Suzhou takes the right path for growth
Last Updated: 2014-06-30 07:02 | China Daily
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Chinese livable city turns challenges into great winning opportunities

When the Chinese seaside city of Qingdao built a new commercial business district a decade ago, it rejigged the city. The trouble was that the new Central Business District competed with the old one and, for a time, empty offices and living spaces was the norm.

Beijing went through a similar process about a decade earlier and has continued to expand and grow, always outward. A city that was once encircled by four ring roads now has six, with a seventh under construction.

These cities came up with ideas for new areas, found land and went ahead with building. Planning was, if anything, an afterthought. And what planning was done was short term, a few years at most.

Suzhou did not have the luxury of much extra land, but it did have foresight. And it managed to turn this foresight into a vision that won the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize for 2014 earlier this month. The biennial prize, established by the Singapore government, "honors outstanding achievements and contributions that lead to the creation of livable, vibrant and sustainable urban communities around the world".

"Successful cities require cooperation and collaboration among the public, private and people sectors," says Kishore Mahbubani, in a note as chairman of the nominating committee.

Mahbubani is a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, part of the National University of Singapore. He pointed out that the most successful cities have "a clear vision and an overall strategy to transform themselves at a city-wide level".

"At a strategic level, good governance and able leadership play a vital role in the city's development," he says.

Careful planning is often missing in Asia, where cities are huge and crowded and have had to deal with constraints created by rapid urbanization and fast-growing economies. And some kind of long-term vision is key for a large group of impressive buildings to come together into a cohesive and ultimately livable city.

The previous winner of the prize, in 2012, was New York City, which was recognized for its transformation since the tragic events of 2001 and a development plan that will take it to 2030.

Vancouver, often touted as one of the most livable cities in the world, won a special mention in 2012 as "an exemplary demonstration of strong visioning, community values and long-term planning".

Yokohama, in Japan, is another city that has turned challenges into opportunities. Specially mentioned this year, the city on the outskirts of the Tokyo metropolitan area has a revitalized waterfront and had managed to cut the amount of waste it produces by 43 percent between 2001 and 2010.

All these cities are often picture perfect - idyllic combinations of natural attributes and impressive architecture that facilitate living, rather than getting in its way.

Many cities in Asia, from Hong Kong to Manila and even the impressive Shanghai, too often feel like agglomerations of buildings built by developers whenever there is space.

In China, for example, the common approach to redevelopment has been to find a spot of land to build a new CBD and make it easy for developers to just go ahead and build, says Joe Zhou, head of research for East China at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate management company. Suzhou's approach has been different. Unlike most cities in China, the plan that has guided the development of the city has been in place for more than two decades.

This is difficult to do in China, for a couple of reasons.

One is that the country is managed through five-year plans, which makes longer range planning difficult for lower level authorities that may see priorities change.

Another is that economic and population growth in most of the larger cities in China has generally been too fast to make any type of long-range planning easy.

What Suzhou has done is reverse current practice and focus on building a city that can be enjoyed on foot. There are parks within walking distance of most residential areas and there are community shopping clusters also in walking distance.

"This is quite uncommon in China but it is quite common in Singapore. They copied that from Singapore," says Zhou.

This helps create a more livable city on many levels.

From an aesthetic point of view, gree n and open spaces are always a plus when compared to the crowded urban spaces of Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong.

From a practical standpoint, residents benefit as well. They can walk out of their apartment and head to a park for a stroll or some exercise. Or they can walk to a small and accessible shopping strip that focuses on their day-to-day needs more than it does on the need to stock Louis Vuitton purses or Montblanc pens.

Environmentally, the design of the city also helps because it does not promote driving. Fewer cars are, at least as far as the environment is concerned, never a bad thing.

Most cities in China have traditionally focused on big development plans driven by the real estate developers themselves. These developers have tended to find a large parcel of land in a suburban area somewhere, and then build a multi-purpose complex with a few skyscrapers for residences, a big mall and, somewhere, a park of some kind to meet urban planning guidelines.

But Suzhou does not have much access to suburban lands. It is surrounded by other cities and by lakes and rivers. The land it has at present is all that it will ever be able to use. So the city government has had to work with that. And it made peace with this reality a long time ago, planned around it and stuck with the original plan.

"I would emphasize very consistent planning over time," says Zhou.

Suzhou sits about an hour out of Shanghai, along the corridor that stretches out to Nanjing and represents one of the most heavily populated areas in the world. By no standard is Suzhou a small town.

It is difficult to put exact numbers on the population but according to some estimates, once the migrant population is taken into account, there are about 10.5 million people. The growth has been astounding. In 2000, there were fewer than 1.4 million people in this city famous for its canals.

And yet, Suzhou has plenty of parks surrounded by residential complexes and community shopping areas. These retail clusters are a deviation from the traditional approach most cities in China have taken. This has been to build mas sive shopping malls in preparation for the inevitable mass of drivers - a model perfected in the US where families have multiple cars and a penchant for driving to a hypermall and shopping at huge retail chains.

"Suzhou has been quite successful in terms of developing the new commercial business district while preserving the historical buildings," says Zhou.

The Suzhou Industrial Park, for example, is an example of long-range planning. The blueprints for the successful park were laid out in the 1990s and the park has grown thanks in large part to investment and planning from Singapore.

All this has helped Suzhou emerge as one of the largest recipients of foreign investment in China, which include multinationals like Procter & Gamble, DuPont, Siemens AG, Bayer AG, Philips Electronics NV and Tata Group.

The city's economic output in 2012 was 1.2 trillion yuan ($190 billion), or 114,000 yuan per capita. That is almost four times larger than the average across China.

Shanghai is the richest city in China with fiscal revenue in 2013 of 410 billion yuan, according to the China Investment Network. Suzhou is in sixth place (behind Beijing, Tianjin , Shenzhen and Chongqing) with revenues of 133 billion yuan.

But arguably, Suzhou is much more livable than any of its richer peers, although "livable city" claims are always debatable, depending on the criteria used. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for example, named Zhuhai, on the southern coast of Guangdong, as the most livable city in China ahead of Hong Kong and Hainan Island.

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