Author Archives: Claire Behar

About Claire Behar

• Former Data Analyst on the project URBACHINA • Data Science Innovator • Women in Tech Advocate • Speaker

The ecological effects of China’s urbanization: water pollution in Shanghai

 The problem of water pollution can be found throughout China, mainly due to agricultural and domestic waste products resulting from urbanization.  Indeed, since the late 1970s, China has been experiencing a period of economic reform and expansion accompanied by widespread urbanization.

The quality of China’s lake and river water are classified according to the country’s environmental quality standards for surface water. The ranking is organized in order of increasing pollution levels (based on the concentrations of 30 substances): from Grade I to Grade V, indicating good, fairly good, slightly polluted, poor, and hazardous.

Grade II and Grade III water are suitable for drinking, swimming, and household use; Grade IV water is acceptable for industrial use; Grade V water is only acceptable for agricultural irrigation.  There is also a category for the worst water, which is unsuitable for any use.

The map below shows the volume of the water supply (in millions of cubic meters) that does not meet the supply standards for each province. We can see that Shanghai province has more than 4000 million cubic meters, which does not conform to the Chinese environmental quality standards. According to the map, the city of Shanghai is located in one of the three worst areas in terms of water quality standards.

The map was produced by the World Bank using the Ministry of Water Resources survey data from 2000 to 2003. The multi-year coverage allows statisticians to take into account annual variations due to rainfall and other factors.

The graph shows that the percentage of water with quality levels above Category III has steadily increased, but this was the case only on remote islands and at the estuary of the Yangtze River. Within the central urban districts and most of the suburban areas, where extensive treatment and ecological rehabilitation were carried out, the percentage of water in Categories IV and V tended to decrease. However, the percentage of water classified as “the worst water” tended to increase, indicating a very sharp decline in water quality1. 

Moreover, a study carried out by the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau in 2001 revealed that water quality in the city centre has been improving since the 1990s. However, water quality in suburban and rural areas has deteriorated, due to the transfer of factories from the city centre to suburban and rural areas2.

Since the year 2000, a series of laws concerning environmental protection have been approved by the Chinese government. However, water pollution is still excessively high. A 1999 State Environment Protection Administration survey  revealed that 86% of the Chinese believed that poor law enforcement was the main cause of environmental degradation3. This can be explained by the “fragmented authoritarism”(( Sinkule and Ortolano, Implementing Environmental Policy in China, pp.12-19)) of the Chinese political system, which is indeed very fragmented. In actual fact, the local governments do not usually abide by the decision of the central government, considering that economic development is the main priority. Furthermore,  the environmental protection bureaus (EPBs or, in Chinese, “difang huanbaoju”) are subordinated to the local governement, which does not provide them with enough financing. As a consequence, they do not have sufficient staff to carry out their work satisfactorily.  In addition to this, the tendency in Chinese culture to save face and thus to maintain harmonious relationship with other people means that the EPBs is reluctant to impose harsh sanctions on polluting firms if the local government no longer supports them4. A Pollution Discharge Fee system was also set up, but the fees are too low. The idea is that industrial units which violate standards on emissions and effluents must pay fees for emissions. However, the municipal government of Shanghai did not want to slow down economic growth by confoming to the policies of other government agencies such as the Finance Bureau.

China’s water pollution is a major concern amongst all the environmental problems. This phenomenon concerns every area in China, and especially Shanghai. Water quality is satisfactory in the city centre, but poor in the suburban areas, as a result of the transfer of factories to these zones. Despite the environmental laws, the local government’s actions are limited by the fact that the economic growth is generated by industries.  Water pollution spreads from rivers and lakes to the coast, and from surface water to groundwater. A significant fact is that 300 million Chinese lack adequate access to clean drinking water. Most of China’s surface water is unfit for human consumption, and some is not even clean enough for industrial use. With this in mind, one wonders when China will change its destructive ways, knowing that, already, more than twenty years of intense pollution will be hard to erase.


  1. Hao Zhang Xiangrong Wanga, Hon H. Hob, Yi Yong, (2008) Eco-health evaluation for the Shanghai metropolitan area during the recent industrial transformation (1990–2003) in: Journal of Environmental Management  88: pp.1047–1055 []
  2. Ibid []
  3. Wu, Changhua and Robbins, Alicia (2000) An overview of Accountability Issues in China’s Environmental Governance,Sinosphere, Vol.3, Issue 2 p.38 []
  4. Lee, Seungho (2006), Water and Development in China: The Political Economy of Shanghai Water Policy []

Claire Behar

• Former Data Analyst on the project URBACHINA • Data Science Innovator • Women in Tech Advocate • Speaker

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Satellite cities, a good planning tool?

“Better City, Better Life”: This was the theme of the Shanghai World Expo 2010. The main issue raised was how to create better urban living environment and a better society. With this in mind, one wonders how Shanghai has handled its own urban development, cantered on the “One City, Nine Towns” plan.

In order to alleviate the city centre from the pressures of enormous growth, the new Shanghai Master Plan (1999-2020) has introduced the “1-9-6-6 Model”. A new concept of urban structure was put into place which redefined the hierarchy of the Shanghai area in terms of a three-layered model. The three-layered structure is represented by one city centre oriented towards the service sector, nine decentralized “key cities” that serve as administrative centres (300,000 to 1 000 000 residents) and sixty small towns (50 000 to 150 000 residents)1. Six hundred villages (2000 residents) are also included, completing the “1-9-6-6 Model”. The idea of this plan is to re-house one million people from the city centre in the outlying areas2. Construction in Fengjing (枫泾) new town, Jinshan District, Shanghai, Behar ClaireThis master plan also aims to control the urban sprawl.

Although most of the new towns are now more or less completed, there are plans to build hundreds of thousands of homes and facilities in addition to the present ones. Never before was an urban plan realized on such a huge scale and in such a short time3. Looking at the first results, can we conclude that satellites cities are a good planning tool? One of the first observations that can be made is that there is a striking lack of residents in the new towns. For instance, according to the new Shanghai Master Plan, the  projected population of Chengqiao New Town is 120 000 in 2020  However, there were only a few thousand residents in 20104. There are many reasons for this “ghost town” phenomenon.

First, speculation on new town housing means that low-income Chinese people are unable to afford a flat. The exotic character of the new town architecture, inspired by Western culture, gives the impression that it is a safe investment5. Fearing constant price increases, foreign investors and wealthy Chinese are buying up large amounts of housing.  Additionally, private developers, rather than the local government, are buying land-use rights in new towns. Developers prefer to build luxury apartments instead of proposing a mixed-income housing complex. As a result, there are up to five times as many unoccupied properties as in metropolises of a comparable size in other countries6.

Secondly, new towns, on their own, are not attractive enough when compared to the city centre. Private developers allow the architects a lot of freedom: the director of Atkins Design Studio, Paul Rice, who designed Thames Town, declared: “We had some fun doing this. We broke the rules for south orientation and created a pedestrian-centred town, with a human and intimate scale”(( Ibid,p.120)).

Western conceptions do not really correspond to Chinese standards. In fact, Feng Shui, the Chinese philosophy based on the interaction between man and his living space, is a key component in Chinese construction. According to Feng Shui, the idea is to achieve a harmonization of the flows in a living space and this has to be taken into account during the urban planning phases. It is also important that the building be south-facing. This is not the case in new towns. Moreover, according to the Chinese tradition, buildings enclose the space: this logic of the “self-contained” is in opposition with Western logic, where buildings do not enclose an inner space. New towns are based on Western models, so there is no buffer space to create a gradual transition towards privacy from the outside to the inside.

Finally, there is a striking lack of urban infrastructures, especially public transports. Easy access to the city centre would encourage Chinese people to live in the new towns. Although the construction of an extensive metro system is planned for 2020, the original idea was that new residents would work in the new towns. So many of the metro connections are going to be completed so late that commuters are reluctant to settle in new towns, as living there often means that it is necessary to have a car for the daily commute from home to work.

In Problems of megacities and construction of satellite cities – policy suggestions to the  construction of our satellite cities, the author JunYang, compares satellite-cities in Western countries and in China. He also makes some policy suggestions concerning satellite-cities in China, especially for Beijing and Shanghai. The main idea is to provide satellite-cities with every possible means to fulfil their role in reducing the pressure on city centres, including the pressure of population, traffic and housing.  Jun Yang recommends that every satellites city have an industry in order to maintain sustainable economic development. Even though some new towns are specialized in an industry, such as Anting New Town with its automobile manufacturing, it is not the case for all.

The author also maintains that a high-speed transport system should be implemented, to provide a good connection to the city centre. A high-speed railway system seems to be the best solution, as it can handle a high volume of freight, runs at high speed, and is low cost, comfortable and safe, with low pollution7.

Initial findings show that a lot can be done to improve this situation, even if speculation seems hard to control. Another neglected problem concerns the “floating population” (migrant workers without an urban hukou), are not allowed to buy a house in the new towns, and so are either poorly housed by their employer or share a rented accommodation8. This “floating population” cannot take advantage of the new towns and are deprived of the opportunity to improve their standard of living.

The new towns “together form an exciting new laboratory where very different influences are melted”(( Harry Den Hartog (2009) , 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism , Amsterdam/Delft)) and the coming years will give us the true results of this paradigm shift that is shaking up urban development in Shanghai.

  1. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns – searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.28, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []
  2. Ibid []
  3. Harry Den Hartog (2009) , 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism , Amsterdam/Delft []
  4. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns – searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.128, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []
  5. Ibid,p.74 []
  6. Ibid,p.70 []
  7. YANG Jun, Problems of megacities and construction of satellite cities – policy suggestions to the construction of our satellite cities []
  8. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns – searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.74, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []

Claire Behar

• Former Data Analyst on the project URBACHINA • Data Science Innovator • Women in Tech Advocate • Speaker

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