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When radical solutions are called for

Updated: 2013-12-20 13:37
By Zhou Wenting ( China Daily Africa)

Academic thinks he has the answer to some of China's most pressing problems

Steve Rayner has a China dream, and it is a very special one at that. In this dream he sees cities with clear blue skies and roads that have been totally freed of private cars.

Rayner, a James Martin professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University's School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, advocates ridding China's roads of private cars as a way of solving the problem of congestion that dogs many Chinese cities.

He is also optimistic about solutions being found to the air pollution that is choking the country's cities, and has some words of advice about treating migrants with the respect they deserve.

There are now about 140 million vehicles in China, or one for every 10 people, and the ratio is forecast to triple by 2030, which will make congestion much worse, Rayner says.

"So I think one of the things that China can take the lead on is taking all private cars off the road and developing driverless cars, which are computer-controlled electric vehicles constantly on the streets," says Rayner, who is also director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at Oxford.

He was in Shanghai on Dec 10 to deliver the inaugural Oxford China Lecture.

When radical solutions are called for

If you want to go from your home to a railway station, he says, you pick up the mobile phone and just say "three people to the railway station" and the computer will program these vehicles to stop to pick you up.

"So there'll be no parking so we can free up all the space we currently use for parking for more productive economic and social activities. Car accident rates will be reduced because computer-operated cars don't have accidents, and congestion will be much less because the progress of the vehicles will be determined by the computerization, which means you will have a continuous traffic flow."

As outlandish as it all may sound, we must have some kind of vision that is radically different from chocking up the city with private cars, he says.

"That's what's going to happen."

Urbanization presents challenges and opportunities for China as the country is in the forefront of the global trend that 75 percent of its people will live in cities by 2050, Rayner says.

"Urbanization is an excellent thing for people, although it presents challenges for humanity."

The rapidity with which China has urbanized in just a few decades is striking, he says. Last year, those living in cities outnumbered those living in the country, yet only 30 years ago those living in cities accounted for just 20 percent of the population.

The extent to which urbanization is being planned in China is impressive, he says.

"It's an explicit policy goal, and urbanization in Europe and North America was not a planned process in the same way."

Cities just grew out of the patterns of industrial development in Europe and of migration and settlement in the United States, he says.

It is common for people to focus on social and environmental problems such as pollution, consumption and accident rates in cities, he says, but in fact a person living in the city has less of an impact on the natural environment than does someone living in the country. That is because those who live in cities travel less, use less energy and have better access to health services.

"Even (with) things such as infectious diseases, although they can spread more rapidly in cities, where the population is more concentrated, you can get medical relief to people more rapidly and immunize people through vaccination against diseases more rapidly."

Cities could potentially be very good for nature as well, Rayner says.

"By concentrating people in high, dense settlements in the city, we can free up land in the countryside for natural processes and for ecosystem services. So I think urbanization is an excellent thing even though there are obviously problems."

Rayner arrived in Shanghai on Dec 6 when the air pollution there was dreadful, with the concentration of PM2.5 surpassing 600 micrograms a cubic meter, deemed hazardous by the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Center.

"The city was almost invisible when I looked out from the hotel room window," says Rayner. But he says he believes the city government will resolve the problem soon.

"If you look at London, which decided to clean up the air in the 1960s, after 150 years of industrialization, it spent 30 years improving the air quality tremendously. So Shanghai, which has had a comparable process of urbanization happening for 30 years, could perhaps resolve the problem of air quality in 10 years."

That will depend on developing and implementing appropriate technologies, he says.

Transition for people who are moving from rural areas to the cities is also a knotty problem, he says, and some of them will feel marginalized and unwelcome and thus behave in anti-social ways, which is a common problem.

"In many places of the world there are people blaming social problems on immigrants who come from outside. Some problems, such as congestion, do become more apparent to people when the concentration is higher, but immigrants are not to blame."

It is the duty of the urban government and communities to raise people out of the transitional situation as rapidly as possible, he says, and the situation provides a political impetus for people to take action to improve.

Instead of excluding and keeping out migrants, cities should integrate them so they will have a sense of belonging and therefore modify their behavior, he says.

"Migrants shouldn't be regarded as a burden. People are resources and are potentially productive. Migrants are usually entrepreneurial and creative and have the drive to improve their life. That's why they got up and moved from where they were."

Migrants do jobs that people who already lived in the place don't want to do, Rayner says.

"For example, without the help of migrants, the health service in Britain would collapse."

City planners should focus on the long term as what they do will dictate the actions of citizens many centuries into the future, he says.

"London's street grid is still determined by decisions made 2,000 years ago by the Romans, who first planned it. Well-designed eco-cities could shape the behavior of the population and act as technological nests to promote sustainable living en masse."

Urban planners should also take into consideration technologies that combine the best of the old and the new, he says, citing traditional floating fishing villages in Asia that provide for a sustainable future.

"Innovative floating buildings inspired by the fishing villages of China, Vietnam and Cambodia are now being considered as a way of adapting to rising sea levels and flooding."

Considering the development of the city, the plan for rural areas to support it is also significant, and should be regarded as part of the system. And ideally expert panels on urban and rural issues should not be separate, he says.

As China has its own experts who are very knowledgeable about its national condition and development path and think deeply about urbanization questions, Rayner believes listening to social scientists and planners should be emphasized in urbanization rather than looking abroad for best practices and lessons.

"The uniquely rapid rate of urbanization and the capacity in the long term in China and the process in many ways is very different from what's happening or has happened in other parts of the world."


 When radical solutions are called for

Steve Rayner says the extent to which urbanization is being planned in China is impressive. Provided to China Daily

(China Daily Africa Weekly 12/20/2013 page32)

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