Boland illuminates Chinese urbanization

On Monday September 16, University of Toronto Professor of Geography Alana Boland came to Vassar to give a lecture entitled “Both Spectacular and Mundane: The Greening of Urban China.” This event was co-sponsored by the Departments of Earth Science, Geography, Urban Studies, Environmental Studies, International Studies and Asian Studies.

Professor Boland’s talk covered the on-going research concerning urban sustainability in contemporary China. She discussed the ways in which interests in environmental interventions intersect with economic and political structures of a country. She specifically examined some of the ways that the city has been an object of green governance, a site for green interventions and a stage for green performance in China. Boland pointed out that several groups were involved in these developments including different government agencies, commercial investors, social organizations, community groups and an international group of architects and designers.

Boland focused on specific projects that were planned in China including Dongtan, the plan for a new eco-city on the island of Chongming in Shanghai. By 2010 the city was expected to be one-third the size of Manhattan, with a total population of 500,000. Waste from agriculture such as rice patties would be used to power homes and transportation would be fueled by hydrogen and electricity. Unfortunately, no construction has taken place yet.

Boland displayed photographs of this utopian looking island and pointed out that eco-city architecture has attracted a lot of media attention. Professor Boland addressed the governmental institutions in China involved in sustainable development, including the ministry of environmental protection (MEP).

Professor of Geography Yu Zhou has known Boland for a long time as a geographer who studies urban sustainability and invited her to come speak. Professor Zhou is teaching a course on Environmental China (GEOG 238) which explores China’s traditional contemporary practices in the environment and pays particular attention to the intersections between environment, politics, economics and social changes so this lecture fit into her curriculum well.

Zhou spoke about the importance of the topic and said “China’s population and its rapid development means that it will have a tremendous impact on the global environment. Now, a majority of the Chinese population lives in urban areas and in the next twenty years, about 70% of the population will live in cities. The urban built environment embodies and consumes about 40% of energy in China. Taking all of these factors into consideration, urban sustainability or lack thereof plays a significant role in shaping the future of the world. As Americans, we can also learn from both China’s mistakes and accomplishments in its environmental practices.”

Director of the Urban Studies Department Professor Brian Godfrey is teaching a class called Cities of the Global South and he stated that he found the lecture very insightful as well. Godfrey said, “while China is notable for the magnitude of its contemporary changes, the Global South (i.e: the countries of Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia) is generally known for its rapid urbanization, which far exceeds that of Europe and North America.”

He continued, “In fact, many countries of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world are urbanizing even faster than China in relative terms. This is all to say that while China’s urbanization is important in its own right, the comparative perspective with other countries of the Global South points to fascinating similarities and differences.

Many students who attended the lecture were involved in Urban Studies, Asian Studies or Geography classes. One student who attended, Evan Kamber 15’ was interested in learning about urban sustainability in the largest country in the world. Kamber wrote in an emailed statement, “due to the broad understanding that urban areas are more sustainable than rural, I thought it would be interesting to learn how China is creating livable and sustainable cityscapes to help accommodate the growing dense populations. I thought Professor Boland made an interesting point about how innovative environmental architects and developers are able to propose these projects in China due to the availability of cheap labor and lenient governmental policies.”

Kamber continued, “It was also interesting when she compared and contrasted the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with China’s MEP revealing that the EPA hires roughly 17,000 employees while the MEP employees 500-1,000 employees for a country of 1.3 billion people.”

Furthermore, he said that “the plan to create cities from a cradle-to-cradle approach and closed circle, using the waste created in the city to create life necessities, was especially interesting in the proposed eco-city Dongtan. It is important to look at China as an example for the rest of the world. Designing cities to provide for people’s basic needs is the only way to ensure that the quality of life does not diminish in the future as we face the imminent danger of climate change, exponentially growing human population and fear of running out of resources.”

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