Foreign Policy just published an issue completely devoted to urban issues. Two in particular – both about China – caught my attention, mostly for the way in which they take different approaches to telling essentially the same story about place and its role in Chinese cities.
As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it’s wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China’s first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei — he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that ”only the name of the airport changes.”
Author Isaac Fish goes on to describe how the Soviet perception of what a city should be influenced Mao Zedong in the 1950s, when he and his Communist Party were busy with the massive project of turning China from a failed, agrarian state into an industrial Proletariat powerhouse. One way or another, the universal application of a single urban aesthetic was probably inevitable, given Communism’s top-down, control-freak approach to just about every aspect of life. The result, of course, was that every Chinese city looked more or less like every other Chinese city, all of which were built as monuments to the greater glory of Communism instead of as functional, pleasant places to live and work. And unfortunately for Chinese city dwellers, this may be the most enduring component of Mao’s political legacy.
The ugly, utilitarian nature of Chinese cities is bad enough. But perhaps even worse is the possibility that Chinese planners are continuing to make the very same mistakes as they try to accommodate the astounding rates of urban growth that have been lowering the overall quality of life in the cities for decades:
In the last five years, China has built 20,000 miles of expressways, finishing the construction of 12 national highways a whopping 13 years ahead of schedule and at a pace four times faster than the United States built its interstate highway system. Over the last decade, Shanghai alone has built some 1,500 miles of road, the equivalent of three Manhattans. China’s urban population is projected to grow by 350 million people by 2020, effectively adding today’s entire U.S. population to its cities in less than a decade. China has already passed the United States as the world’s largest car market, and by 2025, the country will need to pave up to an estimated 5 billion square meters of road just to keep moving.
Here in the United States, we have some experience with this sort of thing – specifically, what it can do to cities. Put simply, highways kill cities. They cause air and groundwater pollution, isolate neighborhoods, encourage harmful and expensive sprawl, and redistribute wealth and economic activity outward. The completely destroy any sense of place – one highway is more or less interchangeable with another, after all – which apparently isn’t much of a problem because Chinese cities lack that sense as it is.
One might argue that Chinese planners have to work within the constraints of the environment they find themselves in, and that they cannot be expected to undo the decades-old mistakes of Mao’s central planning. Best to concentrate on how best to move people and goods through the country’s urban areas, where comparative economic prosperity draws in countless refugees from the countryside every single year. I mean, just look at the populations of China’s 20 largest cities. Managing growth under those conditions has to be a near-impossible task.
Perhaps. But the Chinese have never shied away from hyper-ambitious building projects in the past – witness, for example, the brand-new city of Kilamba that Chinese interests built in Angola. Big just doesn’t scare them.
So it’s probably not a fear of large projects that stands in the way of making Chinese cities livable. Rather, it seems to me (admittedly, a non-expert on China and things Chinese) that the root of it is in the historical Chinese understanding of what cities are for in the first place. Remember, China went from a rural country to an industrial, urbanizing one very quickly. The priorities of the Communist Party at that time had little to do with turning their suddenly growing cities into masterpieces of urban planning and design – and much more to do with harnessing the massive production potential of the peasants, farmers and factory workers. Cities have long been a means for human societies to take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to manufacturing, and the Chinese seem to get this. To them, cities were not (and perhaps still are not) places for living – they were, first and foremost, places for producing.
Industry, growth and placemaking are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason Chinese cities have to be devoid of any sense of place. There is no reason they have to be more or less identical to each other. But it takes foresight, commitment, and long-term thinking. Do Chinese planners have what it takes? Maybe. But sadly, all those new highways suggest otherwise.