Book Review

China’s Urban Revolution

Understanding Chinese Eco-Cities
Austin Williams

Williams’s book is written in a racy, fluid style. Easy to read, full of facts, albeit few illustrations, it is based on his extensive travels to Chinese ‘eco-cities’, where he experienced urban change first hand. It aims to lay the foundations to an assessment of China’s own take on eco-cities, a change of direction in its breath-taking urbanisation process, full of contradictions but also of innovative experimentation. He challenges the two opposing held positions about China’s unique urbanisation process evolving from 17 per cent in 1976 to almost 60 per cent at present.

In Williams’s view, an emerging middle-class has influenced the shift of city growth from purely quantitative production to concern for the urban environment. He deliberately chooses not to define ecocities, while observing the diverse forms of urbanisation in different parts of the country. He sympathises with techno-fixes and dismisses utopian dreams of eco-warriors, but he also maintains that the Chinese eco-city model emerges from its own social dynamic, regulated by an authoritarian political system. This stance is reflected in the content of his chapters which start with a discussion about eco-cities, the premise that man must overcome nature, and a critique of Western ‘small is beautiful’, embracing the growth model instead. He takes a historic view of China's dichotomy between industrial growth and rural backwardness, and the civilising components of the Chinese socialist model with its emphasis on education, rule of law, state security, cultural facilities and, more recently, environmental concerns. He ends on an optimistic note, discussing China’s urban experiments and sees lessons for other parts of the world regarding R&D investment, technology development, resource management and urban land (mainly state owned). He briefly looks at the role of planning and notes that China is also trying to deal with the need for social housing, albeit producing gated communities. The state uses the notion of ‘sponge cities’ regarding water drainage, expecting low-tech, win-win targets to rapidly filter down the political hierarchy, instead of dams with concomitant massive community displacement. Such diverse eco-policies show that innovation may be more amenable without a rigid definition of eco-cities.

While acknowledging failed Chinese ecocities, Williams concludes that the many techno-fixes to which China has resorted, are opportunities for future economic expansion based on more R&D and innovative, higher value added products. This includes renewable energy generation which adds to China’s export capacity and confirms its regard to sustainable development. A final aim of the book is to instil a more critical stance toward Western environmental instrumentalism.

URBAN DESIGN 147 Summer 2018 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 147 Summer 2018

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China’s Urban Revolution  Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Judith Ryser