Summer in the Field: Cooling Down Urban Neglect with Heat Mitigation Strategies in Guangzhou, China

Yangqing Fang, Guangdong, China. Photo by Xiaofei Qin.

By Xiaofei Qin

Against the backdrop of climate change, the world has experienced a concerning rise in extreme heat events in recent times. Between 2010-2019, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) recorded 38 heatwaves that accounted for the deaths of over 70,000 people, making them among the deadliest hazards. Urban heat island effects can also exacerbate the impact of naturally occurring heat waves.

The gravity of heatwaves is highly pronounced in developing countries. In these regions, individuals with limited resources face a disproportionate lack of access to cooling infrastructure and essential healthcare resources.

A compelling illustration of this environmental inequity can be found in China. Following the era of reform and opening up, rapid urbanization has reshaped cityscapes, leaving historic villages and towns ensconced amidst towering skyscrapers.

In sprawling metropolises like Guangzhou, located in southern China, these enclaves of antiquity coexist as simmering epicenters within the urban sprawl. Characterized by high population density, a blend of elderly residents and continuous influx of migrants and an atmosphere laden with humid intensity, these urban pockets transform into concrete jungles pulsating with unrelenting heat.

Yongqing Fang Alleyways, a century-old neighborhood that had long been neglected, has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. What was once a place that garnered little attention has now emerged as one of the most captivating destinations in Guangzhou. With an influx of around 3 million tourists annually, Yongqing Fang has revitalized its appeal. In response to the scorching temperatures that dominate summer in Guangzhou, where the temperature can climb up to 102.7°F during the hottest spells, a series of innovative cooling strategies have been diligently employed. These include creating cold alleys, installing vertical greenery, incorporating water features and deploying water-mist machines, among other tactics.

Nevertheless, could the cooling approaches implemented in this pilot community be extrapolated to other old towns, urban villages and even those in diverse developing countries? How can a continuously expanding city ensure that various population groups reap the advantages of urban renovation and cooling policies?

As part of my 2023 Summer in the Field Fellowship, I set out to investigate what can be learned from this project’s design and challenges.

Project details and stakeholders

In 2019, the World Bank launched the Efficient, Clean Cooling Program program. A year later, Guangzhou was chosen as the first city to launch the “China Sustainable Urban Cooling Project.” The goal is to share the experience and knowledge of adapting to climate change with other developing countries. As part of this effort, the Yongqing Fang Urban Renovation Project was selected to showcase sustainable cooling and the restoration of old towns. This project introduces a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model to support implementation of urban cooling measures.

The Vanke Group, a large residential real estate developer in China, signed a 15- to 20-year lease with Guangzhou for lands in Yongqing Fang that will be returned to the government after the operation period expires. Through a partnership with the World Bank, the company handles the development, operation and upkeep of the historical areas, while covering the initial costs. This project involves various groups, including World Bank, government agencies, scientists, planning institutes, developers and the local public, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: China Sustainable Urban Cooling Project Multi-stakeholders
Stakeholder Role Costs and benefits
World Bank Providing information and knowledge support – Provided technical consultancy

– While direct financial funding was not extended by the World Bank, it does offer loans for sustainable projects. However, this financial avenue was not pursued by the Yongqing Fang project.

Governmental agencies (e.g., local Planning Bureau) Property provision; decision-making on cooling planning; negotiation with the developer – Demonstrated land property allocation for the project’s execution.

– Provided funding for the project’s demonstration phase.

– Supported the financing of relocation expenses.

Scientists and researchers Knowledge sharing and providing support – Provided technical consultancy
Technical organizations (e.g., Urban Planning Institute) Offering technical support – Contributed planning schemes and provided technical consultancy services.
Developer (Vanke Group) Funding and being a decision-maker for community development – Invested financial resources into the project’s development.

– Derived revenue through property rental.

– Supported the financial aspects of relocation efforts.

Public (residents/ tourists/retailers) Indirect involvement by sharing personal perceptions – Residents experienced improved living conditions and potential economic benefits through relocation.

– Tourists benefited from enhanced recreational opportunities.

– Retailers secured rental spaces for commercial activities.

Source: Author elaboration based on Guangzhou Pilot Project Group of Urban Cooling for China Sustainable Development.

To safeguard the urban essence of Guangzhou’s old town, the project predominantly adopts conventional ventilation and insulation methods alongside economical contemporary technologies like shading and misting. Within the 1.52-hectare pilot zone in Yongqing Fang, the implementation of urban cooling techniques will result in an engineering expense of $80,000 to $90,000. This stands in stark contrast to the approximately $10 million required for the complete construction of the third section of Yongqing Fang.

The project incorporates several cooling strategies, with their impacts closely monitored by a variety of sensors tracking temperature, wind, humidity and more. According to findings from the fieldwork and documents from the Guangzhou Urban Planning & Design Survey Research Institute, the most effective strategies include water-mist machines, vegetation and trees and the ventilation and shading inherent in traditional architecture.


An initial challenge was reconciling the competing interests between commercial transformation and long-time local resident who wish to remain in their homes.

Although the government granted land rights, the funding for the construction and operation of Yongqing Fang as a tourist destination is entirely supplied by the Vanke Group, the developer. During the initial phases, the relocation of residents emerged as the predominant concern. The government has seized certain houses in Yongqing Fang to safeguard their historical significance and facilitate commercial development.

However, this action has given rise to challenges. Rather than accepting the one-time compensation for their expropriated houses, some residents anticipate that the government’s transformation of the area into a vibrant commercial zone could potentially increase the long-term commercial value of their properties. This assumption is grounded in the fact that even if the properties aren’t directly used for commercial purposes, the compensation for historical building expropriation in a well-established commercial region in the future is likely to be higher than the current offer.

Around 20 households in Yongqing Fang have turned down the government’s compensation policy and instead opted for “self-renewal.” Although the government can provide detailed plans and management guidelines, the reality is that for the original residents who have resisted relocation, it’s challenging for them to achieve the benefits they initially anticipated. To begin with, the living conditions within the old community no longer align with modern standards. The offspring of the original residents often move out once they’re married. The residents remain rooted in the community based on the familiarity and tranquility of the relationships they’ve forged over the years. However, this strong social fabric has been tested following the departure of those who were expropriated.

Considering the costs of construction, the company is unable to refurbish all its properties simultaneously. Consequently, the few remaining old houses have continued to deteriorate. Furthermore, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the developer’s financial inflow for the Yongqing Fang project. This has forced the developer to accelerate the project’s market entry, leading to a relaxation of the construction standards for the cooling project.

Revitalizing urban areas is consistently a complex undertaking, largely due to the challenge of harmonizing the interests of all stakeholders involved. The developmental journey of Yongqing Fang stands as a triumphant example of historical district rejuvenation, offering valuable insights. Nevertheless, it also highlights the predicament inherent in applying commercial transformation strategies to the in-situ renovation of run-down residential zones in old towns and urban villages, a practice commonly adopted across diverse contexts.

In scenarios where subsequent commercial returns are absent, the substantial renovation expenses become onerous for both the government and local inhabitants to shoulder. Additionally, environmental enhancements often coincide with heightened local rents. This places individuals with modest incomes, who initially opted for affordable urban village living, and the off-farm workers drawn to urban centers for employment, in a precarious position due to their inability to absorb the accompanying rent hikes. Consequently, their living spaces contract further, which may further undermine social equity.

Another notable challenge lies in fostering public awareness. While individuals may not be inherently concerned about rising temperatures, their attention tends to gravitate towards issues such as construction noise and property matters. Often, a lack of understanding exists regarding the developments taking place within their own communities.

Thus, a crucial avenue to explore is the empowerment of residents. Drawing from the experience of Yongqing Fang, the key to extending this approach to other communities rests in engaging and empowering local inhabitants. By involving residents in the decision-making process of renovation and cooling strategies, and by devising comprehensive toolkits, information exchange can be facilitated between governmental bodies, developers, technical organizations and the community members themselves. This collaborative approach can pave the way for effective heat mitigation solutions that are both impactful and community driven.

Heat presents a pronounced issue in developing nations, accentuated by the disempowerment experienced by local inhabitants and marginalized groups. Additionally, the adoption of commercial transformation tactics poses a barrier to the viability of extending the BOT model to encompass other initiatives aimed at revitalizing historical areas and implementing cooling strategies.

To ensure equitable societal outcomes, it is imperative to embrace a more collaborative and community-centric approach. This approach should encompass comprehensive toolkits designed to enhance the exchange of information and establish a balanced framework for evaluating costs and benefits between multi-stakeholders, including governmental entities, developers, technical organizations and the broader community, ultimately fostering greater potential for success.


Learn more about the Summer in the Field Fellowship Program.