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Green Economy and Beyond – Case Studies in Guangzhou, China

31 Jan 2012

This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

China's rapid economic growth has led to a gap between urban and rural development, environmental pollution and the marginalization of traditional farming. Two cases in Guangzhou in Guangdong province, southern Chinaa government programme and a non-governmental initiativeshow how the local government and the public are trying to connect the green economy agenda with other sustainable development objectives, including poverty reduction, food security and social protection.

Chen Jinjin is based at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.

China has achieved extraordinary growth since the economic reform process began in 1978. But reform has also brought some unintended outcomes, including the gap between urban and rural development, environmental pollution and the marginalization of traditional farming. As governments at the central and local levels, as well as the public, have come to recognize the seriousness of these effects, more attention has been paid to sustainable development.

Two cases in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in southern China, illustrate how the local government and the public are trying to connect the green economy agenda with other sustainable development objectives, including poverty reduction, food security and social protection. The two cases—a government programme and a non-governmental initiative—involve different approaches.

Greenway Network
Zengcheng is a county-level city under the administration of Guangzhou. The idea of “greenways” was introduced in 2008 by a Zengcheng official after an overseas study trip. Greenways in Zengcheng fall under three categories: 200 kilometres of roads for private cars touring rural areas, 250 kilometres of recreational cycling/pedestrian paths, and 50 kilometres of river greenways for transportation by boat (Zhu 2010). The first category is not a greenway itself, but Zengcheng includes it as a category of the greenways due to its function. The second and third categories are innovative and have attracted more attention in China. The cycling/pedestrian greenways in Zengcheng were the start of a country-wide network, including in cities such as Wuhan in Hubei province and Chengdu in Sichuan province.

Greenways help develop rural transport through the construction of roads and attract urban residents to go to rural areas. This, in turn, has encouraged urban-rural investment and raised the incomes of farmers through catering, accommodation and the sale of agricultural products. Cycling/pedestrian greenways have been built with the local topography in mind—along hills and waterways, bypassing trees and villages, and including bridges over rivers where necessary. The development of cycling/pedestrian paths has made good use of barren lands, old workshops and old residential buildings by adapting them as rest and comfort stations along the greenways (Deng 2011). Farmers have established farmhouse hotels and restaurants, and set up markets for agricultural products. Thus greenways have promoted the consumption of these products, increasing their value added and the value of rural real estate (Zhu 2010). In 2009, both the sales volume and prices of agricultural products along greenways increased. The average income per farmer reached 9,281 yuan in 2009, an increase of 17 per cent compared to 2008, while the growth rate of the rural collective economy along greenways was 54 per cent higher than that away from greenways (Su and He 2011).

Greenways also boost the development of rural areas in Zengcheng, for example, by upgrading and improving environmental and sanitary facilities, such as public toilets, pond purification and sewage treatment (Deng 2011).

There is not much information on the negative aspects of greenways in Zengcheng, and what local rural residents think of the negative impacts on their lives and environment. However, future impact assessments and studies need to be mindful of the following issues: protecting the land-use rights of local rural residents; balancing building tourism facilities and their impacts on the local environment; minimizing garbage and pollution brought by urban tourists; and ensuring the delivery of benefits to local communities.

Urban-Rural Convergence (URC)
Urban-rural convergence (URC) is an umbrella organization which includes a government-organized non-governmental organization (GONGO) and several local non-profit NGOs. It aims to establish a bridge that could promote urban-rural interaction and communication, help small-scale farmers develop organic cultivation, and promote environmentally friendly and low-carbon living in urban areas. URC holds farmers’ market in urban areas of Guangzhou every month, offering organic and environment-friendly food and products purchased directly from farmers living in rural areas, while farmers are paid fair prices for good quality products produced sustainably. URC also holds public seminars on topics related to food security, healthy diet and environmental protection in order to raise public awareness and knowledge. In addition, URC organizes other activities including films, food tasting and “slow food” activities, aimed at urban consumers. Sometimes farmers are encouraged to attend activities, such as markets and demonstrations of the art of weaving bamboo, in the urban areas of Guangzhou. URC also organizes activities in which urban consumers travel to rural areas to visit farmers who have partnered with the organization. Through these activities, urban consumers know more about the issues of rural areas and food security, and personally experience how foods are grown. Thus they are more willing to purchase agricultural products that are grown under better environmental conditions. The market and other activities have attracted new consumers and boosted the consumption of the products. For example, at the very beginning, it was difficult to sell the four tons of “eco-rice” per year that was available. However, in 2010 the rice sold out immediately after it was transported to urban areas of Guangzhou, and the output of eco-rice reached 13 tons in 2011 (URC blog; Interview & Correspondence 2011).

Due to demands from the conventional market, farmers tend to adopt a mode of production that produces a large amount of products within a short period by extensively using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Rural producers, to make a living, are forced to give up traditional farming practices. The use of agrochemicals not only increases the cost of farming, but also exerts a negative impact on the environment. Urban residents, with increasing health and education levels, have become more aware of this situation and have adopted some measures that address problems related to environmental protection, poverty, food security and social/cultural protection. While these issues seem to be primarily rural problems, they have a direct link with urban residents. Choices and demand from urban consumers directly affect the products supplied by rural producers. Through changing the daily consumption habits of urban consumers, the rural mode of production can be changed.

The emergence of URC can be part of a solution to such problems. Through markets that directly connect urban and rural areas, urban residents can purchase healthy food that also benefit farmers in rural areas. The initiative also helps urban residents think about the link between food security and soil conservation, change their eating habits and the way they consume daily necessities, and pay more attention to food security and a low-carbon lifestyle. For rural residents, it helps encourage farmers to adopt traditional modes of farming, including selecting local seeds and varieties, using natural fertilizers instead of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and planting according to the seasons. In this way, air, water and soil in rural areas are kept free from pollution, and traditional modes of farming, as well as traditional handicrafts, can be preserved (URC blog).

Sixty to 80 per cent of the payment for the products goes to rural producers, under the condition that they strictly follow the production requirements (for example, growing foods without using pesticides, chemical fertilizers and herbicides). For some products for which demand is low, URC purchases these products and tries to sell them to the relatives and friends of its members, or consume them internally. Since there is no fund to subsidize this kind of purchase, URC needs to develop urban demand to reduce the pressure of dealing with such products. While some consumers welcome the products sold by URC because they are cheaper than organic products sold in supermarkets, others are reluctant to buy them because they consider the products more expensive than non-organic ones. Balancing supply and demand is a key challenge for URC. Sometimes supply cannot meet urban consumer demand; at other times, the demand is low and URC comes under pressure to sell the products. In addition, there are constraints in terms of human resources and funding, which is sometimes not available when needed. It is difficult for the organization to recruit members to carry out the work in villages, and this can affect the considerable work that needs to be done there (Interview & Correspondence 2011).

The two cases indicate that the local government and civil society are taking some measures to address problems brought on by fast economic growth and rapid urbanization. The approaches differ not only in terms of their issue focus but also in relation to actual or potential strengths and weaknesses. The government initiative has fewer difficulties in terms of implementation, but needs further study to examine possible negative aspects. The second case, like many NGO initiatives in China and elsewhere, has proven to be strong in terms of innovation and experimentation but lacks capacity and has experienced considerable difficulties in implementation and scaling up.

  • Interview & Correspondence 2011. Interview and correspondence with the GONGO of Urban-Rural Convergence (URC), 27 March, 15 September, and 5 December.
  • Deng, M. 2011. Study on Zengcheng City green corridor planning and construction mechanism. Planners, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 111–115 (in Chinese).
  • Su, J. and Q. He. 2011. Green and healthy corridor connecting urban and rural areas-greenways in Zengcheng, Guangzhou. Garden, No. 7, pp. 19–21 (in Chinese).
  • Urban-Rural Convergence (URC) blog (in Chinese). http://blog.sina.com.cn/gzcsa, accessed on 20 February 2011.
  • Zhu Z. 2010. Effects of greenways on developing green economy: A case study of exploration and practice of greenway construction in Zengcheng. Urban Insight, Vol. 3, pp. 86–91 (in Chinese).



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.