Thesis presented at the Xi’an International Conference of Architecture and Technology, 2006. Modified version published in CO-EVOLUTION: Danish/Chinese Collaboration on Sustainable Urban Development in China, 2006. Full thesis available here.

By Henrik Valeur and Karin Lindgren, 2006

1. The Challenges
How to improve people’s living conditions without exhausting the very resources needed to sustain a better life?

Urbanization can be seen as a means to improve peoples living conditions. In this respect, the achievements during the past decades in China are unparalleled in the history of human civilization.

Due to radical economic reforms and massive urban development, about 400 million Chinese people were lifted out of extreme poverty during the period between 1980 and 2001), which account for roughly three quarters of the total number worldwide.1

However, while living conditions are greatly improved at one level they are seriously challenged at another. The current processes of rapid and extensive urbanization in China puts tremendous pressure on the environment, which may be experienced in everyday life as deteriorated environments plagued by smog and particle emissions, polluted water and water shortage, rising oil and gasoline prices and unstable power supply.

To meet the challenges of pollution and resource exhaustion, as well as the challenges of new forms of urban poverty, social disparities and the erasure of cultural heritage, we cannot (only) rely on existing solutions.

1.1 Chinese and Western Models of Urban Development
There is, beyond any doubt, much to be learned about sustainable urban development from the traditional Chinese city model, but it remains unclear whether this model, which was developed for a relative static society, can be adapted to a global market economy, individulized lifestyles and massive urban migration. The modernist Western model may be better suited for this, but it is far from a perfect solution. Urban development based on mono-functional zoning necessitates vast areas of land and extensive transportation. Because the individual zones are only active at periods of time, this results in an excess of energy production and underused infrastructure.

If the modernist Western model is employed to accommodate the massive urban migration in China, it may have enourmous and unpredictable environmental consequences not only for China, but for the whole world.

Today, the World’s total ecological footprint is already 1.2 times bigger than its biocapacity, but with continuous economic growth combined with shortsighted urban planning we may quickly reach a point where we would actually need two globes to support the population of one.2

2. Sustainable Solutions
It is often argued, that sustainable economic, environmental and social solutions contradict each other. But is that really true? An example of the opposite could be the wind mill industry in Denmark. This industry was basically created by a few individual pioneers who used their skills as steelsmiths etc. to refine existing technologies and put them into new use. Later the development of this industry was supported by stricter environmental policies favouring renewable energy over other forms of energy. Today, more than half of all new wind mills in the world are produced by a Danish company and this industry is not only making significant contributions to a cleaner environment, it is also providing job opportunities, innovation and economic growth for the whole country.

To create sustainable urban development we not only need new technologies, but also new policies which integrate economic, environmental and social concerns, and which take into consideration individual and local conditions. Without such a holistic approach to planning, real sustainable solutions are not likely to occur. But we do not only need new solutions. More than anything, we need creativity and imagination to spark off new visions for sustainable urban development.

2.1 The Collaboration
The issue of sustainable urban development is a global issue. Not only in the geographical sense, whereby we all depend on the same resources and are affected by the same pollution, but also in the professional sense in that no single discipline can solve these problems alone. Thus, sustainable urban development must be thought out in collaboration between various peoples and disciplines.

To meet global challenges we need international and interdisciplinary collaboration.

From March to August 2006 four offices of the most talented young Danish architects have worked together with professors, PhD and postgraduate students from four of the most prestigious Chinese Universities. The project teams, each consisting of one Danish office and one Chinese university, have received advice and consultancy from the Danish engineering company Carl Bro.

The project teams have developed proposals for sustainable urban development in the four Chinese cities of Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Xi’an. They have had workshops in both China (twice) and in Denmark (once). In addition, the Chinese professors have lectured at the two schools of architecture in Denmark and a Danish professor has lectured at the four Chinese universities.

This kind of collaboration can increase mutual understanding and enable the exchange of different experiences, ideas and knowledge. But it also poses its own challenges in the form of different cultural values, working methods and professional interests. These differences can be seen as the source of problems, but they can also be seen as the fuel of creativity. To create a more harmonious society we need to acknowledge and take advantage of these differences.

3. The Results
CO-EVOLUTION has primarily been a learning process. One of the things we have learned is that there is no simple or single way to create sustainable living environments for us all. But that there are an almost unlimited number of possibilities.

As the title indicates3 the project is based on the assumption that by working together, making use of different experiences, ideas and knowledge, but as well by acknowledging and taking advantage of different interests, methods and values, we may be able to envision entirely new models for sustainable urban development. The four projects are the results of how each project team managed these differences and how they managed to combine local knowledge and low-tech solutions with cutting edge expertise and future technology.

With this project we have attempted to open up the minds of the future generation of architects to the importance of sustainable thinking. A general understanding and awareness among the users, planners and producers, is the first step in the direction of a viable future.

Finally, we have tried to create the basis for long-term relationships among the participants. Thus, it is our hope that these projects are not merely the end products of a process but as well the starting points for more collaboration.

China’s Urban Transition; John Friedmann; 2005.
Sustainability and Cities – Concept and Assessment; Ooi Giok Ling; 2005.
The New Chinese City – Globalization and Market Reform; John R. Logan; 2002.


  1. Sources: China Human Development Report; U.N Development Program; 2005:
    and Human Development Report (p. 8); U.N Development Program; 2005:
  2. Source: National Footprint and Biocapacity account; Global Footprint Network; 2005: 
  3. “In Biology, Co-evolution is the mutual evolutionary influence between two species that become dependent on each other.” Source: Co-evolution; Wikipedia: (accessed June 30, 2006)