China: California dreaming in suburban Shanghai: how a big idea in town planning went west: Replicating the American residential idyll has come with unexpected headaches

Guardian (UK), 2014-08-22

You'll find the original Rancho Santa Fe community nestled between golf courses and tennis clubs in southern California . A replica, however, is available in the suburbs of Shanghai , featuring the same mission-style homes, lush green lawns and drives mounted with basketball nets. There's at least one car in each garage, terracotta planters and a clubhouse with tennis courts and swimming pools to soothe the stress of a long day at the office. And just in case the connection isn't clear enough, the Chinese even called their development " Rancho Santa Fe ".

But the Chinese developments have not just duplicated California's Mediterranean-themed architecture. McMansion communities like Shanghai's Rancho Santa Fe have also helped recreate the golden state's car headaches and endless sprawl, thanks to planners who have repeated the urban design flaws. For China , California dreaming has turned into a nightmare.

Planning authorities have committed "essentially all the mistakes that have been made in the western world before," says Yan Song , director of the Chinese cities programme at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill .

She recalls how, 10 years ago, a delegation of US planners convened with Chinese officials, who were then working on eliminating Beijing's cycle lanes to make room for more cars. "The American planners were saying, 'Don't do that, please! We've done that, we have made that mistake. Don't follow us'," she says. "But when you have that kind of modernisation, people love cars - so unfortunately the planners didn't listen." (A few years later, Beijing backpedalled, and since 2010 it has been working to bring back the bicycles.)

Besides expunging cycle lanes, China's leaders have also imported Dallas's car culture and Atlanta's endless sprawl. The "towers in a park" housing blocks championed by Le Corbusier and others have found a second life in cities from Shanghai to Suzhou - despite their mixed results elsewhere.

The desire to escape sardine conditions in these superblocks, where greenery is often just sickly shrubs gasping between six-lane roads, has in turn multiplied the number of land-devouring compounds like Rancho Santa Fe .

Homeowners have contributed to the gridlock and pollution, owing in part to another template that's enchanted China's planners: Houston-style financial districts packed with towering glass boxes that are inhospitable to street life and far from people's homes.

These ideas have worked about as well in China as they have everywhere else: congestion, smog and competition for scarce resources are on the rise.

A 2011 IBM survey found that Beijing and Shenzhen had the most miserable commutes in the world after Mexico City . Cars generate a third of the hazardous air pollution in Beijing caused by fine particles known as PM 2.5. And a report from the World Bank in March found China's urban expansion had put the country's available farmland "close to the 'red line' of 120m hectares" - the minimum necessary to ensure food security.

China's "deja vu design" binge has been driven by policies that encourage the real estate equivalent of pawning jewellery to pay bills. Local bureaucrats have financed their operations by hawking property to developers, who expand the suburbs further and further from the urban core. Last year, land sales accounted for 55% of local government revenues, according to China Daily . In 2010, that figure reached 80% for some cities, the paper reported.

"In China, the government owns the land and sells the land to the developer, and that's the last dollar that the local government gets off that piece of dirt. So then what to do? They have to sell another piece of dirt. They have to plan for a bigger city," says Chip Pierson , a senior principal with the Dahlin Group , who has spent more than a decade working on architecture and urban design projects in China . "This is why they're coming up with schemes about a technology city in the middle of God-knows-where."

While government officials are motivated to sell land, developers have every incentive to fill it with opulent single-family homes like those at Rancho Santa Fe or Fontainebleau, also in Shanghai . Six-bedroom houses command higher prices than modest apartments, and help builders quickly recoup their costs.

But China's politicians haven't been completely blind to their planning problems. In 2006, the Communist party outlawed the use of land for luxury villas and required new communities to build at least 70% of their units smaller than 90 sq metres (970 sq ft). Villa construction slowed for a year or two, but Pierson says the ban is "barely mentioned any more". (The third phase of Rancho Santa Fe was finished two years after the guidelines were announced, in 2008.)

Sometimes, says Pierson, developers will circumvent the rule by striking a deal with local leaders, who may allocate some portion of the land for villas so the firms can raise enough money to complete the mandated superblocks.

At other times, companies just cheat. As outdoor space counts for only a fraction of actual area, developers have been building apartments with colossal balconies that owners can wall off to create an extra room.

This points to a deeper issue: China's bureaucrats and homebuyers are drawn to the same trappings of success that moneyed classes elsewhere enjoy. There's the sense that to become a financial centre, China must look like a financial centre - which means replicating the Loop in Chicago or Canary Wharf in London . Businesses want the appearance of modernity that, it seems, only stacked glass boxes can provide. And homeowners want the white picket fence that defines the Chinese dream as much as the American one.

"In a way, it's the Louis Vuitton complex. Because everyone else has one, I have to have one, too," says Laurence Liauw , the author of New Urban China and the principal director of Spada, a multi-disciplinary design firm based in Hong Kong . "We [the Chinese] want to be like everyone else. We want to be like Palm Springs , or whatever is the latest fashionable address. There's nothing wrong with it, except that it comes at a very, very high cost to humanity, to the environment and in resources."

But over the past few years, China's planning authorities have made meaningful progress toward more creative and sustainable urban design solutions.

This spring, China unveiled the national new-type urbanisation plan (2014-20), an initiative that is almost a reversal of urban planning errors of the past, and an effort to encourage smarter infrastructure. The policy - the first urbanisation scheme led by central government - aims to expand mass transit, increase the number of "green" buildings, control suburban sprawl and generally prioritise the wellbeing of urban dwellers rather than pouring concrete on new parcels of land.

Architects and planners in China believe it will prove to be more than a slogan and that they had noticed signs of improvement even before it was announced. Liauw says he has watched cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai increase access to public transport; and Shenzhen is restoring cycle lanes.

Urban designer Peter Calthorpe , the author of Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, was hired to revise the plan for the built-from-scratch city of Chenggong, a ghost town of superblocks and eight-lane highways that had more than 100,000 empty apartments in 2010. Calthorpe is massaging Chenggong's first design to bring it closer to a template that he and others think China should adopt more broadly: he has championed mixed-use areas that combine homes and businesses; roads that encourage walking and active streetlife; and dense public transit networks that are easily accessed.

Even homeowners' tastes are evolving. They are no longer as charmed by lavish developments marketed as modelled on US West Coast villas. "Health and livability are now major factors that developers are taking seriously into account for how they promote new developments," says Liauw.

The same top-down decision making that has led to suburban sprawl and traffic jams may rescue China from its design mistakes by ensuring new ideas are swiftly implemented.

"Once they decide to make a change they can really make a change," says Calthorpe. "So I'm quite optimistic."

As China's planning authorities consider how to change course, some are still looking to the US. Only, instead of being enthralled by California's gas-guzzling highway system and ever-expanding suburbs, they're considering a city slightly further north, one well known for sustainable planning: "They love Portland, Oregon ," says Song. " Portland is a really great model."


Clockwise from main, new housing in Shanghai ; rush hour traffic during a 'car-free' day in Beijing in 2013; and a resident of Rancho Santa Fe , Shanghai , enjoys his space. Below, a model villa at an exhibition in Beijing Photographs: Stock Connection/Rex; Gong Lei /Rex; Karen Robinson ; Xinhua/ Zhao Bing