Chris Miller at the Huafa Tower, China

FAVOURITES  – 8 April 2009 – China’s remarkable economic resurgence in the last few decades has seen it become the world’s manufacturer. With the enormous outpouring of exported goods has come a rapidly-expanding middle class with a good deal of affluence that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago.

The love affair with cars alone tells the story.

But with growing prosperity has come increased concerns on sustainability.

Until now at least, China’s ecological footprint has been far less than that of developed nations but the sobering thought is that it is the older, undeveloped China that it is keeping it in this position.

Of the 31 provinces in China, Guangdong Province in the southeast has been the one that has benefited most with its seaports and special economic zones and is now the most prosperous province in China.

Even here, the relative nature of prosperity is clearly evident. A short trip away from the major cities in Guangdong Province reveals agricultural practises unchanged by time, and considerable and obvious poverty.

A visitor soon becomes accustomed to seeing these two Chinas and co-existing worlds. They point to where China is headed in terms of sustainability.

Until very recently, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) was growing at an annual rate of 10 per cent and, at this rate, the country’s carbon emissions were set to rise by 5 per cent a year.

At the national level China has the world’s biggest program for the promotion of low-emissions energy from sources such as biomass, biofuels, hydro, wind, nuclear and solar electricity generation. But its comparatively light ecological footprint is due more to the older undeveloped China that it is to any great effort at sustainability.

In towns such as Yingde in Guandong Province the old China is still evident.

Just a superficial view of some of the developed cities of the eastern seaboard raises concerns on environmental issues, as general prosperity continues to grow. The most obvious indicator is car use.

Even without the global financial crisis China would have more vehicles on the road than the US this year. And there appears to be no going back. In production, China ranked behind the European Union, Japan and the US in 2008, and the vehicle of choice for China’s aspirational classes is black and German.

The scale and extent of highway construction is breathtaking. Elevated carriageways march across and around cities, across rural areas; huge cloverleaf intersections abound.

These engineering projects require massive quantities of concrete that is itself a significant contributor to CO2 production.

The environmental effects of this burgeoning vehicle use were put under the spotlight during last year’s Beijing Olympics when urban pollution became a major issue. The government partially and momentarily abated the problem by banning a large proportion of vehicle use.

Zhuhai is a small city in Guangdong Province fronting the sea and lying on the Pearl River close to Hong Kong and contiguous with Macau. It is seen as being one of the most liveable cities in China. Certainly air quality is far better than in the major cities and the roads are less congested.

This is in part due to a stricture imposed by the city government that bans motorbikes from the city streets. As the motorbike is still the major means of transportation in China this has a major effect on congestion and, to a smaller extent, air quality, but it means that there is far greater energy consumption used in transportation.

Zhuhai with its wide streets, extensive street planting and efficient public transport system, is seen as an exemplar city for modern China.

In the more prosperous cities, bicycles are less obvious; in Zhuhai abundant and efficient public transportation make them less necessary but that means that their non-polluting energy efficiency is missed.

Zhuhai also has a great variety of public parks and abundant roadside planting.

Trees play such an important role in the health of urban areas by improving air quality- emitting oxygen and taking up carbon dioxide, capturing airborne particulates and pollution.

They lower the ambient temperatures around dwellings and, therefore, reduce energy consumption. They reduce wind speeds and lower the transpiration rates of surrounding vegetation reducing water use, they increase people’s health by reducing airborne dust and pollen and they make spaces more livable.

Trees reduce stormwater runoff and erosion.

For all these reasons it’s reassuring to see the large-scale roadside tree planting programs that follow the spread of the highways. Frequently, roadside trees are installed at a far later stage of maturity than is usual in Australia and, as the maintenance is intensive, survival rates are high.

This means that this portion of the urban canopy can develop far more quickly than is the case with Australian horticultural practises.

Over the centuries the West has been the beneficiary of many Chinese plants – probably most of the ornamental plants found in traditional Western gardens originate from China, especially Yunan Province, as well as many large tree species.

These tree species are extremely efficient at carbon uptake so their use will be beneficial.

Chris Miller, principal of Impact Planners, is a Sydney-based landscape designer with an interest in environmental planning. In China he has delivered lectures at Zhongshan and Jilin Universities on environmental issues, written articles for Chinese magazines and carried out landscape design work. Chris is the immediate past president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers (AILDM).
Part Two and Three of this series will follow in forthcoming issues.
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