By 2017, 58% of Chinese lived in cities. This is much lower than the 79% for Western Europe and the 86% for Australia, but China is experiencing very rapid urbanization, as shown in the graph below. It’s expected 70% of the Chinese population will live in cities between 2035 and 2045.

Source: OWID based on UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018 and historical sources

In response to these trends, the Chinese government has released a national urbanization plan (2014-2020), with a focus on the quality of Chinese urbanization and public spaces. Thus, the concern of policy makers is not only the economic development of Chinese cities, but also a healthier built environment and increased well-being for its citizens.

In addition to growing population pressures, Chinese cities face battles against pollution and climate change. Furthermore, China is now the third most visited country, behind France and the United States. There is no doubt that the country’s growing tourism industry is an important driver for developing better cities.

the Ramp-up of public-private partnership projects and growing private interests in China’s built environment also call for a fresh look at urban design. Bridging urbanism and architecture, public spaces and private buildings, the metropolitan scale and the street scale, urban design can help balance private interests and public needs while developing urban areas.

While these challenges are fairly recent for China, they have been experienced, tested and theorized in Western countries for two centuries. Thus, it could be useful to draw inspiration from Western principles of urban design, both to learn from good practices and to avoid repeating mistakes.

Urban design is well established in Australia

Some major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai have recently created their own urban design guidelines. However, many Chinese cities do not have one.

In Australia, the situation is quite different. Urban design theory and practice are well established. More than 20 guidelines have been published since the 2000s at all levels of government.

Urban design guidelines in Australia at federal, state and local government level.
Lucile Jacquot, 2019, Author provided

The diversity of Australian guidelines means that urban design research is very active and responsive to changing technologies, lifestyles and expectations. Moreover, the results are often seen as successful – Australian cities generally rank well in urban quality of life rankings. For example, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are consistently ranked in the top 10 of Global Habitability Index.

Good examples of urban design are also recognized in Australia – for example, through the annual Australian Urban Design Awards. The recognition of best practices and the promotion of healthy competition create a rich culture of urban design.

How to improve Chinese cities?

Dalian is a good example of an emerging city in China. Its location between sea and mountains and its rich colonial heritage make it a major tourist destination. Nevertheless, the experience of Dalian’s urban spaces could be improved in many ways.

First, one of the main objectives of urban design is to provide adequate public amenities such as pedestrian walkways, rest areas and public toilets. In Dalian, an increase in such amenities could encourage city residents to make more use of public space. Likewise, shaded areas and water fountains could make public spaces more livable, regardless of the time of day or the weather.

Secondly, the installation of such facilities alone is not enough to make the city attractive and engaging. Dalian’s urban spaces are quite monochromatic and a more vibrant cityscape could improve the overall vibe of the city. One way to achieve this would be to use different colors, textures and materials to define the spatial difference between private and public space and create new pedestrian experiences.

The differences in urban design of pedestrian plazas in Dalian (left) and Melbourne are clear.
Images: K. Dupré (left), L. Jacquot (right), Author provided

Finally, the main goal of designing the appearance of a city is to engage people with their surroundings. Urban space should not only accommodate all types of people and their needs, but also provide safe socializing opportunities.

In Dalian, providing more playgrounds, for example, could improve these interactions. All the advantages of good urban planning are brought together in a safe urban space where all types of people can meet, discuss and feel at ease.

Public spaces in Dalian (left) and Gold Coast.
Images: K. Dupré (left) and (right), Author provided

Australian cities can learn from China too

While Australia’s urban design principles are considerably more advanced, its cities face challenges similar to China’s.

For example, Australia is still struggling with the relationship between people and their urban space. Most Australian cities are car-dominated, running counter to the contemporary understanding of a healthy, sustainable and livable city.

Car use significantly affects the urban fabric of Chinese and Australian cities. In particular, this has impacts on the pedestrian experience. Wide streets are difficult to cross, sidewalks are often sacrificed in favor of the car, and cyclist safety is compromised. Good urban design would certainly tend towards a more people-oriented model of the city.

Another common challenge is climate change. Both Australian and Chinese cities have to deal with rising temperatures. The positive impact that urban design can have in moderating urban temperatures is now widely recognized. Major Australian cities have now grown guidelines on heat control measureswhile China is actively working on the issue.

But in one area, the battle to reduce the carbon footprint, Chinese cities open the way. The Chinese government has also developed a consistent green policy. So while Chinese cities could certainly learn from Australia, the reverse seems equally true.