Understanding Rural China

A Joint-Research between University of Pavia and Tongji University


Tiziano Cattaneo

Università degli Studi di Pavia, and Tongji University

(This Paper was prepared for the 50th Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association “Sustainable Urban Environments: Research, Design and Planning for the Next 50 Years”, not formally published in proceedings or books)


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Abstract

This paper presents the results of two years joint-research-project settled between University of Pavia, Italy, and Tongji University, Shanghai, China. The main purpose of this cooperation was to initiate an investigation to foster understanding on rural-urban condition focusing on the urbanization of small towns in China.

China’s urbanization is rapidly progressing and has improved the living standards of the Chinese people, but it also caused huge environmental and resource pressures. Moreover, China’s urban planning system includes two scales of intervention: the big scale and the small scale. The core hypothesis of our project is that between the two scales there is a third land of investigation, which includes small towns and villages in rural areas. The scope of this project is not only to explore new ways of urbanization, but also to create best practice for regeneration of existing rural villages prioritizing design thorough social inclusion. This approach has two crucial aspects of innovation: first, open-dialogue and authorities engagement; second, participation and social engagement. The achieved results can be summarized as follows: First, creation of awareness on developments and innovations in which different crucial elements of modernization and tradition have found a common ground of interaction; second, contribution to the rural resilience of China’s Mega-cities suburbs, which will become the future bearers of the cultural heritage of China, and also paradigm for European cities.

These two aspects together can be considered of great impact and innovation in and for the Chinese system. In contrast to the state control of urban planning prevalent in many East Asian cities, these bottom-up actions suggest an alternative mode of development that embodies the subjectivity and agency of rural dwellers, and we can begin to pursue a more open, democratic, and dynamic form of planning in China and beyond.


Introduction

Currently, the strength of the relationship between China and the European Union is unprecedented in comparison to their dealings in the past. Recent shifts of geopolitical condition on trade but not only are demonstrating that going forward, it is imperative for both parties to take steps to strengthen mutual understanding in order to jointly capitalize on opportunities and address the challenges of a rapidly changing world. For instance, the EU-China Partnership of Urbanization, which was signed in 2012, is an important milestone in achieving this goal. The partnership is aimed at tackling upcoming challenges by promoting collaboration between stakeholders at the national, regional and local levels.

China’s urbanization is rapidly progressing. By the end of 2015, the urban population was about 56.1%. In the next 10 years the proportion will reach approximately 65%, and by 2040 over 70%. Urbanization will advance at an average rate of 1% per year (Gil, 2008; Chen, 2016). As such, China is now in an unprecedented phase of rapid urban development. This trend is expected to continue for 20-25 years. (Rawes, 2011) Urbanization has improved the living standards of the Chinese people, but it also caused huge environmental and resource pressures. Therefore, it is necessary to implement the principles of sustainable development. After more than twenty years of hard work by proponents, the theory of sustainable development has received general acceptance in China. The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the People’s Republic of China has laid down the main principles of China’s ecological urban planning and design, they are: maximally conserve resource (land, energy, water and material); protect the environment; reduce pollution; provide healthy; comfortable and efficient use of space; balance with nature in the whole life cycle (Chen, 2016; Sha, 2012).

China is entering in its second phase of urbanization: besides urban regeneration programs in the Central City, the focus of urbanization at national level has shifted to medium and small size cities and towns, as these settlements will accommodate most of the urban population growth in next two decades (Sha, 2012). Current planning strategies on towns undergoing physical changes are following the same patterns as those applied in big cities, such as car-centric road system planning and generic land use planning methods. This is a problematic situation. Planning strategies and actions based on the earlier models may not be successful in achieving the towns’ regeneration (Sha et al., 2014).

Little knowledge about these settlements is available, making their study very challenging. It is an unfamiliar field of study to most researchers and professionals. Unlike Europe or the US, where small towns are where most of the middle class live, work and are educated in, the gap between big city and small towns in China is huge with the two having very different stages of social development (Sha et al., 2014). So, lacking the knowledge basis it is difficult to formulate appropriate policy and planning for sustainable development of rural town.

The China’s urban planning system includes two scales of intervention: the planning at the big scale and the intervention plan at the small scale (Rowe and Kuan, 2004). Between the two scales, we think there is a third scale that is the interface between city government (the big scale) and the land development market (the small scale). This is a new land of investigation, which includes mainly small towns and rural-urban scale. Today we assist of imbalanced development between the urban and rural areas. Thus, the rural space provides to the field of urban studies an ideal testing area for experimenting new approaches for sustainable development. We believe that a sustainable prioritizing of urbanization have to be oriented to the creation of interaction between the two domains, rural and urban. The future is in the third scale areas, in small towns with a human dimension. It matters little that they are physically apart from each other. The interactions between the two domains, already today not completely separable, are destined to increase. Hence, the study of China's urbanization requires a shift of paradigm: from urbanization being studied from a large growing city perspective to a rural-urban viewpoint focusing on the urbanization of small towns (Friedmann, 2016).


Project Description: Objective and Motivation

Within the context as earlier outlined and inspired by the EU-China Partnership of Urbanization a two years joint-research-project has been settled between University of Pavia and Tongji University1. The main purpose of this cooperation is to initiate an investigation to foster mutual understanding on rural-urban condition focusing on the urbanization of small towns in China. The joint-research project has been developed from September 2015 to June 2017 divided in three phases of three weeks each for a total of nine weeks in each institution2.

The cooperation program was designed according to four pragmatic actions:

- Development of researchers mobility between the two institutions in Italy and China. The exchange program has been divided into three phases of three weeks each for a total of nine weeks, giving the Project a biennial time progression;

- Multidisciplinary characterization and diversification of research activities to be carried out in the two universities through scientific meetings, workshops, seminars, laboratory activities;

- Possibility for teachers / researchers / PhD candidates and tutors to share information and skills for international development and growth;

- Fostering high-level academic exchange of international level, guaranteeing a commitment in terms of significant contribution of working time per each person involved.


Research Framework: Tasks and Goals

For each phase different tasks and goals have been identified. The structure of the research project is described as follows and it is composed of four tasks, revealing the stages needed in turn to understand China’s rural-urban urbanization and envisioning the habitat of the future (Cattaneo, 2016).

Task 1: understanding the urbanism through historical review, evolution process and observation on current urbanization trends mainly using as a case study the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai) region.

Task 2 and Task 3: Definition of Best practices and visualization of design strategies and design goals for China’s rural towns.

The result is a semantic diagram that represents graphically goals and strategies for sustainable projects in rural areas. It is aimed at policymakers, stakeholders, researchers, designers and/or some other groups of citizens’ communities whose development actions are undertaken in a specific rural context.

Task 4: Task 4 is committed to create environmental scenarios (a sort of pilot projects) for selected towns.

Objectives:

- Create awareness on developments and innovations in which different crucial elements of modernization and tradition have found a worldwide interaction.

- Contribute to the rural resilience of China’s Mega-cities suburbs, such as for example the Shanghai Region, which will become the future bearers of the cultural heritage of China, and also paradigm for European and the World cities.


Scope and Implementation Activities

The scope of this project was not only to explore new ways of urbanization, but to regenerate existing villages and town and prioritizing design of the social functions of how to integrate space and demand, to study “people” in the rural community’s living conditions and methods as the main core, in order to practice design-driven social innovation strategies for Chinese rural community-building and resilient transformation. Beside that the project realized a toolkit for designers and planners, able to lead them in an appropriate design of the Chinese rural towns, with a sustainable and climate resilient point of view. In particular, the project has provided an overview on the actual condition of the Chinese rural towns and proposes a semantic network to define the aspect on which the designers must focus on. Then, with this perspective, collections of best practices have been given and multiscale "pilot projects" for the future of some selected Chinese rural towns have been designed. The main results that this research project achieved are the creation of actions oriented to double directions: limiting the climate impact of the expansion of the Chinese rural towns (with clear consequences at both local and global level) and strengthening the reactions of these settlements to the effects of the climate changes.

Implementation activities are as follows:

The project activities have been oriented to the implementation of two main policies:

- Firstly, the improvements of rural living standards will serve to improve the lives of rural inhabitants.

- Secondly, the improvements of living standards in small towns, and encouraging people to move to them will create more benefits for the whole urban population.


Research Outcomes

The results achieved so far include four kinds of outcomes:

- A series of workshops and public forums with an effective collaboration between different parties and through engagement of authorities, stakeholders and villagers. The workshops and forums involved not only the project members but also, when was possible, citizens, practitioners and local government representatives. (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

- A construction and visualization of predictive toolkit design patterns for rural towns. This phase of the project involved scholars and students from Italy and China (Cattaneo et al., 2016; Lotto et al., 2017). (Figure 3). The predictive toolkit it is an interactive tool, a generative key-checklist that can be used by stakeholders in specific contexts, becoming a reading tool, a set of design guidelines or a decision facilitator support system toolkit for policymakers, stakeholders, researchers, designers and/or some other groups of citizens’ communities whose development actions are undertaken in a specific rural context.

- A collection of Pilot projects that demonstrate validity of the whole approach. The design of the pilot projects involved researchers, PhD candidates and students from China and Italy. (Figure 4 and Figure 5).

- A collective publication for a completely new understanding of the current situation of China’s mega-cities suburbs and evaluation of the current planning and action agenda for rural towns. The publication has been involved 15 scholars from Italy, China, UK and USA (Cattaneo, 2016) (Figure 6).


Innovation

Along with the intrinsic innovation of the whole methodology package (Tasks and goals) of this project, there are two crucial aspects of innovation beyond the creation of environmental scenarios considering social impact in real world, in China.

- First, open-dialogue and authorities engagement: there must be participation and support from Chinese government authorities. As one of the motivation of research mentioned earlier was about real life issue relating with urban planning documents followed by action plans, co-working with the government authorities was the aspect that have assured the relevant knowledge available from administration sides with regards to the issues concerned. This is of equal importance with knowledge seized by the researchers’ side for implementation. The research outcomes led to experimental action(s) and pilot project(s), which may include changes to land-use models and administration capabilities, so consideration of feasibility is highly important. There is two-way learning, not just the researcher helping the government sector. Without the administration and policy making perspective, it is almost impossible for research to be carried out on two aspects – 1) what are the real issues and 2) how to evaluate the implementation capability of the current administration. Through this channel, the project can also evaluate the market needs such as understanding investor and general public arguments on redevelopments.

- Second, participation and social engagement: academic outcomes going beyond implementation will impact for a much longer time on wider actors such as policymakers, stakeholders, scholars, designers and planners. With the aim to place special emphasis on the engagement of authorities, stakeholders and citizens we have organized workshops, seminars and public events together with scholars, tutors and students of Tongji University of Shanghai involving more than 50 people.

These two aspects together can be considered of great impact and innovation in and for the Chinese system. In contrast to the state control of urban planning prevalent in many East Asian cities, gathering top-down and bottom-up actions together suggest an alternative mode of development that embodies the subjectivity and agency of urban dwellers, thus we can begin to pursue a more open, democratic, and dynamic form of planning in China and beyond.


Implementation: technological and social components

The joint-research project involves too many different forms of expertise for a single national body. For this reason the Joint Cooperation between two Universities (namely the University of Pavia, Italy, and Tongji University, Shanghai, China) has been created through the network platform of the China Lab for Architecture and Urban Studies (www.chinaurbanlab.com) allowing so giving impetus on both technological and social components.

According to the project’s scope and the innovation aspects as earlier described, the social components as well as the social impact fostered by the project can be described as follows:

- Cooperative citizenship: The sustainable village from the bioclimatic perspective needs a supportive and cooperative citizenship. The new rural landscape development requested by contemporary social challenges became a place without power hierarchies, a place of equal opportunities and cooperative citizenship.

- Permeability: The complexity of a sustainable rural village relies on its permeability in terms of: multifunctional place, permeability to different forms of human activities. This project is based on evolution of tradition toward information, communication, energy flows, processes and technology systems, which overlap with the nature-based solutions. The permeable village must integrate those systems, which are composed, in our strategy, by the farmers, the agriculture, the technology, the new spaces and most important the Villagers.

- Village as expression of social and individual events

In our strategy the accent is displaying on the expression of social, individual or complementary events that enable mutable performances in the places and in time too.


Replication, Potentiality and Future Study

As mentioned earlier the project benefits not only China but also could be a paradigm for European and worldwide cities. The field of application and the actions could be certainly improved in the future but, to date, considering the social, economic and cultural aspects of Chinese rural towns, we can affirm that the overall model can be replicate in several regions basing on the authorities and citizenship cooperation on the following aspects:

- Management of the resources in the optic of limiting their consumption and maximally providing health and environmental protection;

- Limit the soil consumption with feasible practices of intensification and retrofitting of the existing, in particular, of the brownfield lands;

- Management of the hydric resources, as basic living element but also as energy production opportunity and natural element that can wreak strong and dangerous damages;

- Planning the integration of the production and distribution of green energy as main way to reduce pollution, CO2 emissions and carbon-fossil consumption;

- Enhancement of the value of landscape as productive element, able to appreciate the natural and forestry heritage as active component of the environment.




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