Many Chinese officials, including at the highest levels, recognize the need to move beyond the automobile. My firm has done a great deal of planning work in China, both for private clients and on behalf of U.S. foundations seeking to nudge this rising power in a more sustainable direction. Over the past decade, I've spent dozens of hours in meetings with Chinese planners and local politicians who understand that their country is on a collision course with Mother Nature. They are often already intimately familiar with my firm's eight principles of city design, from promoting walkable neighborhoods accessible by high-quality transit to ensuring mixed-use zoning and dense networks of streets and paths. On one trip in 2011, Qiu Baoxing, vice minister of housing and urban-rural development, as well as the author of several books on ecology and urban development, told me that reducing auto dependence and enhancing transit and walkable neighborhoods are the key to China's urban future.
IF A BUDDING AMERICAN-STYLE love of cars provided the impetus for China's urban reinvention, Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret supplied the intellectual inspiration. Better known as Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, with his vision of isolated modernist towers soaring above orderly streets below, left an indelible mark on the field of urban planning before his death in 1965. To Le Corbusier, the organically developed cities of his era, with their row houses and street-level retail, were messy, blighted, and inhumane. (He called New York "a catastrophe" and proposed replacing its ragged cityscape with one enormous "Cartesian skyscraper.") "Space and light and order," he once said. "Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep." To Jacobs, the American urbanist, Le Corbusier's vision of the city was "like a wonderful mechanical toy," but one based on "nothing but lies." Still, his ideas proved irresistible to a generation of planners struggling to redesign American cities that had been irrevocably changed by the advent of the automobile, and those ideas provided a ready model as Chinese cities followed a similar path.
Le Corbusier's weapon of mass urban destruction was the superblock, laid out in his utopian 1935 manifesto La Ville Radieuse, a form China's efficiency-minded traffic engineers have wholeheartedly embraced. Based on a network of wide, arterial streets, China's superblocks feature large, single-use development areas, often more than a quarter-mile per side and designed like barracks, inconveniently located far from workplaces and shopping centers. The goal is to move cars efficiently -- people are an afterthought. The ironic result is an alienating landscape that makes walking and biking difficult, which in turn increases congestion on the streets, with all the attendant social and environmental costs. Culturally, it's a tragedy for Chinese cities, which are seeing traditional neighborhoods, where friends and family could easily pop in for tea and conversation, destroyed by misguided development. Now people have to take a crowded bus or, if they're lucky, a car.
The congestion will only get worse. Almost 64 percent of the total population will live in urban areas by 2025, McKinsey projects, up from 48 percent in 2010; at that time, there will be 221 Chinese cities with more than 1 million people. Can China afford it? Transportation already accounts for 40 percent of China's oil demand, according to the International Energy Agency, and is expected to reach 65 percent by 2035. China is the world's largest automobile market, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace projects the country's vehicle fleet could grow from more than 200 million today to as many as 600 million by 2030. By that year, oil consumption is projected to have nearly tripled. Needless to say, finding all those resources is going to be a challenge -- that is, if Chinese cities don't choke on pollution and gridlock first.