Ten Years of Examining Chinese Cities at UNC-Chapel Hill

By Yan Song (ys@email.unc.edu) and Andy Berner (berner@email.unc.edu), The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The challenges facing China’s cities and metropolitan regions are daunting in scale and complexity - without exaggeration, the lives of millions will depend on how well China manages the continued growth of its cities in coming years.

Ten years ago, we founded the Program on Chinese Cities (PCC) as an initiative within the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to focus research on these challenges. Our research agenda was developed to better understand the impacts of rapid metropolitan development on China’s built and natural environments. PCC created a three-part agenda to guide our research activities including: documentation of China’s urbanization process; analysis of China’s urbanization policies and practices; and global implications of Chinese urbanization.

  Photo: Visiting Scholars from the UNC Program on Chinese Cities

Photo: Visiting Scholars from the UNC Program on Chinese Cities

As part of the PCC, the Visiting Scholars Program was created in 2009 to foster collaborative international research on Chinese cities. Visiting scholars come from all over China, and include professors and doctoral students. They typically come to UNC-Chapel Hill and interact with faculty and students in the Department of City and Regional Planning for a period of six months or a year. Their work focuses on a variety of areas, including sustainable environment and energy; land use and transportation planning; urban redevelopment and its social equity implications; economic development policy; property rights; infrastructure planning; and government finance. Since its creation, PCC has hosted more than 257 visiting scholars from China.

In the past year alone, scholars from the PCC have published 79 articles in China and nine in the U.S. including “Exploring the Association between Urban Form and Air Quality in China” in the Journal of Planning Education and Research and “Are we planning for sustainable disaster recovery? Evaluating recovery plans after the Wenchuan earthquake” in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.

The first article asked the question “What is the relationship between urban planning and air quality in China?” Rapid growth and greatly expanded motor vehicle ownership and usage have contributed to serious air pollution across China. In 2013, 96 percent of key cities did not meet the national ambient air quality standard. In 2014 alone, Beijing endured more than 20 days with almost ten times the national ambient air quality limit, causing public health issues. Scholars from Huazhong University of Science and PCC found that greater population density, more centralized development and better street accessibility have a significant correlation with lower concentrations of air pollutants, and that higher levels of urban sprawl may have a negative impact on air quality.

The second article examined local recovery plans in the aftermath of the 2008 “Great Wenchuan earthquake” that took more than 69,000 lives and left about 4.8 million people homeless. Through a National Science Foundation-funded grant, planning documents from the affected areas were analyzed and evaluated, and in-depth interviews with government officials, planners and researchers were conducted. PCC scholars found that the local recovery plans do not appear to have sufficiently incorporated concepts of sustainability. The article goes on to reveal five challenges in the recovery plans and fours steps to improve the local disaster recovery planning process.

Through the PCC, UNC has signed several agreements with Chinese universities such as Peking University and the Harbin Institute of Technology, among others. These agreements have helped initiate joint conferences, student and faculty exchanges, publication translations and research development.