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Bargaining for Nature: The Treatment of 'Environment' in China's Urban Planning System

XU Jiang

This project is funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong. Chinese cities are in the midst of a volatile period of rapid expansion, growing population, and environmental degradation. From global warming and carbon emission to vanishing local characteristics and sprawling land use patterns, the environmental trends are becoming increasingly dire. As a result, environmental protection has emerged as one central and unifying theme of a new public policy agenda at all levels, at least rhetorically, since the mid-1990s. The urban planning system is recognized by many in government and academia to have a critical role to play in putting this new agenda into practice. As a result of this interest, there has been a rush of state-led projects to promote green planning initiatives. Though rhetoric is moving rapidly forward, its translation into practice remains problematic. Concepts such as environmental protection challenge the presumption in favor of development and sit uneasily with the emerging role of planning as a political tool for capital accumulation. At a more practical level, little attention has been paid to the 'green' policies and practices that are now emerging in the planning regime, and also to the processes by which these are achieved at, and contested at local inquiries. The growing importance of planning in articulating environmental concerns into spatial reality is characterized by several inadequacies and missing links in academic inquiry and political discourses. Among these are: (1) a lack of both systematic analysis and detailed case studies to understand how the environment is being conceptualized and treated in the planning system; and (2) an inadequacy in unpacking the institutional challenges of planning decisions associated with environmental care. It is this evocative contemplation that prompts us to deploy the perspective of this research.

Fig. 1 The Pearl River Delta Greenways