Groei en krimp in China

On 18 februari 2017, in stedelijkheid, wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Gelezen in China City Planning Review nr 4 2016:


Mao Qizhi, Long Ying en Wu Kang onderzochten de recente veranderingen die optraden in de dichtheid van de bevolking in China aan de hand van twee bevolkingstellingen, die van 2000 en 2010. Ze publiceerden er onlangs over in China City Planning Review. In ‘Spatio-Temporal Changes of Population Density and Urbanization Pattern in China 2000-2010’ beschrijven ze een dynamiek van snel toenemende verdichting, zeg maar eentje van super-urbanisatie.  Townships met meer dan 4.000 mensen per vierkante kilometer telden in China in 2000 op tot in totaal 158,7 miljoen mensen; tien jaar later was hun aantal al gegroeid tot 230,9 miljoen. Townships met meer dan 1000 inwoners per kilometer telden in 2010 nog op tot 375,8 miljoen mensen; tien jaar later waren dat er al 516,2 miljoen. Vrijwel alle groei deed zich voor in en direct rond de allergrootste steden, en dan ook nog eens in de allerhoogste dichtheden. Townships met dichtheden van 1000 tot 2000 personen bleven daarentegen stabiel. In sommige delen van het land nam de bevolkingsdichtheid juist af.  De belangrijkste drie stedenclusters liggen in het oosten: de Pearl River Delta, de Yangtze River Delta en de Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Region. De eerste twee hebben sterk de neiging om aaneen te groeien in een uniforme hoge dichtheid, dat geldt nog niet voor de derde.

In totaal onderscheidt het National New Urbanization Plan 2014-2020 van de Chinese centrale overheid, vastgesteld op 16 maart 2014, niet meer dan 21 stedenclusters. Hier moet de urbanisatie overwegend plaatsvinden. Dus naast de drie genoemde megasteden aan de oostkust gaat het om 18 ‘ontwikkelingsgebieden’. Met hun onderzoek stellen de auteurs vast dat Shandong schiereiland en Liaodong schiereiland in het oosten en Central Plains Economic Region en Chengdu-Chongqing region in het Midden-Westen inmiddels verdichte zones kennen die gunstig zijn voor metropoolvorming. De overige 14 ontwikkelingsgebieden zijn nog niet zover. Dichtheden blijven hier nog achter. “As for the other 10-20 key urbanization areas which are currently under discussions, the cultivation of market forces and the guidance of national planning are more necessary for orderly development to be important growth poles facilitating balanced spatial development in the future.” Hoe moeten we deze ontwikkeling begrijpen? Het totale oppervlak waarop 516,2 miljoen Chinezen leven beslaat niet meer dan 186.976 km2. Nederland, met zijn 17 miljoen inwoners, telt 41.500 km2. In China leven dus 516 miljoen mensen op een oppervlak dat niet groter is dan vier keer Nederland. Had men het Nederlandse verstedelijkingsmodel gevolgd, dan waren dat er niet meer dan 68 miljoen geweest. Nee, het Chinese model is veel stedelijker en ook veel duurzamer.

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East Asia’s rapid urban growth

On 8 juni 2016, in bestuur, duurzaamheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in East Asia’s Changing Urban Landscape (2016) of the World Bank:


Should be front page news: with its 42 million inhabitants, Pearl River Delta is the largest city in the world, larger even than Tokyo. Urbanisation in East Asia in general is growing very fast. According to the World Bank the total urban population of the region increased from 579 million in 2000 to 778 million in 2010, an average annual growth rate of 3.0 percent. Much of this growth was driven by China, which has the largest urban population in the region (and the world), 477 million urban inhabitants in 2010, more than the urban population of the rest of the region combined. And more urbanisation is expected to come. The good news is: density in these Asian megacities is high, and it is increasing in general. Urban areas in East Asian cities are now 1,5 as dense as the average for the world’s urban areas, twice as dense as European cities, and even 50 times denser than (sub)urban areas in the USA. So these cities are far more sustainable than European and American cities.  “The pace, scale, and form of East Asia’s urbanization will have long-lasting effects on the region’s social, economic, and environmental future. As urbanization rapidly transforms the face of East Asia and the lives of its citizens, urban policy makers and planners have an important role to play in ensuring that urban expansion, and the economic growth it brings, is efficient, sustainable, and inclusive.” Sure.

The World Bank thinks metropolitan governance is key. Of course, the bank is right. But the chapter on governance in the report is rather one sided. The bank thinks consolidation is needed, with special bodies to provide specific services in these metropolitan areas. “Overcoming issues related to metropolitan fragmentation requires considering tradeoffs between localized and centralized administrative authority. Cities must adopt flexible approaches that adapt to urban growth and evolve to meet the changing needs of citizens.” Sounds great, but when it comes to giving examples the bank tends to prefer centralized authority, more than adaptation and flexibility. No examples of  bottom-up approaches, new forms of collaboration, open and inclusive planning, localized authority, building a civil society. Instead, annexation, and dissolving lower tiers of government is what the bank is promoting. We know these arrangements are no real help. We can do far better. This, I told my students last week. They were excited.

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17 million, at last

On 21 maart 2016, in demografie, by Zef Hemel

Read in the Dutch newspapers today:

We Dutch expected to reach a population of 20 million in the year 2000, we only got 17 million in 2016. Today, nr. 17.000.000 is welcomed. Still, people do think this country is crowded. True, all over the Netherlands commuters are stuck in heavy traffic jams, and by building new roads and adding ever more trains we still are not able to solve this problem. We seem to prefer to sit in our cars, waiting and looking at our spoiled countryside, feeling bored.We have become masters in infrastructure building; the number of fly-overs has doubled, tripled, over the last twenty years, but we lack real nodes. While the number of centres has exploded, our cities lack vitality. Most of our cities are tiny compared to what you find in other countries. If you drive through them, they’re all sleepy places. Culture is not concentrated, art and culture, all based on the principles of the welfare state, are evenly distributed and heavily subsidized. With the exception of the inner cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, there are no crowded streets, no high rise, no queue formations, no mixed use, no busy, highly specialized districts, no metro systems. Most of us drive cars. Urbanity is missing.

Just imagine the Netherlands were one big city. Then one could compare it with Moscow, Istanbul or Los Angeles, all three cities of 17 million inhabitants. The urban economy of LA is double the size of the Netherlands, in terms of economic growth Moscow and Istanbul are overhauling the Low Countries. If we had followed them, the rest of the Netherlands would be nature reserves now. Would anybody then have thought this country is too crowded? These 17-million cities are true beehives, economic powerhouses, with great public transport, wonderful culture, a thriving 24-hours economy, and beautiful parks and nature. All their economies are booming, migrants get relatively easily integrated. So this feeling of crowdedness in the Netherlands is largely based on spatial preferences for garden cities, small towns, low densities, suburban living, say, a very expensive and brittle spatial configuration generating a dominant feeling of crowdedness. The Netherlands is the least densily built city in the world.    

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Filling in the blanks

On 15 oktober 2015, in boeken, duurzaamheid, economie, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘Ghost cities of China’ (2014) of Wade Shepard:


So how does the story end? In ‘Ghost Cities of China’, the New York based writer Wade Shepard tells ‘the story of cities without people in the world’s most populated country’. “Between now and then, the country’s urban population will leap to over one billion, as the central government kicks its urbanization initiative in the overdrive.” Surely it will not be a happy end. So I read the full book, and I must say it is different from what you might expect after reading the text on the cover. Shepard ends his story like this: “China’s urbanization race cannot go on forever. Indeed the white flags are now being waved announcing the final lap.” For his conclusion Shepard referred to an announcement of the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resource in September 2014, which states that new urban development will be forbidden unless a city can prove that its population is too dense, or some kind of natural disaster occurs. That means the end of fast urbanization. Shepard: “The next fifteen years will be about filling in the blanks; much of the building has been done, it’s now time to do something with it.”

It’s no coïncidence that just a few months later, in August 2015, the Chinese stock market crashed and the economic growth of the Eastern empire started slowing down.  The economist Coen Teulings, professor at the universities of Cambridge and Amsterdam, came to the same conclusion. In NRC Handelsblad of 19 August 2015 he wrote that this crisis was no surprise to him either. Like in Japan and South Korea forty years ago, the fast economic growth of China was highly based on urbanization. “That growth slows down when all the migrants have moved to the cities, thus leaving an empty countryside.” If it wants to continue to grow, he adds, China needs a different strategy, based on consumption and innovation. “China should step into a more consumption-driven growth strategy with adequate social services.” As a planner I would add that by building ghost cities urban planning in China has not finished yet: now it is time to improve the Chinese megacities. Then the economy might keep on growing. I think my proposal also would be more sustainable than just promoting more consumption.

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Dutch enlightenment

On 13 oktober 2015, in economie, filosofie, geschiedenis, by Zef Hemel

Read in NRC handelsblad of 9 August 2015:


Early August this year, some thousand historians gathered in Rotterdam for the 14nth ISECS conference on ‘The Long Eighteenth Century’ (1650-1815). A long report of the conference proceedings I read in the science supplement of NRC Handelsblad, written by Dirk Vlasblom. Fascinating stuff. It was about how capitalism and freedom were being invented and promoted, and how they were to be seen as ‘natural’, thus building trust among traders in order to foster trade. “Capitalism is also a product of imagination,” professor Inger Leemans from the Free University Amsterdam stressed in his lecture on ‘The Nature of the Economy’. Vlasblom: “A wide variety of concepts is needed in order to let the capitalist system look ‘natural’, to build trust amongst merchants in the economic process and to serve them with a compelling self image.” An enormous engraving of the exchange building of Amsterdam (1693), made by Casparus Commelin, accompanies the newspaper article (picture). The exchange was the first building in the world where bond shares were being traded, a true ‘beehive’ according to the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel.

The Dutch Republic was a special case. It was a unique confederation of city-states in a sea of mighty kingdoms, led by multicultural Amsterdam. Till 1720 the decentralized urban republic was an intellectual space where radical new thoughts could be published, exchanged and freely discussed. It ended, when conservative powers started dominating the Low Countries. The balance of power was no longer favoring Amsterdam, but the countryside. The urban population started shrinking, immigration was no longer possible, an intellectual braindrain was being felt, nationalism marked a narrowing space of thought, centralisation of power became the new political trend. The proclamation of the Dutch kingdom in 1815 was the outcome of this conservative, anti-intellectual and anti-urban national trend. The closing lecture of professor Wijnand Mijnhardt from Utrecht University (‘The Swansong of the Dutch Enlightenment’) I found reveiling, utterly relevant too. In what times are we living?

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Asian style

On 12 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, economie, migratie, stedelijkheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in China Digital Times of 26 June 2014:


What the Russians are trying to do in and around Greater Moscow (17 million inhabitants), the Chinese are doing even on a grander scale with Beijing (22 million inhabitants): building an Asian megalopolis. I remember the session in the Intercontinental Hotel in Moscow in April 2012, when a delegation from the Chinese capital informed the Russians about their plans to transform Beijing into a city of 110 million inhabitants. We were all perplexed. Since then president Mr. Xi Jinping took over. He changed the policy of the Hu-Wen administration, which was focused on accelerating development in the inland regions (‘Go West’), and called for integrated, coordinated development of the region around Beijing. This megalopolis will become the third economic power house of China, after Shanghai’s Yangtze River Delta and the Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta, two spatial-political products of Den Xiaoping’s administration in the 1980’s. Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei province are collaborating now on a huge scale, it’s a daring experiment of the new leadership all the rest of the world should have a closer look at.

Just imagine the European Union would force the Netherlands to collaborate with the Belgians and the government of Germany to build a World City out of the triangle Amsterdam-Brussels-Cologne: a megalopolis of more than 60 million inhabitants, doubling its size the coming twenty years thanks to migration from the Middle East. Schemes of densification of the extremely distributed suburban landscape would aim the creation of an economic power house on the North-Western shores of Europe, comparable to Greater London (10 million) and Ile de France (12 million). It will never happen of course. This is Europe, not Asia. But maybe Mr. Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, aiming economic growth as well as sustainability, will at least come up with a proposal to transform the Dutch fragmented suburban landscape into a densily built city-state of 17 million inhabitants. How will the nation react? Negative, I suppose. It will happen anyway.

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Flanders 2055

On 9 oktober 2015, in duurzaamheid, by Zef Hemel

Read in Het Parool of 3 October 2015:

He was the last speaker at the conference last week, in the House of Lords (Eerste Kamer) in The Hague, just after me. The journalist who interviewed him was in the audience. Jonathan Holslag (1981) is professor at the Free University of Brussels, he’s an expert in China. Like all the speakers that day he focused on the future of the Netherlands. His theme: geopolitics. He was very pessimistic, I remember. Two days later I read the interview with him in Het Parool, a Dutch newspaper. Pessimistic too. What I didn’t know is that he had just published a book on the future of Flanders, Belgium. In ‘Vlaanderen 2055’ he presented his dream of future Flanders. When I met him in The Hague we discussed his view on cities. According to him, megacities are horrible inventions, inhuman, not sustainable. He had read my blog, he told me. He wanted to discuss with me why the hell I wanted to double the size of Amsterdam. He simply could not understand. But interesting though it was. What did he say in the interview? “The only possibility is to return to a society where we can improve ourselves en live together on a human scale.”

Is his view utopian, romantic? Holslag: “I think we feel better in communities that are small, where buildings are not too big. There is a big risk that cosmopolitan people project their wishes and ideas on the rest of the population.” So yes, Holslag is romantic, anti-urban, like most European thinkers through history. But what he stands for is also unrealistic, simply not true. Holslag: “Innovation and scientific breakthroughs mostly come from university-cities that have no more than een few hundred thousand inhabitants. Campusses of Google and others look like villages, not megacities.” Nonsense of course. That holds only if your focus is narrow. Holslag is a European romantic, living in one of the most unsustainable economies of the world. Why? Because Belgium is one of the least densily built, one of the most suburbanised, oil-consuming countries, the country is a horrible scenario come true. Like the Netherlands, Belgium would better build a megacity now.

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