By Chelsea Eakin
Beijing’s Pinggu District Communist Party Secretary Zhang Jifu is listening attentively, pen in hand. He has gathered nine local government leaders from the Pinggu development and planning, transportation, environmental protection, tourism and park and forest bureaus to get a dose of urban sustainability from some American visitors. “We don’t believe there is a trade-off between growing your economy and sustainability,” says Zhang’s guest, Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Development Commission of Portland, Oregon. Quinton is explaining to the Chinese officials how Portland has surpassed many other U.S. cities in terms of both environmental sustainability and economic growth.
The meeting is happening because Zhang is determined to help Pinggu strike just that kind of balance. He participated in the Paulson Institute’s inaugural Mayors Training Initiative in 2013, and came back to China wanting to bring holistic planning and sustainable practices—everything from bike paths to smart waste water management, organic farming and building energy efficiency—to his district on the outer edge of Beijing. “I got a lot of ideas from the Paulson Institute,” Zhang says, “and we are working on implementing some of those ideas.”
The Paulson Institute worked with Zhang’s team to develop a roadmap for the district’s development—and a sustainable model for China’s ambitious urban development plans. With the right kind of planning, the growth of China’s cities—all the way out to their surrounding edge districts—will underpin the country’s economic transformation from a cheap manufacturing, export-reliant model suffering from environmental challenges to a more sustainable and innovative, services- and consumption-led economy.
The Institute recently produced a recommendation report, with help from the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and other experts, aimed, at helping move Zhang’s vision forward with concrete plans. The report focuses on four key areas: energy efficiency, agribusiness, eco-tourism and water conservation. Portland is cited in the report as an example of a city that has turned former industrial neighborhoods into vibrant, creative communities, while creating new service-oriented jobs. As part of the Pinggu project, the Paulson Institute invited the Portland economic development delegation to share their experience with Pinggu. The Pinggu project, which will also include agribusiness and eco-tourism, will be branded as the first “Sustainable Eco-Edge District,” or SEED—in hope that other Chinese edge districts will follow suit.
The Pinggu project is important, because until now China has had few policies focused on such districts at the edges of mega-cities. But with more than 100 million people expected to relocate to the cities over the next five years, pressure to produce economic results and a healthy environment in edge districts like Pinggu is growing. Local officials like Zhang (who is also a vice mayor) are at the front lines of the central government’s effort to come up with more livable cities and more balanced development, so that the megacities aren’t the only places fueling prosperity.
The ultimate goal, Zhang explains, is a more people-centric approach to development. “I’m interested in ecological development and the linkage to people’s quality of life,” he says. “In the green parts of Chicago and in other cities I visited in the US, I saw people enjoying gardening, as well as food and drink along the riverfront areas. This is what family life is all about, and this is something I want to replicate.”
So what can Pinggu learn from Portland? For one thing, Quinton tells the Chinese officials, Portland proves that it is possible to grow population and local GDP while lowering carbon emissions and pursuing environmentally sustainable development. He emphasizes that creating a place where people want to live and work leads to local innovation and a growing economy.
Quinton is preaching to the converted: Zhang responds that he has come to appreciate the importance of small, everyday pleasures—sometimes more than grand showcase projects. “Some time ago I realized people don’t care if they can go to a large park 30-40 minutes away from home,” Zhang says, explaining that he wants to create more accessible waterfront public space, as well as more green spaces between buildings. “People care what is in front of their houses.”