The Bartlett School of Planning


Calvin Chung

Research subject

Thesis title: Searching for an Urban Sustainability Fix in China: A Case Study of the Pearl River Delta Greenway Project

Primary supervisor: Professor Fulong Wu
Secondary supervisor: Dr Fangzhu Zhang
Sponsors: Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fund Council (Hong Kong), UCL; Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) - Hong Kong Research Grant 
Starting date: September 2014 
Completion date: September 2018 
Contact: calvin.chung.14@ucl.ac.uk

In China, environmental demands are re-contouring the landscape of urban governance. The narrowly economic form of entrepreneurialism enshrined by many municipal governments is under attack from multiple fronts. Within the state, the central government is increasingly concerned about reducing the environmental costs of growth. Government officials have launched a series of national policies and regulations to press for eco-friendly urbanization (Chang, Leitner, & Sheppard, 2016). Outside the state, pressure is also mounting. A greener, cleaner city is needed not only for global interurban competition (Hodson & Marvin, 2007), but also in response to an upsurge of environmental activism (Economy, 2013). However, the implications of these new trends on China’s urban governance remain largely uncharted waters. Insofar as recent inquiries on flagship eco-city developments (Caprotti, 2014; Pow & Neo, 2013; Wu, 2012) shed important light on the motivations of Chinese cities to incorporate environmental goals into their development agenda, much more work is still required to capture and decipher the specific ways in which the structural intricacies of China’s urban governance have interacted with the emerging environmental requirements.

Addressing this lacuna, this research examines the development thus far of the nationally acclaimed Pearl River Delta Greenway Project (PRDGP), launched in 2010 in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region in Guangdong province, to determine how political-economic contingencies have governed the incorporation of environmental goals into the governance of Chinese cities. This empirical focus rests on the premise that the conception and implementation of the project, as an extensive environmental intervention producing a staggering 8,909 km of greenways across the PRD as of 2015, necessarily interact with various interests and institutions of urban governance. Investigation for this research was undertaken between 2013 and 2016 in five of the nine PRD cities, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan and Huizhou. It involved interviewing over 50 people within and outside the state who have either directly involved in or well informed about the project, reviewing pertinent government documents, media coverage and academic publications, and making observations along various sections of greenways.

This research reveals that the PRDGP represents what While, Jonas and Gibbs (2004) conceptualised as an urban sustainability fix with a ‘win-win’ mentality. Initiated by planners as an economically more attuned way to promote conservation in the PRD cities, the project has evolved since its implementation into an instrument to strategise the environment for economic benefits. One can observe three characteristic aspects of China’s emerging politics of urban sustainability from how the project has come to the ground. First, the negotiation of urban economic and environmental interests is historically embedded in a contentious process of ‘eco-state restructuring’ (While, Jonas, & Gibbs, 2010). Given the failure of two regional plans to appeal to scientific rationality for better municipal environmental care, the PRDGP was introduced through a combination of economically more persuasive discourses and politically more coercive implementation schemes. Second, ingrained economic and regulatory interests on land shape the search for an urban sustainability fix. While greenway was favoured as a remedy of green space shortage that does not consume land development quota of the PRD cities, its development has been shaped by issues on securing land use rights from rural collectives and resource management authorities, and engaging real estate developers for material support. Third, the promotion of urban sustainability is as much about the city as the countryside. Advancing the recreational frontier of the PRD’s urban dwellers into their rural hinterlands, greenways have received increasing emphasis as a catalyst of rural tourism development, leading to rural urbanisation in economic, institutional, physical as well as sociocultural terms. Meanwhile, given the symbolic and material struggles interlacing these findings, the research further proposes that an urban sustainability fix is best analysed as a threefold constellation of discursive, spatial and institutional interventions to illuminate the diverse means through which urban economy-environment conflicts are mediated.


Caprotti, F. (2014). Eco-urbanism and the eco-city, or, denying the right to the city? Antipode, 46(5), 1285–1303. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12087

Chang, I. C. C., Leitner, H., & Sheppard, E. (2016). A green leap forward? Eco-state restructuring and the Tianjin-Binhai eco-city model. Regional Studies, 50(6), 929–943. https://doi.org/10.1080/00343404.2015.1108519

Economy, E. (2013). The environment. In C. Odgen (Ed.), Handbook of China’s governance and domestic politics (pp. 199–209). New York, NY: Routledge.

Pow, C. P., & Neo, H. (2013). Seeing red over green: Contesting urban sustainabilities in China. Urban Studies, 50(11), 2256–2274. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098013478239

While, A., Jonas, A. E. G., & Gibbs, D. (2004). The environment and the entrepreneurial city: searching for the urban ‘sustainability fix’ in Manchester and Leeds. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 28(3), 549–569. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0309-1317.2004.00535.x

While, A., Jonas, A. E. G., & Gibbs, D. (2010). From sustainable development to carbon control: Ecostate restructuring and the politics of urban and regional development. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 35(1), 76–93. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2009.00362.x

Wu, F. (2012). China’s eco-cities. Geoforum, 43(2), 169–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2011.08.001


Calvin is a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Planning under the supervision of Professor Fulong Wu and Dr Fangzhu Zhang. His current study is supported by a Sir Edward Youde Memorial Fellowship for Overseas Studies from the Hong Kong government, a UCL Overseas Research Scholarship, and a Hong Kong Research Grant from the Royal Geographical Society. His research focuses on the political economy and political ecology of urban and regional planning in China. A winner of the 2014 best paper prize of International Development Planning Review, Calvin has also published in Antipode, Cities, and Environment and Planning C. 

Publications and other work


Chung, C. K. L., Zhang, F., Wu, F. (2018). Negotiating green space with landed interests: The urban political ecology of greenway in the Pearl River Delta, China. Antipode. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12384

He, S., Chung, C. K. L., Bayrak, M. M., & Wang, W. (2018). Administrative boundary changes and regional inequality in provincial China. Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy, 11(1), 103–120.

Chung, C. K. L., & Xu, J. (2016). Scale as both material and discursive: A view through China’s rescaling of urban planning system for environmental governance. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 34(8), 1404–1424.

Chung, C. K. L. (2015). Upscaling in progress: The reinvention of urban planning as an apparatus of environmental governance in China. In T. C. Wong, S. S. Han, & H. Zhang (Eds.), Population Mobility, Urban Planning and Management in China (pp. 171–187). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Wang, L., Shen, J., & Chung, C. K. L. (2015). City profile: Suzhou – A Chinese city under transformation. Cities, 44, 60–72.

Xu, J., & Chung, C. K. L. (2014). ‘Environment’ as an evolving concept in China’s urban planning system. International Development Planning Review, 36(4), 391–412. (awarded the journal’s best article in 2014)

Lam, K. C., Ma, W., Chan, P. K., Hui, W. C., Chung, K. L., Chung, Y. T. T., & Wong, C. Y. (2013). Relationship between road traffic noisescape and urban form in Hong Kong. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 185(12), 9683–9685.


Conference papers/presentations:

Chung, C. K. L. (2018). The urban political ecology of greenways in China. Presentation at 2018 East China Normal University International Forum for Young Scientists, 26–28 April 2018, Shanghai, China.

Chung, C. K. L. (2017). China’s greenway development: Where sustainability meets territoriality. Presentation at 2017 International Conference on China Urban Development, 5–6 May 2017, London, UK.

Chung, C. K. L. (2017). Urban sustainability fix, city-regionalism, and China’s greenway boom. Presentation at American Association of Geographers 2017 Annual Meeting, 5–9 April 2017, Boston, MA.

Chung, C. K. L. (2016). Finding the fix in flows: The urban political ecology of greenway development in the Pearl River Delta. Presentation at the 33rd International Geographical Congress, 21–25 August 2016, Beijing, China.

Chung, C. K. L. (2016). Urban sustainability fix, rural environment, and China’s evolving rural-urban continuum area. Presentation at Association of American Geographers 2016 Annual Meeting, 29 March – 2 April 2016, San Francisco, CA.

Chung, C. K. L. (2015). Upscaling in progress: Reconfiguring urban planning for China’s environmental governance. Presentation at Association of American Geographers 2015 Annual Meeting, 21–25 April 2016, Chicago, IL.

Chung, C. K. L. (2014). China’s politics of planning the environment: Reconstituting the central state at the urban scale. Presentation at RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2014, 27–29 August 2014, London, UK.

Chung, K. L., & Xu. J. (2013). Interrogating the operationalization of green urbanism in Chinese cities: The interplay of scale and time. Presentation at Inter-University Seminar on Asian Megacities: Asian Urbanism and Beyond, 15–17 August 2013, Hong Kong, China

urban sustainability urbanisation