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Utilities networks and urban fabric in China: the quest for an environmentalization in the framework of an accelerated development

Thesis defense of Rémi Curien1: Services essentiels en réseaux et fabrique urbaine en Chine : la   quête d’une environnementalisation dans le cadre d’un développement accéléré – Enquêtes à Shanghai, Suzhou et Tianjin (Utilities networks and urban fabric in China: the quest for an environmentalization in the framework of an accelerated development – Field surveys in Shanghai, Suzhou and Tianjin)

Members of the Jury

  • Sabine Barles, Professor of urban planning, Université Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, president of the thesis committee.
  • Catherine Chevauché, Deputy Director of Research, Innovation and Sustainable Development at Safege, Suez Environnement, examiner.
  • Olivier Coutard, CNRS Research Director, LATTS, supervisor.
  • François Gipouloux, CNRS Research Director, UMR 8173 Chine, Corée, Japon (EHESS), referee.
  • Dominique Lorrain, CNRS Research Director, LATTS, examiner.
  • Franck Scherrer, Professor of geography and urban planning, Université de Montréal, referee.
  • Zou Huan, Professor of architecture and urban planning, Tsinghua University, examiner.


Environmentalising the country’s development without significantly changing the pace of economic and urban growth: such is the difficult challenge set since 2006 by the Chinese authorities to deal with the increasing pressure bearing on natural environment and major environmental damage caused by accelerated development. China is probably the only country in the world where a goal of energy and environmental sobriety in the provision of urban utilities (water, waste-water, electricity, gas, heating, waste management) is so vigorously sought in circular economy policies, more specifically in eco-industrial parks and eco-cities projects, in the context of a strong and extended economic and urban development. Based on an investigation conducted in Shanghai, Suzhou and Tianjin, three cities at the forefront of transformations in China, and combined with a study of the national framework and the overall situation in the country, the thesis aims to analyze the substance and the forms of the urban utilities’ environmentlisation implemented in China. Our research shows that the ambitious Chinese policies of urban utilities’ environmentalisation leads in the cities to a partial improvement in the environmental quality of their provision, while the horizon of sobriety and circular economy remains distant. The prevalence of the developmentalist urban fabric stands structurally in the way of the emergence of resources reuse-oriented alternative technical systems to conventional networks. The urban utilities’ environmentalisation path taken in the Chinese cities is too technocentric and too exogenous to urban planning for the environmentalisation and especially the quest for sobriety to be more substantial. Operationally, these findings encourage a greater integration of utilities’ provision issues in the planning and development of cities, both in China and beyond the Chinese context.


November, 21, 2014, at 2:30 pm


Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (Cité Descartes, 6-8 Avenue Blaise Pascal, 77455 Champs-sur-Marne, France) – Amphithéâtre Navier

If you wish to attend  this event, please contact Rémi Curien (


Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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Shanghai’s point redemption scheme for residence permit

Translation by Chen Yang

Zhongguo zuida chengshi Shanghai ronghua huji jian bing  中国最大城市上海融化户籍坚冰 , 20 June 2013 [Accessed 10 July 2013]

The Chinese central government work report of 2013 stated that reform of the household registration system, social management and relevant systems will be accelerated. Registration of the rural population as permanent urban residents will be conducted in an orderly manner, gradually ensuring that permanent urban residents have access to basic urban public services and offering an equitable environment for general freedom of movement and contentment in living and working.

The Shanghai government announced on June 19 that the new “Regulation on Shanghai residence permit management” would go into force on July 1, introducing the “point redemption scheme” to eligible permit holders with stable residence and employment. According to the new regulation, any floating resident who works in Shanghai and pays employee social insurance monthly will accumulate 3 points every year; accumulate 30 points when his/her profession is on the Shanghai skilled occupation demand list and he/she works in accordance with his/her respective profession; accumulate a maximum of 140 points according to his/her professional and technical title; accumulate a maximum of 110 points according to advanced education; accumulate a maximum of 20 points when the resident works and lives in a prioritised rural developing area; etc. As soon as the score reaches 120 points, residence is awarded with social insurance and education for children; for instance, children living in Shanghai with their parents can participate in Shanghai’s entrance examination for senior high school and university.

For residents who are employed in the low-end service industry, the new regulation offers them better public service, especially children’s education, so long as they have lived in Shanghai for a sufficient period of time. Most migrant workers prefer that their children be educated in Shanghai and attend local entrance examination for senior high school and university, no matter how hard they have to work to stay in Shanghai.

For residents that work as white-collars in a company, the new Regulation allows the possibility to keep their rural household account while enjoying urban public services. Previously, they would consider carefully whether they should shift their account to Shanghai or not, because they all share a bonus thanks to their hold of land in their hometown, therefore the financial loss is considerable if they shift. However, the impact on their children’s education also must be considered if they don’t shift.

Min Lu, economist at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, believes that the relaxation of the household registration policy will promote fairness, on one hand – the external floating population contributes to urban development and therefore deserves equal access to urban public services – on the other hand, it will promote economic growth and harmonious social development, attracting high-end labour to accelerate urban innovation transition and low-end labour to meet the demand of the service industry and to ease labour cost.

Chang Min Sun, researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, believes that Shanghai’s reform of household registration marks one critical step in breaking the urban-rural dualistic structure and is a significant turning point. The conventional population management system is based on household location management. However, the system will progressively move to residents location management following the further reform of residence permits.

Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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The growth of development zones and the urban planning strategies in Suzhou

Accelerated urban growth, the extension of huge new development zones, integrated industrial-urban projects: all these urban transformations, which have been taking place in Suzhou for nearly thirty years, are a good illustration of urban transformations in the coastal regions of China. Through the study of the Prefecture-City of Suzhou, one can largely measure the evolution of urban planning and development strategies, models and processes in China.

Located in the southern part of Jiangsu Province (the so-called “Sunan”) and adjacent to the Municipality of Shanghai, Suzhou is famous primarily for its historical role: it was the capital of China, is known the world over for its classical gardens and was the manufacturing and commercial centre of the Yangtze Delta up to the time of the first Opium War (1839-1842). Then, during the period of Western domination, Suzhou gradually declined, while Shanghai prospered. Since the 1990s, Suzhou has experienced a dramatic revival and has become one of the most attractive and dynamic cities in China, as well as a major export-oriented industrial centre1 . During the 1980s, the authorities in Suzhou took the decision to intensively develop new industrial and urban zones around the old centre, thus preserving the historic city from extensive restructuring (under pressure from very active local architects), a rare – if not unique – event in China. Since 1985, many development zones have been created across Suzhou’s 8500 km² wide territory, which today includes about 10 million inhabitants.  Some of these development zones are among the most important in China: Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), Suzhou New District (SND), Kunshan ETDZ, Wujiang Economic Development Area, Zhangjiagang Tariff-Free District2.

What are the driving forces behind this accelerated transformation, and what is the logic that underlies it?

In 1979, the new Chinese President Deng Xiaoping and his government observed the poor state of China’s economy and the inefficiency of state-owned enterprises. The main causes they identified were a lack of capital and expertise, and insufficient technological development. In order to solve these problems, they undertook “Chinese economic reforms”: the introduction of market mechanisms and opening to foreign capital, pro-urban policies and the liberalization of real estate. They singled out a model based on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI): attracting foreign investment seemed to them to be the best way to inject capital, advanced technology and management skills into the Chinese economy, and eventually to generate growth, boost local economies and develop the country.

Following these reforms introduced by the Chinese central government, during the 1980s Suzhou experienced a turning point in its model of development. Whereas, during the Maoist period, Suzhou (and more generally the Sunan) experienced a domestic market oriented rural industrialization (with the establishment of township and village enterprises), a radically new and different economic model was chosen from 1985 on: the FDI oriented model.  Attracting FDI is now a priority for the authorities of Suzhou. The economic results of this policy are spectacular: Suzhou has become a Prefecture-City that is at the forefront in attracting FDI and generating growth, experiencing an annual GDP growth rate of about 15% between 2000 and 2005, and 12% between 2005 and 2010 (among the highest rates in China).

There is a key factor in implementing this FDI-oriented model: the development zones, which are huge free zones, created and developed to attract foreign investment by means of favourable tax agreements3 . Since 1985, the authorities in Suzhou have opened up large development areas of this sort around the old city (SND, then SIP and others). The creation of these special zones has enabled the city to construct dedicated objects and environments, specially designed for the reception of foreign investment.

These development zones are not only key tools for economic growth, but also major territorial objects, often of considerable size (it is not uncommon for them to occupy dozens of square kilometres), which have become urban poles defining the structure of the Prefecture-City of Suzhou.  They are at the heart of its spatial development and logistical planning: they are not only industrial or business parks, but also important urban entities. During their development in the 1990s and 2000s, after having attracted industries and businesses, they integrated many other urban functions (residential, commercial, administrative, educational, recreational…), constituting hybrid “industrial park-cities”4 .  Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) (Suzhou Gongye Yuan Qu) is the most important of them.  It was created in 1994 by the Chinese central government within the framework of a strategic partnership with Singapore. Located to the east of the old centre of Suzhou, and very close to Shanghai, SIP today comprises an area of 288 km² (nearly three times that of the City of Paris). It first attracted many industries (SIP now includes nearly 10,000 companies), and then developed and incorporated its residential and other urban functions: it now includes about 800,000 inhabitants.

Through the deployment of these “industrial parks”, which in actual fact are new cities, a specific model of development and planning is at work and provides the driving force for Suzhou’s economic and urban boom. The attraction of foreign investment draws urban development into the development zones5 : the jobs thus created generate a need for nearby housing and the attraction of FDI indirectly finances the construction of urban facilities and infrastructures6. This mechanism is reinforced by the intense competition in which the different administrative territories are engaged7 at all levels, whether it be between different development zones, different districts in the Prefecture-City of Suzhou, or between Suzhou and the other Municipalities in Jiangsu (Nanjing , Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang, Yangzhou, Taizhou, Nantong) and Shanghai.

This pattern of development and planning is not specific to Suzhou; Suzhou is an emblematic case which exacerbates the process. (This is due especially to its strategic location in the Yangtze Delta region, at the forefront of Chinese development). The case of Suzhou illustrates the paramount role of development zones in the economic and urban development of Chinese cities, as well as the shift in the type of urban planning models used in China since the 1980s8. Whereas, prior to the turning point in 1978, spatial planning followed a technical rationality (to carry out the national economic plan), from the 1980s it completely changed its function, approach and purpose, becoming essentially a market-oriented instrument for economic competitiveness9. This shift has led to ever more serious problems of territorial coherence and environmental degradation.

  1. Liang S. and Zhang T. (2011), “Urban Metabolism in China – Achieving Dematerialization and Decarbonization in Suzhou”, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 15, n° 3 []
  2. Wei D.Y.H. and al. (2009) , “Globalizing Regional Development in Sunan, China: Does Suzhou Industrial Park Fit a Neo-Marshallian District Model?”, Regional Studies, Vol. 43, Issue 3 []
  3. These development zones can be regarded as the daughters of the “special economic zones” that were created in China in the early 1980s. []
  4. Geng Y. and Hengxin Z. (2009), “Industrial park management in the Chinese environment”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 17, Issue 14 []
  5. Even the names of these entities (in Chinese and in English) – Suzhou Industrial Park / Suzhou Gongye Yuanqu for example -, which are lacking any residential or urban dimension, embody and make explicit the logical mechanism: despite their pronounced urban features, these development zones are first and foremost industrial parks that are designed to attract FDI, and only then are seen as “cities” with employees and residents. []
  6. Pereira A.A., 2004, “The Suzhou industrial park experiment: the case of China–Singapore governmental collaboration”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 13, Issue 38  []
  7. Chinese political chief executives are, indeed, evaluated mainly according to the level of economic growth in the territory that they have administered during the previous five years (every five years, they automatically have to change positions). The chief executives who progress the fastest in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party-State are those who accomplish the fastest development for their territory. []
  8. Ma L. (2004) , “Economic reforms, urban spatial restructuring, and planning in China”, Progress in Planning 61, 237-260 []
  9.  Wu, F. (2007), “Re-orientation of the city plan: Strategic planning and design competition in China”, Geoforum 38, 379-392 []

Rémi Curien

Ph.D. Candidate in urban planning at LATTS (Ecole des Ponts ParisTech - Paris Est) and at Suez Environnement

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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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