Unleashing Persephone: China and Europe join forces for a new Ethos of Sustainable Urbanisation

Man as a “political animal” turns to social interaction to organize his/her life, structure his/her well-being and perpetuate the prosperity of his/her family and descendants. The non-familial; macro-unit of this interaction is the Polis.

From Genoa and Venice to London, Paris, New York and Shanghai, cities remain the epicentres of economic, cultural and educational activities. The long list of books concerning the golden age of Athens, the multi-million dollar productions of movies of popular culture like: New York-New York, Midnight in Paris, Vicky Christina Barcelona and many others, reconfirm the centrality of the Polis in human life and imagination. It is on these grounds that the 2013 Sino-EU urbanization partnership can be seen as a very promising breakthrough in the bilateral relationship of the 1st and the 3rd biggest economies in the world.

Chinese Premier Li framed the China-EU plan that came out of last week’s 16th China-EU high summit as unprecedented. The most significant pillar of the 2020 plan is the China-EU urbanization partnership. As both EU and Chinese leaders argued, urbanisation is synonymous to modernization. China and Europe will thus join forces to shape the sustainable, livable and flourishing megalopolis of the future. This project may well create a universal ethos of sustainable urban development.

Chinese cities recover their leading role in urban development

It is indeed one of the peculiarities of history that the extraordinary dynamism of Chinese cities is not the exception but actually the pattern of the world's urban development. Up until the industrial revolution, Chinese cities had almost monopolized the rankings of the most populous, commercialized and infrastructure intensive urban centers.

The Sinic Civilization blessed by geography and enriched by neo-Confucianism with a strong literati elite governing community had been able to produce great works of infrastructure , centralize its population and thus pave the way for the creation of some of the most flourishing cities. Today the “re-sinicification” of urban dynamism is record breaking.

China’s urbanization pattern is out-speeding and out-sizing Britain’s by a factor of a 100 and a 10 respectively. Every year almost 35 million people “immigrate” from China’s vast rural plains to its great coastal cities of the east and south. By 2025 almost 70% of China’s population (950 million people) will be living in cities. As the 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report puts it: “it is not a hyperbole to say that we are observing the most significant shift in the earth’s economic center of gravity in history” . By 2025, 29 out of the 75 most expanding and dynamic cities will be Chinese, almost monopolizing the top 10 spots, while the first European city – London – will rank only 21st and Paris 26th .

The current ethos however of Chinese cities does not facilitate an equally extraordinary qualitative progression of China’s megacities. Beijing, Nanjing, Xian and other leading Chinese cities are experiencing record levels of pollution, traffic jams and thus heavily undermine the wellbeing of their citizens.

The European Urbanization Paradigm

This makes the European urban paradigm an atractive model for China’s new global megacities in their quest for sustainability, artistry and recreation. After all it is an oxymoron that, the genitor of industrialization - Europe turns to bicycles while China increasingly trusts cars as the main means of transportation. Managing this huge quantitative and qualitative transformation demands a sincere cooperation and coordination with Europe.

The urban ethos of the European Union can strongly enhance the livability of China’s megalopolises. The EU remains at the cutting edge of Green R&D and urban development and today with a culture emphasizing sustainable living; art and recreation can be an invaluable partner for China’s harmonious urban future. Having invested consistently on green infrastructure, decentralization, education and art, European cities have credibly cultivated an ethos of sustainability and liveability. In addition the EU’s experience on structural funds can also assist Chinese cities to balance the geographical disparity of their development and reform their unbalanced fiscal systems.

Unleashing Persephone

Even if judged only by their mere size, the global metropolises of China will shape the identity of the world. The China-EU urbanization partnership has the potential to promote the best ethos for sustainable and liveable megalopolises of the future. Such an unprecedented endeavour creates a new paradigm of city-to-city diplomacy in a world of hegemonic transition and thus tames the forces of confrontation. 

It has been argued that the EU is a civilian superpower promoting a post-modern world. With her urbanisation engagement with China, the EU has proved that is also a green superpower that wins the hearts and minds of people across continents. This time it is Persephone and the love of nature that has made Europe a model for green growth.

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Tags: China, Europe, Sustainable, Urbanism

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