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Making Great Communities Happen … in China

The American Planning Association, with an assist from the Department of Commerce, is helping its members penetrate the Chinese market.

by Ana M. Guevara and Sara E. Hagigh

Much of the recent news on U.S.–China relations focuses on things that aren’t working well, such as trade deficits, intellectual property rights violations, and currency imbalances. But a little-known fact is that as recently as 2004 the United States realized a trade surplus with China in services of $1.6 billion. And the recent successes of member companies of the American Planning Association (APA) in selling their services to China prove that U.S. firms can and do compete in this market.

The APA is a professional organization with 40,000 members who work in community design, architecture, civil engineering, and environmental land use. Its motto is “Making Great Communities Happen.” In 2005, the APA set its sight on China by creating its China Initiative.

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The central city of Nantong, Jiangsu province, China. The American Planning Association has worked with the government of Nantong to craft a strategic plan, the first to combine American planning elements with Chinese guidelines.
The city center of Nantong, Jiangsu province, China, where several member companies of the American Planning Association pursued work with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Photo courtesy of American Planning Association)


Economic Growth Fuels Demand for Services

The age-old law of supply and demand was behind the APA’s drive to promote sales to China. China’s economy has exploded at a blistering pace, with double-digit growth in gross domestic product during the past several years. Along with an unprecedented pace of urbanization and rural migration, a strong and sustained demand for urban planning and design expertise has developed.

Since 1996, the APA has run a China program that has linked U.S. urban design firms and experts with hundreds of Chinese mayors and provincial leaders. These contacts have led directly to many U.S. business sales. In October 2005, the APA won a three-year Market Development Cooperator Program (MDCP) award from the U.S. Department of Commerce to support its China Initiative. The MDCP provides federal assistance to nonprofit export multipliers that serve small businesses, and it is operated by the International Trade Administration.

Partnership with Commerce Department Experts

The Commerce Department quickly assembled a team to work closely with the APA on its China Initiative. Team members were drawn from many parts of the agency. Specialists from the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service—who are located both in the United States and in key in-country posts such as Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenyang—were especially important, bringing a strong knowledge of industry sectors important to the APA and an understanding of the Chinese market and the strengths that U.S. companies offer.

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Chinese officials and representatives of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the American Planning Association look at a model for a factory and research and development center being developed for the Yangtze River Pharmaceutical Group. (U.S. Department of Commerce photo)


Building on Existing Initiatives

Within the China Initiative, one hallmark is a program that provides training and exchanges for U.S. planning companies and senior Chinese planning officials and mayors. Since 2002, the APA has already brought more than 100 Chinese mayors to the United States, where they visited several cities, met with U.S. companies, and learned about U.S. planning and design concepts. The APA had also arranged for business missions to China and has accompanied U.S. planning companies in meeting with Chinese government officials and planning companies.

Expanded Marketing Efforts

With its China Initiative, the APA is continuing to promote U.S. urban planning and urban design services and planning philosophies. The APA’s five-part strategy includes (1) establishing a fully staffed APA office in Shanghai, (2) preparing promotion material for the China market in English and Mandarin, (3) providing training and exchanges for APA members and Chinese customers, (4) organizing business trips to China for U.S. planning companies, and (5) cultivating long-term relationships with Chinese clients.

Shanghai will be the center of the APA’s China operations. As the capital of the Jiangsu province, the city is the economic hub of the Yangtze River delta. During the term of the MDCP award, the APA expects the Shanghai office to provide marketing and training for APA professionals in China and to facilitate collaboration between urban planners and members of related industries.

Successful Efforts Bring Sales

The first year of the MDCP award has been a success for the APA’s efforts in China. Seven U.S. firms have already signed contracts worth almost $500,000. The services they are exporting to China include design and engineering, transportation planning, urban development, and architectural services.

The combination of market strength and a strong partnership with the Commerce Department has given U.S. firms a leg up in succeeding in the Chinese market. Jeff Soule, the APA’s policy director, echoes that sentiment, noting, “It’s a great partnership, and we all recognize that the service sector is the fastest-growing sector in China and that U.S. firms are the leaders in planning, design, and development services.”

Ana M. Guevara is the International Trade Administration’s deputy assistant secretary for services. Sara E. Hagigh is an international trade specialist in the International Trade Administration’s Office of Service Industries and team leader for the APA MDCP award.

For More information

For more information on the APA’s China Initiative, visit Information on export assistance tools available to U.S. firms interested in the Chinese market is available at


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