Delegation of Chinese leaders study sustainable urbanization

Li Yifei looked proud when he talked about his home city, Yiwu, during his trip to the University of Chicago last month. A booming city of 1.4 million people in China’s southeastern province of Zhejiang, Yiwu produces more than 60 percent of the world’s holiday decorations. It also serves as the starting point for the largest railroad in the world, the Yiwu-Madrid line, also known as the “New Silk Road.”


While economic growth has always been his city’s top priority, Li, the municipal Party secretary of Yiwu, came to the University of Chicago on a different mission. He led a delegation of 22 municipal leaders from Zhejiang province to attend a crash course on sustainable development.

“We’re here with the humble heart and strong curiosity of a student to study the latest thinking on urban sustainability and the successful experiences in U.S. cities,” said Li at a welcome reception.

The Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies hosted the training session. The annual program, jointly run by the Paulson Institute and the China Association of Mayors, covers a wide range of issues related to sustainability, from organic urban renewal and public transportation to municipal financing models for environmental projects and the protection of cultural heritage.

“This is part of our efforts to broaden UChicago’s global outreach and impact,” said Mark Nemec, dean of the Graham School. “Through such programs, we seek to deliver a unique experience with the city of Chicago and other locations woven into supplemental learning opportunities and to enhance the delegation’s capacity for leadership on important issues as they return home.”

Zhejiang province, home to 55 million people, is the country’s fourth largest economy and the third largest exporter. Its economic boom over the past three decades has led to rapid urban expansion. While urbanization allowed millions of farmers to live in Yiwu and other boomtowns that have prospered from its flourishing private enterprises, experts say it is now facing numerous environmental and health challenges, such as air and water pollution, and a drop in biodiversity.

Moving toward sustainability

“China’s mayors are at the forefront of the country’s move toward more sustainable development,” said Leigh Wedell, chief sustainability officer at the Paulson Institute. “The rapid development in Zhejiang presents opportunities for the mayors to turn sustainability into the province’s competitive advantage. Our program empowers local policymakers to implement sustainable practices that deliver a high quality of urban life to the citizenry.”

As part of the lecture series, UChicago sustainability experts presented and compared different environmental protection plans currently implemented in American cities, discussed urban ecosystem services, and highlighted practices that could lead to cost savings and revenue generation.

Zhejiang city officials also had the opportunity to hear speakers from the government, corporate and NGO sectors. The panel discussions enabled U.S. and Chinese officials to explore innovative ways to manage the tradeoffs between urbanization and environmental protection, and share their thoughts on other urban challenges such as education, crime and civic leadership.

Rebekah Scheinfeld, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, lectured on Chicago’s efforts to create safe streets, adaptive reuse of historical buildings, and different air quality and public transit options. Karen Weigert, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, discussed the city’s programs to improve waterfront access, expand natural habitats and enhance the environmental performance of development sites.

Officials at Openlands, a conservation organization in the greater Chicago region, shared their work of protecting open spaces and natural resources for public parks and forest preserves, wildlife refuges, and land and water greenway corridors.

Jeanne Gang, an internationally recognized architect who has made a reputation for using innovative materials and an environmentally sensitive approach to urban revitalization, took Chinese officials to see her Lincoln Park Zoo project, which helped reintroduce wildlife and wild flora to an urban area. Impressed by Gang’s work, the delegation formally invited her to Zhejiang to collaborate with their architects.

The presentations by researchers at the UChicago Urban Labs sparked the strong interest of Chinese guests. The Urban Labs conduct highly rigorous scholarship to test policies and programs across five interrelated areas—crime, education, energy and environment, health, and poverty. At the end of the session, several delegates surrounded the speakers with follow-up questions about the way the Urban Labs are funded, the scope of their research, the evaluation mechanism and success stories.

“The classes were well organized and of high quality,” said Yang Jie, deputy secretary general of the China Association of Mayors. “The contents were specially tailored to our needs. Our speakers combined theory and practical examples, and everyone stayed engaged during interactive sessions.”

New approaches to leadership

In addition to sustainability, the Chinese delegation also sought models of leadership and innovative approaches to city management and decision-making. At the U.S. Mayors Roundtable moderated by Hank Paulson, chairman of the Paulson Institute, Chinese delegates participated in an hour-long lively session with four prominent former mayors, Richard M. Daley (Chicago), Manny Diaz (Miami), Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles), and Scott Smith (Mesa, Ariz.).

The former city leaders discussed their past accomplishments and challenges in addressing sustainability issues, the art of leadership, and the balances of family and work. One Chinese official, impressed with the former mayors’ vision for America, asked if any of them was considering running for president. The whole panel laughed and answered with an emphatic “no way.” They all expressed that having served as mayors of major U.S cities provided the best leadership role they could have— a role in which they could effect more change and be more closely connected to the people.

At the end of the training in Chicago, Chinese officials flew to Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, two cities that have implemented practices that can be scaled in China.

Portland was the first city in the United States to create action plans to reduce carbon emissions. Since 1990, Portland claims to have reduced total local carbon emissions by 14 percent while adding 75,000 more jobs to the economy. Through the walking tours of the city, Chinese leaders learned about the public and private partnership in rebuilding their city centers and riverfront areas, and Portland’s innovative practice in historic preservation.

In San Francisco, guests from Zhejiang visited the Energy Foundation, where experts briefed them on low carbon city designs and best sustainable urbanization practices, conservation, waste water management, green infrastructure and industrial pollution.

“We’ve learned a lot of great ideas and witnessed many excellent practices,” said Li Yifei. “The training and the visits have increased the urgency and have boosted our confidence in our work in China.”

Launched in 2013, the Paulson Institute initiative hosts an annual delegation of Chinese officials for a three-week program combining educational sessions with practical site visits.

The delegation consists of leaders from a specific Chinese province each year and begins with a week of sustainability study at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The second week is spent training at the University of Chicago, followed by a concluding week of site visits in a major American metropolis.