Category Archives: Curien, Rémi

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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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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