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Supporting China with a more human-centred and environmental approach to urbanisation

Supporting China with a more human-centred and environmental approach to urbanisation

By Lucy Bruzzone, Programme Manager, Executive Education

19 November 2015

In June, we welcomed 25 senior officials from the Chinese province of Guangdong for a bespoke Sustainability Leadership Training Programme. During three weeks of lectures, conversations and site visits, they discussed sustainable urbanisation and its implications for China’s fast-growing economy, explains Lucy Bruzzone.

Almost exactly 15 years ago I stepped off a ferry into China and Guangdong province, the place that was to be my home for the next year. What I know now is that my experience of China and Guangdong occurred at a pivotal time in the country’s development. Returning a year later, the city where I had lived, Zhaoqing, had its first shopping mall and the locals had moved their interest from McDonald’s, which had opened the previous year, to the mall escalators it offered. Signs of change were all around but I could never have imagined the scale of development which China as a whole, and in particular this province, would have undertaken in the intervening years. Returning in 2012, the once four-hour journey by clapped-out minibus from Zhaoqing to Guangzhou, the province’s capital, now took under three and involved a luxury coach which zipped along a superhighway sandwiched between factories and signs advertising the products manufactured in each locality we passed through. Long gone were the fields and potholed roads I remembered.

Since the start of its economic reforms in 1978, China’s economy has been rising rapidly; recently becoming the world’s second largest economy. The vanguard of this change has been the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong where, within the last two decades, cities such as Shenzhen have transformed from fishing villages to major global powerhouses. Much of this rise has resulted from the development of Special Economic Zones leading to Guangdong becoming the manufacturing heartland of the world for many essential daily items such as telecommunications equipment, autos and clothing. However, this rapid economic rise has brought with it many challenges, including rapid urbanisation, an increasingly polluted environment, management of internal migration and an increasingly ageing population. China recognises these challenges and has a clear focus on their mitigation within its 12th five-year plan as it seeks to enter a “new normal” focused on slower but better quality growth. Alongside this, Chinese authorities have recently launched their National New-type Urbanisation Plan (2014–2020) focused on increasing urbanisation to support future economic development with a human-centred and environmentally focused approach.

This June, I was therefore honoured to welcome a delegation from Guangdong to Cambridge University for a Sustainability Leadership Training Programme tailored for the province. The delegation consisted of 25 senior officials ranging from vice-mayors of cities to deputy department heads of the province. Between them they manage services and take decisions that influence the lives of about 100 million people. The three-week programme was specifically designed to offer insights and raise awareness and critical thinking about current global trends and challenges, with an emphasis on the role of industrialisation and technological innovation in promoting sustainable economic activity.

The programme, part of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)’s executive education, encouraged questioning, with participants exploring a range of issues through lectures, engagement with experts, site visits and group discussions. Some of the questions discussed during the programme included – what is the value of natural capital? How can we design cities for community cohesion? How has Cambridge become a hub for high tech industry? What does it mean to move beyond traditional manufacturing? What does city resilience mean? And importantly what are the implications for Guangdong, and what action is needed? The programme also encouraged questioning and discovery through site visits, and included a visit to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London to see the operation of many of the sustainability principles discussed, and to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge demonstrating emerging innovation for sustainability.

With the assistance of experts in Cambridge, London, and across the UK the delegates explored new ideas, got to know each other and experienced life in the UK, and we also learnt from them. I was pleased to learn about the developments of the province, environmental initiatives being undertaken and the desire to work collaboratively to reduce inequality across the province. In particular I enjoyed reconnecting with China and the Chinese culture, practising my slowly developing Mandarin skills, remembering the etiquettes of Chinese banquet dining and being reminded of the country which I had so much enjoyed exploring and which continues to hold a fascination for me.

So, as I waved goodbye to this delegation, I looked forward to welcoming others, continuing my connection with China, and further developing my work, and that of the Institute, to support the country with its ambition of a more human-centred and environmental approach to urbanisation. 

Read more about the Institute’s educational work with China.

About the author

Lucy Bruzzone 100x100Lucy Bruzzone works within the Executive Programmes Team primarily on the development and delivery of a number of customised programmes.



Zhaoqing in 2000; copyright Lucy Bruzzone

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Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.