Thursday, July 28, 2016
Maybe we should learn from China's mistakes, if not our own
As the storm sewers of many of China’s cities have been pushed beyond their capacity, spewing deluges of water into the streets, many are blaming the disaster on the country’s breakneck pace of urbanization.
China has built cities faster and more extensively than any other civilization in history. In hardly 35 years, the country built over 450 new cities, urbanized 40,000 square kilometers of countryside, threw up hundreds of millions of homes, constructed a 19,000 kilometer high-speed rail network, dug 26 new subway systems, paved more than 60,000 kilometers of highways, and erected nearly a hundred new airports.
This urbanization push was backed by economic and political incentives. At the peak of China’s new city building boom urbanization was responsible for 16 to 25% of total GDP, 33% of fixed asset investment, 10% of urban employment, 15% of bank loans, and fueled 40 industries. Stimulating the local economy and complying with national urbanization goals were also core KPI criteria for the promotion of officials within the government. So China built and built, and are only now starting to realize the full impact of what they’ve created.
In this explosion of development, natural water management systems — rivers and streams, ponds and lakes, as well as the soil — have been asphyxiated with endless expanses of pavement and concrete. In Wuhan, a city that has been leveled by this year’s flooding, saw 87 lakes, two-thirds of its total, filled in or otherwise destroyed between 1949 and 2015. According to Kongjian Yu, the dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, heavily urbanized eastern China lost upwards of 50% of its wetlands in the past thirty years, which drastically reduces flood retention capacities.
These impermeable urban surfaces which have been replacing natural features in China’s cities at an astonishing rate prevent rainwater from finding its way into the ground below, funneling it instead into a Soviet-style system of pipes and drains, which are becoming more and more overtaxed and inadequate.