China became a mostly urban country in 2011, the service sector became the biggest in 2013, and in 2015 Chinese cities will try to reverse negative trends of sprawl and pollution. However, will it work, and by when?

The country is striving for its cities to become livable hubs to attract not just Chinese workers, but become global cities in their own rights with the ability to attract foreign talent.

To some, the day Chinese cities are on any “Most Livable Cities” list is a long way off (unless you count Hong Kong), but to others, it may be sooner than we think. The Economist recently pontificated on how to fix “The Great Sprawl of China”, and its conclusions are sobering.

First off, average travel speeds in Beijing are already half that of New York, so the cities are not just becoming polluted, but also congested. And on to top of that, citing McKinsey, The Economist notes that medium-sized cities are not just looking increasingly attractive, they’re outperforming megacities on almost any metric. So what is the future for megacities in China?

On pollution, only eight out of 74 Chinese cities met their own pollution standards in 2014, though in some rare good news, overall levels of PM2.5 dropped by 11%, though it’s probably too soon to see a corner being turned. In other words, it’ll likely be a few years before we see if the current anti-pollution campaign is yielding the desired results. Then again, monitoring is one thing, but what can China do to avoid its infamous ghost towns and clogged mega-cities?

According to Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng at the Fung Global Institute, monetary and credit reform are needed to make sure the most productive cities excel. Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that obesity and chronic diseases are on the uptick in China, familiar to those in the developed world, and that there is an important – yet perhaps unsurprising correlation – between these diseases and availability of walkable neighborhoods.

So, while transport is but one piece of the pollution puzzle, its design and connection to land-use planning will have far-reaching consequences for cities in China. The transport sector certainly shares some of the blame for rampant local air pollution, though it is not the only one. Everything from coal power plants to outdoor cooking has been blamed, and with recent plans to liquefy coal, this won’t just exacerbate air pollution; it will put immense pressure on water availability as well as quality.

Thus, the hope for Chinese cities is not to tackle one pollution source at a time, but to approach the problem of urban pollution from an urban planning perspective; this way cities may be able to tackle several issues at once. After all, a green traffic jam, is still a traffic jam.

One of the few transit-oriented development projects in Shanghai. Photo by Tali Trigg.