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Green Urbanism in Asia: How Hangzhou in China is making Impressive Progress

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

In their great book ‘Green Urbanism in Asia’, Peter Newman and Anne Matan suggest that green urbanism is the recognition that cities make the opportunities that change the world and we need green innovations to reduce emissions, pollution and resources consumption, enhance the environment and accommodate a rapidly increasing urban population. This is the shared philosophy behind UrbanEmerge; our purpose is to facilitate and co-create emerging urban solutions, emerging technology, emerging markets, better governance and planning.

I’ve been living in Hangzhou, a city of 6 million in eastern China, for the past 2 years and on my daily walk to drop the kids off at nursery I’ve been reflecting recently on Hangzhou’s impressive progress in green urbanism.

High density, attractive neighbourhoods with multiple transport options
Firstly the high-density urban environment means that many journeys can be made on foot, such as the one kilometre journey from our apartment building to the nursery. High-rise living works well in China’s large and increasingly wealthy cities, with nicely landscaped gardens and sports facilities shared between residents at ground level.

For slightly longer journeys separated cycle lanes along almost every main road are full of dock-less cycles and electric motorcycles, made popular through attractive tax incentives. Public transport is very well developed with frequent buses, many of which are pure electric, as well as an accessible, air-conditioned and fully Wi-Fi equipped subway network that is rapidly growing from two functional lines when we moved to Hangzhou to 10 lines by 2022, in time for the next Asian Games.

I’ve also seen more electric cars in Hangzhou than any other city I’ve been to. Tesla and BYD are particularly popular brands here. Charging infrastructure for cars is very visible; the other day for example, I noticed spaces for around 30 electric vehicles at the city’s central public library. Reducing congestion has been a huge challenge in Hangzhou over the past few years and one effective strategy, besides improving public transport, is limiting when certain cars can drive on the road. Only cars registered in the city can drive between 7 to 9am and 4:30 to 6pm. This is implemented by a comprehensive network of number plate recognition cameras, enforced with heavy fines or points deducted from driving licences.

Smart and low-carbon solutions, developed with private sector partnerships

The city is also working in partnership with Alibaba Cloud (AliYun) to develop and evolve the Hangzhou City Brain, which uses cameras and sensors to monitor traffic flow around the city’s main arteries. Initial uses are for traffic police to rapidly respond to incidents and to reroute traffic using smart lanes which can switch the direction of traffic flow with eclectic signs overhead gantries. As the system develops, it will be able to interlink with many other smart city solutions and sensors connected via the Internet of Things, to provide a platform for a smart city ICT ecosystem. While this is technologically very advanced, it’s also hard for me to ignore the uncomfortable foundations of an increasing surveillance-based state, an issue that cities around the world will have to grapple with as to find the right balance as they become smarter, data-driven and more interlinked with regulation and control.

Since 2010, Hangzhou has been one of the National Development and Reform Commission’s (NDRC) eight low-carbon pilot cities across China. This programme covers greenhouse gas accounting, low-carbon development planning, industrial and economic policies, government training and international cooperation and knowledge sharing. The plan also encourages low-carbon lifestyles and is underpinned by a strong focus on rapidly increasing the proportion of renewables for the city’s energy mix. Lessons learnt here are now being scaled up and applied across the country.

Green spaces that enable healthy lifestyle choices

There is also an increasing focus on green space and healthy living. I’ve found many residents of Hangzhou like to think of themselves as outward bound, with the beautiful hills and lakes of Zhejiang province very accessible to the southwest of the city. There is also a network of greenways along canals and the QianTang river, the famous West Lake and Xixi Wetlands and many small parks. The city also surrounds the pretty green tea growing hills around Longjing, effectively one of several green lungs for the city. There is a very visible strategy of planning to maximise access to green space and cultural heritage, while protecting it from highways that pass instead through tunnels.

It is no wonder that this green, attractive and high-tech city is an increasingly popular location for businesses and often labelled ‘China’s Silicone Valley’ it includes the global HQ of the Alibaba Group and Geely (who are now driving Volvo’s transformation to electric vehicles), the China HQ of Cisco and is home to thousands of other service sector companies and start-ups.

Green urbanism is becoming a reality in Hangzhou

Of course, many challenges remain, particularly around affordability of housing, air quality that is improving only slowly and the poor energy efficiency of many buildings. As one of China’s wealthiest cities, with rocketing consumerism, more effective waste management and circular economy solutions will be crucial in the years to come. However, as Hangzhou helps China forge its rapid progress in green urbanism, it is encouraging to see much of what is described in ‘Green Urbanism in Asia’ taking shape in reality.

This blog was published by Andreas Beavor.

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