Millions of people are joining China’s urban population each year. By 2030, Chinese cities are expected to have one billion residents. These cities need smart, coherent strategies for development that make urban spaces livable, prosperous, and sustainable.

The Prize for Cities of the Future can help inspire such strategies. This award, jointly established by the Paulson Institute and the China Center for International Economic Exchange, is given each year to a municipal project in China that demonstrates a “creative, effective, and scalable solution” to sustainable urban development challenges. 

Today’s urban planning decisions in China will carry huge consequences for how these cities develop for decades to come. Once set in place, features such as street networks are difficult or impossible to modify.

The Prize seeks to identify models that other Chinese cities can learn from and emulate. A jury committee – comprised of both American and Chinese experts on sustainable development, including former Chicago mayor Richard Daley; Dean of Tsinghua University’s Architecture Program, Zhuang Weimin; and Energy Innovation CEO Hal Harvey – reviews and selects from China’s cutting-edge urban development projects.

This year, the prize went to the Shenzhen International Low-Carbon City project, which is one of 12 Chinese cities involved in the EU-China Urbanization Partnership. Here’s what I found when I went to visit:

The Shenzhen International Low-Carbon City, which is expected to be completed in 2020, will generate a total GDP of 24.5 billion RMB. The city also has ambitious carbon targets. According to information from its Exhibition Hall, the goal is for carbon emissions to be less than 0.32 tons per 10,000 RMB by 2020. By contrast, China’s overall carbon intensity in 2009 was 2.59 tons of carbon per 10,000 RMB.  

This comprehensive urban renewal project, located in an underdeveloped neighborhood in Shenzhen, has served the needs of local residents by upgrading existing buildings and factories, rather than tearing them down. In general, the city is focusing on low-carbon industrial projects and economic development.

The Shenzhen Low-Carbon City plan incorporates many important principles of sound urban design, including an emphasis on mixed-use neighborhoods, transit-oriented development, and dense, pedestrian-friendly street networks.  

According to experts at Shenzhen’s Institute for Building Research, which is heavily involved in the planning and construction of the city, the plans call for a real-time monitoring platform to track the city’s emissions. This is a critical issue given concerns about air pollution in Chinese cities. By sharing data and analytics on low-carbon development strategies, this platform can be a learning tool for other cities to help them replicate the policies that the low-carbon city is employing.

A city's culture and emphasis on innovation can take projects to the next level

Besides promoting sustainable urban design, the low-carbon city aims to attract innovative clean energy industries. One example: by remodeling apartment buildings so they are conducive to both working and living, the city hopes to attract entrepreneurs and decrease the costs of starting new companies.

Construction in the low-carbon city has also emphasized efficiency. For example, temporary housing for construction workers, which is erected in a matter of days, is made of reusable building materials. Shenzhen is also one of the top cities for new energy vehicles, with more than 6,000 currently in use.  The government also plans to make solar water heating compulsory for all buildings less than 12 stories.

Beyond the low-carbon city, Shenzhen as a whole is impressive and shows how sustainable development can go hand in hand with economic innovation. About one-third of the city’s GDP comes from high-tech industries, and 61% of these industries’ economic output contains independent intellectual property.

The Shenzhen Low-Carbon International City project shows not only the importance of focusing on sustainable, efficient methods for urban development, but also how a city’s culture and emphasis on innovation can take projects to the next level.

How do you think cities should look in 2020? Join in the conversation below! 

CC Huang is a Policy Analyst at Energy Innovation LLP. This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details.