Traveling to China to teach and then returning to do research broadened Ernest “Ernie” Yanarella’s knowledge of eco-cities and China’s efforts to transform its urbanized society.
Yanarella, a retired University of Kentucky political science professor who lives in Versailles with his wife and constant travel companion, Elizabeth, co-authored a book exploring China’s strategy to achieve an ecological civilization.
Likely referencing his recently-published book’s subtitle – “China’s Uncertain Quest for an Ecological Civilization” – Yanarella described his 288-page book, “From Eco-Cities to Sustainable City-Regions” as objective “and critical in some places.”
“After all,” he continued, “China still heats and electrifies its cities to the tune of something like 75 percent” by burning coal to produce energy.
China has built 285 ecological cities – more than any other country – since 1985 and has made significant strides in terms of urban sustainability, Yanarella said. “Of course,” he added, “they have a long ways to go,” noting that 70 percent of China’s waterways are still polluted.
Eco-cities seek to reduce the social and economic weight on the ecosystem, said Yanarella, 76. He described “achieving an ecological civilization” as an extraordinary statement in China’s constitution because it’s a commitment by the party elite to “repair a highly-damaged environment.”
Yanarella said Americans can learn a lot from the Chinese experience.
One of the weaknesses he took away from his case studies in China was “most, if not all” of its eco-cities are built 15 or more miles away from the urban metropolitan area for which each is named.
“So the old city remains basically unsustainable. The new city,” with a much smaller population, “is for the most part a vibrant eco-city where there is this balance between nature’s needs and urban needs. But that doesn’t solve the issue of the un-sustainability of the old city,” Yanarella said.
He said Tianjin has China’s most advanced eco-city. Built about 35 miles away from its namesake with an investment of nearly $40 million, it’s considered a model of what can be accomplished. “But again, Tianjin proper – the city that it’s named for – has no significant changes to it, to make it more ecological,” Yanarella said.
His big takeaway from his work in China: “If you’re going to build eco-cities, rebuild the cities that are in existence because building these new structures, these new towns away from the city does nothing really to advance, overall, the urban landscape ... that should be your key targets.” So while building new eco-cities does advance policies to lower carbon emissions, it does nothing to help the environment in highly-populated urban areas, he added.
Asked about the difficulty of doing case-study research on five of China’s eco-cities, Yanarella said he was fortunate to have been selected for an Elite Collaboration grant that paired him with a Chinese scholar at Shanghai University. To overcome bureaucratic challenges faced by a foreign scholar doing research in China, Yanarella said he received help from five former students. They helped remove roadblocks so he could access documents and interview relevant policy-makers, he explained.
The native Chinese students also helped him overcome any language barrier – pointing out it can take about 10 years to become proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
“So I got access to really critical resources that I would not have gotten, given the fact that I didn’t have language proficiency and because I didn’t know how to press these functionaries into opening the door to information,” said Yanarella.
“I would’ve been completely lost,” he explained, if not for the assistance of a Chinese student Laura Zhang. She helped him navigate the native dialect spoken in one area of the country and better understand the nuances of Chinese words, he said.
Yanarella taught urban sustainability classes in China during the summers of 2013 and 2014. He returned to continue his eco-city research and do field work in June and October of 2017, he said. It was while doing preliminary research at Shanghai University that “I got more and more fascinated with this, and I began to think sort of structurally about what a book might look like …” he said.
Yanarella said he and his co-author, Richard S. Levine, have been working together on research projects on sustainable cities in the United States and elsewhere for about 35 years.
“So it was kind of a natural step (for us) to look into China,” he said.
One of the challenges with their latest project was making sure they offered an analysis on where sustainable cities will get their food – hence a focus on city-regions, he explained.
He pointed out China’s shift in its recent history from being a rural to urban country created a need for its government to make significant investments in Africa. China needs that country’s arable land to feed its population, he explained.
Reflecting on his summer teaching experiences at Shanghai University, Yanarella said he and other educators from the University of Kentucky were challenged with encouraging Chinese students to participate in discussions and become active learners.
His classroom didn’t have air conditioning and the average temperature was 88 to 92 degrees, but Yanarella said he still thoroughly enjoyed teaching a course on urban sustainability while drawing his students into discussions. He learned to be determined and patient – sometimes waiting in silence for up to a minute before “a brave soul or two” responded to his question.
“By the end of the course,” he said, “I felt very good about having been able to move these students from their typical learning environment, where they just sit there and take copious notes, take tests ... (to) a much freer outgoing environment.”
Chinese university administrators have come to realize if students don’t learn critical thinking skills, they will never demonstrate real creativity, he said.
By his third summer teaching in China, Yanarella said his class – of now active learners – there compared favorably to the best course he taught at the University of Kentucky in 45-plus years. “It was just a marvelous experience,” he said.
“From Eco-Cities to Sustainable City Regions: China’s Uncertain Quest for an Ecological Civilization” may be purchased on Edward Elgar Publishing’s website (e-elgar.com).