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Generating sustainable towns from Chinese villages: A system modeling approach

Journal of Environmental Management 87(2):305 (2008) PMID 17854975

The great majority of China's developing towns will be extensions of already existing villages. With the prospect of hundreds of millions of Chinese farmers projected to leave their villages to become industrial workers in new and expanded towns within the next few years, new challenges will be faced. As expansion and modernization progress, this development moves from the traditional village model that operates not far from resource sustainability to increasingly unsustainable patterns of commerce, urban development, and modern life. With such an unprecedented mass migration and transformation, how can Chinese culture survive? What is to become of the existing million plus agricultural villages? How can these massively unsustainable new industrial towns survive? In the European Commission sponsored research program SUCCESS, researchers worked from the scale of the Chinese village to find viable answers to these questions. To address these issues, the Center for Sustainable Cities, one of the SUCCESS teams, studied the metabolism of several small villages. In these studies, system dynamics models of a village's metabolism were created and then modified so that inherently unsustainable means were eliminated from the model (fossil fuels, harmful agricultural chemicals, etc.) and replaced by sustainability-oriented means. Small Chinese farming villages are unlikely to survive in anything like their present form or scale, not least because they are too small to provide the range of life opportunities to which the young generation of educated Chinese aspires. As a response to this realization as well as to the many other threats to the Chinese village and its rural way of life, it was proposed that one viable path into the future would be to enlarge the villages to become full service towns with sufficient diversity of opportunity to be able to attract and keep many of the best and brightest young people who are now migrating to the larger cities. Starting with the village in its sustainability-oriented model form, the village model would be enlarged both quantitatively and qualitatively through many trial iterations. A research program is described whereby an operational definition of the sustainable city is developed as a means of creating these enlarged models through citizen participation assisted by outside experts using software under development called the Sustainability Engineā„¢ to guide the process and provide feedback as to the consequences of various proposals that are brought to the table. As this process is continued, the village would be incrementally enlarged and made more diverse and more complex through a variety of scenarios until it would emerge as a modern, sustainable town or city. In this way, through a participatory, balance-seeking civil society process involving villagers and scientists in what the Center for Sustainable Cities calls the Sustainable City Game, the villages can become the DNA for generating future sustainable Chinese towns and cities. As an extension of this discussion, a new urban model, the Sustainable City-as-a-Hill, is presented that responds to both the qualities of the traditional Chinese village as well as to the modern demands of industrial and post-industrial economies and, in particular, to the need for sustainable urban patterns. In addition a new concept, the Sustainable Area Budget (SAB) is introduced which definitively creates the boundary condition for both modeling the sustainable city and presenting the quest for the sustainable city-region as a coherent, scientific design process.

DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2006.10.026