Professor Chenghu Zhou present on Chinese smart cities

By Louie Goldsmith•19 May, 2018

An event co-sponsored by the JTL Urban Mobility Project and the China Future City Lab


Professor Chenghu Zhou, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, spoke about issues in Chinese cities to a group of faculty and students on Friday, May 18 in an event co-sponsored by the JTL Urban Mobility Project and the China Future City Lab. Zhou’s talk, entitled “Cities and Urbanization in China,” focused on the unique urbanization issues faced by different types of Chinese cities and the public and private solutions being enacted to counter them.

Zhou began by enumerating different types of Chinese cities, ranging from those reliant on ancient infrastructure to those that have sprung up within the past 40 years. Despite their myriad differences, each of these types of city has experienced astronomical growth over the past half century. According to Zhou, the amount of the time it took for the Chinese population to move from 20% residing in cities to 50% was just 30 years, half the time it took the USA and ⅓ the time it took the U.K. and Germany. However, Zhou also noted that the growth of Chinese cities has reached a stable state after decades of breakneck growth.

This rapid population growth has led to challenges including stifling traffic, difficulty dealing with natural disasters and challenges of administration in expanding municipal governments. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, which Zhou identified as metropolises, are dealing primarily with issues of transportation and pollution, while historic cities such as Xi’an and Luoyang are focused on updating their infrastructure while protecting historical sites.

After identifying some of the prevalent challenges in Chinese cities, Zhou discussed some of the smart practices including China’s 12 billion Yuan investment in spatial information infrastructure. Zhou also mentioned Beijing’s efforts to combine the data gleaned from four different infrastructures that currently exist within the city and other practices that use industrial big data to create more efficient urban environments.

According to Zhou, one major focus on urbanization in China is creating more efficient transportation to increase connections between cities. This can lead not only to faster transit but to the growth of satellite cities along the transport routes. Zhou counted 19 distinct major cities on the train line between Beijing and Shanghai.

Zhou also mentioned new technologies being pioneered in Chinese cities to combat problems that exist around the world. In these communities, dubbed “smart cities,” municipal governments are piloting a diverse range of innovations. One example of this is sponge city technology which absorbs water to mitigate the risk of flooding in the aftermath of torrential rainfall. Sixteen cities began piloting this technology in 2015 and it has since expanded throughout China.

Zhou’s talk was attended by over 50 students, faculty and members of the MIT community, many of whom asked questions focused on the relationship between governments and private enterprise in fostering Chinese innovation. Zhou discussed the benefits of China’s strong national government as well as the difficulties of regulating companies in different cities in the absence of national laws.

Other questions concentrated on some of the losses of urbanization including the lack of identity in new cities and loss of historical context in quickly urbanizing ancient cities. Zhou said it was difficult for cities to find a balancing act between making improvements to benefit their citizens and preserving the history and identity that had defined them.