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China’s leaders have overseen remarkable economic growth but now they must provide the country’s people with the quality of life to match.

While they were making the long climb out of post-Mao poverty, few Chinese had time to worry about anything other than jobs, money and Louis Vuitton handbags. Now, the large and growing middle class is discovering the joys of free time, green space and environmental protection.

Not-in-my-backyard environmental protestors have sparked some of the biggest street demonstrations in China in recent months. Urban dwellers, who make up more than half the population, want healthier cities to live in.

Spending on tourism and leisure is on the rise, as Beijing creates more public holidays to boost domestic consumption.

Employers report that workers are paying more attention to issues other than money. Work-life balance is no longer universally viewed as a dangerous western import and some workers are even quitting good jobs to pursue it.

In the quest for better quality of life, megalopolises such as Shanghai are trying to create more liveable urban spaces. But with 23m people and a ratio of skyscrapers to green space that may be the worst in the world, it will take hard work to achieve that goal, urban development experts say.

Some smaller cities, such as Ningbo in the east of the country, aim to provide an urban-lifestyle alternative to the bright lights of Shanghai and the broad avenues of Beijing.

Ningbo is one of China’s oldest cities. It is an important port on the ancient marine Silk Road that connected China with Europe and has done a better job of preserving historic buildings than many others in China.

Ningbo is a municipality of some 7m people – hardly large by the standards of Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing, each of which have 20m-30m people, but no village even so.

The old city has run out of room, so the municipality is building a new town for 170,000 workers and 200,000 residents from scratch, across the river from the existing metropolis. Ningbo is determined that it will be clean, green, sustainable and constructed on a human scale.

When Ningbo sought submissions to design the new town, it received the usual grandiose high-rise designs so beloved of Chinese municipalities. The city rejected them in favour of a lower-rise vision.

The new town will celebrate its watercourses, rather than following the example of many Chinese cities and bury them under concrete. Existing canals have been straightened and redirected to create a pattern that allows water to be seemingly around every corner, in the form of canals, lakes, ponds and wetlands that will also be used to filter and purify water naturally.

At the new town’s core will be a large green belt, or “central park”.

Peter Duncan, chairman of Hassell Studio, one of the two principal designers of the new town project, says: “This is where the true urbanisation story of China is really happening, in these cities of 1m-4m people – and China has hundreds of them.”

On the outskirts of Ningbo, at Dongqian lake, the city will create an ecotourism project based on man-made and floating islands that will house a resort, as well as serving as a fish farm and natural water purifying plant.

The design recently won a prestigious World Architecture Festival award for Hassell: it involves a central island made from soil created by dredging the heavily silted lake, with smaller floating islands whose reed beds will be used to improve the water quality of the lake. Fishing villages on the edge of the lake will be able to reel the islands in and out, depending on the breeding cycle of the lake’s fish.

The Dongqian lake project won in the “experimental” category. Mr Duncan says China is fertile ground for such urban experimentation. “China is very receptive to new ideas,” he says, echoing a view that applies across various sectors, from designing cars to inventing snack products, to urban development itself.

“People will try things whereas in more mature environments, governments are more challenged by that.”

Ningbo will need all that creativity: it was recently the site of angry street demonstrations against plans to expand a petrochemical complex. Like cities throughout China, Ningbo has hard choices to make: it still needs industry but it can no longer afford to put economic growth single-mindedly before the quality of life of its people.

With additional reporting by Yan Zhang

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