Wuhan’s renewal shows ambitions and challenges of China’s urban planning

By Tom Miller

Beijing and Shanghai are currently the only two Chinese cities that have unquestionable “megacity” status, with populations well in excess of 10m.

But over the next 15 years, 60 new cities with populations of 1.5m-5m are likely to sprout in China, including six new cities – Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Chengdu and Wuhan – with real urban populations exceeding 10m.

Managing this vast migration in a sustainable manner will require more than steel and cement: creating patterns of urban growth that use resources efficiently and avoid irreversible urban sprawl will determine whether the country’s cities become livable economic centres or urban dystopias fugged up with exhaust fumes.

Most important, creating a viable social welfare system may determine whether these mega-cities are paved with gold or strewn with beggars.

One city attempting to face up to this challenge is Wuhan, the largest city in central China, which already has a population close to 10m if you include its large floating population of migrant workers.

At Wuhan’s northern edge, where vegetable patches tended by bent-backed farmers are flanked by the city’s massive steelworks, the city government is attempting to transform a rural-industrial no-man’s-land into a shiny new suburb.

Down the road, a giant railway station (Wuhan’s third) and a 6km bridge (the city’s fifth to cross the Yangtze) are both nearing completion. By the river bank, where freshly planted grass lies forlornly under a fine layer of grey dust, workmen hammer at apartment blocks for the suburb’s new residents.

The new suburb is part of a city plan for 2020 that planning officials hope will house a rising population without crippling the city’s infrastructure. According to the plan, the population of the city centre will be kept to 5m, while the overall population of the city centre plus suburbs will rise to nearly 12m.

The majority of the city’s residents will live in six gherkin-shaped spokes protruding from the city centre, and the plan envisages suburbanites living, working and playing on the city’s outskirts without needing to commute into the city centre.

In addition, new transport links will bring half a dozen smaller satellite cities into Wuhan’s economic orbit, enabling some residents to move out of the city and commute to work – a classic hub-and-spoke “megacity” model.

Constructing a modern city centre and viable commercial hub, not to mention new suburbs and transport links, requires an enormous investment in infrastructure – roads, public transport, housing, sewage systems, etc.

Wuhan is working hard to catch up with the infrastructure and living standards of wealthier coastal cities, with large swathes of the city under reconstruction.

A massive house-building programme has boosted average living space to 30 sq m per head, an increase of more than 10 sq m over the past decade. In 2005, only 50 per cent of the city’s waste water was treated; this year that figure should rise to 80 per cent.

Yet keeping up with population growth and the heady speed of development is an impossible task. In 2000 there were 350,000 vehicles on Wuhan’s roads; this year that number will approach 1m.

“The pace of new road planning and construction cannot match the growth of new cars. Often we need to make changes to a road as soon as the planners and construction company have completed it,” says Cai Jing, deputy head of Wuhan police transport department.

And tough as it is to build the hardware of a modern city almost from scratch, it is tougher still to create the necessary software to service a growing population.

For Chinese technocrats, channelling funds into steel and cement is considerably less daunting than addressing the much thornier issue of social security. Building new schools and hospitals is one thing; paying for teachers and doctors is another.

As more and more migrant workers begin to settle permanently in cities, the demand for equitable access to social services will grow. But this intractable problem is not addressed by Wuhan’s urban plan for 2020.

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