China recently said it would turn about 1,000 towns into dynamic environmental, cultural and economic hubs by 2020, which would create innumerable new jobs and give rise to new communities.
Since China has about 3,000 counties and 18,000 towns and is home to diverse regional cultures, the decision appears conservative, although turning a town into a heritage place is a time-consuming process.
Despite these facts, the decision is encouraging because it indicates China’s new urbanization policy, which in the past mainly focused on building cities of varying sizes. The move also indicates China’s determination to explore the richness of its diverse regional cultures by protecting as well as promoting its natural and historic treasures.
Assuming that at least $100 million a year will be needed for heritage protection, infrastructure construction, and providing entertainment and hospitality in one town, the scale of investment will be huge in these times of economic downturn.
And since this will be a new engine to drive economic growth, China has to exercise utmost caution. China must avoid the mistakes it has made in its urbanization process over the past two decades or more. For example, China should abandon the fast-paced development plan of the past decades because it didn’t aim at creating preserving heritage sites in cities.
In this context, China could learn from European countries’ experiences. Of course, that doesn’t mean simply copying European architectural styles, as many Chinese cities have done in the past.
China should strengthen legislation on heritage protection at the town level. Protection of historic buildings, bridges and heritages such as forests, rivers and lakes should be made mandatory. And the policy should apply not only to the 1,000 selected towns but also to the entire country.
China could also emulate the theme-based planning of European countries. For instance, European countries have turned the towns in valleys along major rivers such as the Danube, Rhine, Seine and Loire into agricultural and industrial centers, as well as tourist destinations.
China is developing the region along the Yangtze River, the longest in the country, into an economic belt, so the towns along the Yangtze River and its tributaries could establish sisterly relations with European cities in the same way that more than 600 Chinese cities have already done. And the development of the towns in the river valleys can be one of the major areas of cooperation with European cities.
Of course, modern facilities such as museums, theaters, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, train and bus stations, and parking lots should be built. But preserving the heritage sites in the towns and following local architectural styles should also be part of the new urban development plan.
The plan should also aim to reduce the use of fossil fuels and, instead, encourage the use of bicycles and electric vehicles, including public transport vehicles. The outskirts of some of the selected towns could also be turned into agricultural parks, and the towns should strictly weigh the pros and cons of attracting industrial plants.
Moreover, the towns should pay special attention to building holiday resorts and nursing homes for the aged, because the demand for such facilities is on the rise across the country.
Perhaps some academic institutions could also be relocated to the new towns to ease the pressure on big cities. Such a plan will also bring value-added benefits for the selected towns’ residents.
And we can only hope the new urbanization plan becomes an integral part of the major socioeconomic transformation trend for China.