A cadre of Western urban planners has descended on China offering advice. Chinese officials are admonished “not to repeat our mistakes.” The mistakes, they explain are urban sprawl (a pejorative term for suburbanization) and automobile use. Chinese officials who visit the West must marvel as for the mistakes at the myopia of our planners after witnessing the high standard of living, which is something they would like to replicate. For good reason, they are largely ignoring the bankrupt advice they are receiving from the Western planners.
China is experiencing unprecedented economic growth. Over the past two decades, living standards have risen seven fold. 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 up to three times that of urban areas in the central and western regions.
Like many developing nations, China remains 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. 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. Opportunities are much greater in the large and expanding urban labor markets, and the standard of living is better in urban areas than in 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 340,000,000 people --- a population greater than that of the United States and Canada.
Already, China has very large urban areas. Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing have 10,000,000 or more residents. A number of other urban areas have approximately 5,000,000 people, such as Guangzhou, Wuhan, Tianjin, Shenyang and Dongguan. There are more than 25 additional urban areas with populations above 1,000,000 See DemographiaWorld Urban Areas.
The Western Planners
Not surprisingly, a cadre of Western urban planners has descended on China offering advice. Chinese officials are admonished “not to repeat our mistakes.” The mistakes, they explain are urban sprawl (a pejorative term for suburbanization) and automobile use.
The Reality of the West
And, as for the mistakes of the West, Chinese officials who visit 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 a mistake that the automobile has created mobile urban areas in which employers and employees have far greater choices and labor markets are 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. Nor is it a mistake that nearbly 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 it was largely able to accomplish all of this before the planners were in a position to impose their wills that would have prevented suburbanization and the expansion of mobility. The planners would have imposed greenbelts and urban growth boundaries, making it impossible for low cost housing to be developed. 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 that the automobile has opened up. There would be less wealth and it would be less broadly distributed. The planners would not have allowed the “big-box” stores on the urban fringe, and as a result people would have had to pay 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 to export Western planning ideas, if not the planners themselves, to China. China would do well to ignore the Western planners, whose advice would retard the growth of the economy and spread of wealth. To China’s credit, the “fools gold” of Western urban planning principles is largely being ignored.