bosker also criticizes about China's "towers in the park" high-rise development, noting that "The desire to escape sardine conditions in these superblocks, where greenery often consists of sickly shrubs gasping between six-lane roads, has in turn multiplied the number of land-devouring compounds like Rancho Santa Fe." In fact, villa developments like Rancho Santa Fe, nearby Shanghai's Honquiao Airport, are very high income enclaves, and small. Rancho Santa Fe itself occupies less than 90 acres and the gross average lot size is approximately one-quarter acre (1/10 hectare), smaller than the average middle income suburban lot in the United States. No ordinary “tower in the park" resident can afford to move to the pricey villa developments.

California's High Urban Densities

The article also condemns the "urban sprawl" of Los Angeles and California (this is nothing new).  However, the reality is that Los Angeles is the most dense major urban area in the United States (and thus the least sprawling) and nearly as dense as Toronto. Further, California has the highest urban density of any state, leading even New York. The average urban density of the state and even that of smaller California cities, such as Fresno, Stockton, Modesto and Salinas, is more than that of urban planning Nirvana Portland (below).

Los Angeles: Land of Gridlock?

The article calls Los Angeles the "land of gridlock," and there is no doubt that its traffic is intense. Yet, Los Angeles ranks only in a 20th place tie with Paris out of 125 cities in the latest Tom Tom Traffic Index. Traffic is worse in Brussels and Rome, almost as bad in London and far worse in places like Moscow, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. In spite of the traffic congestion, Los Angeles has the shortest work trip travel times of any world megacity for which there is data, the result of its dispersed residential and employment pattern (call it "sprawl" if you like).

In Los Angeles, suburban residents have shorter work travel times than people living in the urban cores, which is the general situation among US major metropolitan areas (more than 1,000,000 population). This is to be expected, since lower densities are associated with less traffic congestion and shorter travel times.

Paving Over Hunan?

Ms. Bosker suggests that China may be poised to follow the "Portland model." A planner is quoted: “Portland is a really great model.” That, I would suggest, depends on your perspective.

The Portland model has its philosophical roots in the British Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. As early as 1973, Sir Peter Hall and his colleagues characterized the Act having had the "reverse effect" an important policy goal, to benefit less affluent households, by virtue of the house price escalation that ensued.

Portland has drawn an urban growth boundary around the city beyond which development is generally prohibited, and within which there is insufficient space to maintain competitive land prices. Portland has also has sought to attract people out of their cars by both building an extensive light rail system and   loath to provide new highway capacity to meet demand.

After more than 30 years of its urban containment ("smart growth") policy, Portland's urban density remains at only 1,350 per square kilometer (3,500 per square mile), less than one-quarter that of China's cities with more than 500,000 population (5,750 per square kilometer/14,900 per square mile). Los Angeles is twice as dense as Portland. Portland's urban density is closer to that of the world's most sprawling large urban area, Atlanta, than it is to that of Los Angeles. Planning whipping boy Houston is only 15 percent less dense than Portland.

To equal Portland's density, Chinese cities would need to expand their footprints by 210,000 square kilometers (80,000 square miles). This would require the equivalent of paving over Hunan province (Figure 1), the state of Minnesota or the combination of England and Scotland.

Portland is no model to copy, unless all you care about is inputs (like light rail and not building freeways and suburban housing). The outputs tell a completely different story. In 1980 (the last data before the first light rail line was opened) 65.1 percent of commuters drove alone to work. By 2012, that figure had increased to 70.8 percent. Transit was down from 8.4 percent to 6.0 percent. Approximately one-quarter as many people worked at home as commuted by transit in 1980 (2.2 percent). By 2012, more people in the Portland metropolitan area worked at home than rode transit (6.4 percent).

This is not surprising. Portland's "model" transit system (now with five light rail lines) can get the average commuter to only 8 percent of the jobs in 45 minutes. This is not very attractive in contrast to travel by automobiles, which provides access to virtually 100 percent of the jobs in less time (30 minutes).

Meanwhile, Portland's anti-highway policies have been rewarded with some of the most rapidly increasing traffic congestion in the United States. In the early 1980s, Portland ranked 47th worst out of the 101 US urban areas ranked by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. By 2011, Portland's traffic congestion had deteriorated to sixth worst, a stunning failure for a city with a population that doesn't even rank the top 20. Meanwhile, Houston, castigated for its wide freeways, has improved from the worst traffic congestion in the middle 1980s to four positions better than Portland (10th), despite adding having added three times as many new residents as Portland.

American Cities

If outputs are more important than inputs (which I suggest is true), then US cities do very well. They have the highest incomes in the world, occupying 36 of the top 50 positions in gross domestic product per capita. They have some of the most affordable housing in the world, if cities following the Portland model are excluded. They have shorter work trip commutes and less traffic congestion than their peers in other high income world nations. And, they are poised for huge progress in environmental protection. The US Department of Energy forecasts large reductions in gross greenhouse gas emission from the national automobile fleet in the coming decades.

Overwhelmingly, the growth of cities happened because rural residents sought higher standards of living and an escape from lower incomes and poverty, in rural areas. Few, if any moved to cities for wise urban planning, for "soulful financial districts" or to commute by light rail. Overall, US city outputs correspond very well with the purpose of cities --- which is why they attracted residents.

China: Setting its Own Course

No one could have predicted China's urban progress that was to follow in the decades following Deng Xiao Ping's assumption of power. China's cities have provided for their growing number of citizens. By that standard, both Chinese and American cities have done very well. China has charted its own urbanization course and seems likely to do so in the future. It is unlikely to seek to follow the advice of western critics whose plans fail the needs of their own citizens, much those in a complex, rapidly changing place like China.

Top photograph: Suburban development, Changsha, Hunan. (All photographs by author).

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

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Idiocy Epitomised - in the Guardian

I have never seen so much idiocy on display in a single article, as in that Guardian article by Bianca Bosker…….!!! And of course the comments thread is a Guardianista echo-chamber.

China is getting problems with congestion and pollution “because of sprawl like America……”!!!!!!

Which includes “sprawl” of Le Corbusier style apartment blocks. Yeah, like American cities sprawl with Le Corbusier style apartment blocks.

And the “solution” according to this Soviet Planning sentimentalist Bianca Bosker, is to “encourage developers” to not build apartments so wastefully large, let alone actual houses; and to “encourage” Chinese to keep using bicycles by building cycleways instead of roads – even China’s outlier levels of commuter rail investment seems to not impress her.

Oh, and food security is a crisis because of urban growth, in spite of the Lincoln Institute’s Atlas of Urban Land Consumption showing China to have more arable land per person than most of Western Europe.