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Resisting the urban dinosaurs

Naive utopian development projects, such as those in drought-stricken Kunming, only exacerbate social and environmental problems, writes Zhu Xiaoyang.

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The document now facing me, from the Kunming City Planning Commission Office, in the south-west Chinese province of Yunnan, is certainly worth a read. It states that residential apartments under 40 storeys in downtown Kunming, “in principle will no longer be approved except as regards urban landscape considerations, requirements for aircraft clearance and controls on land construction sites… detailed plans for ‘urban village’ remodelling will, in line with this, undertake a comprehensive reorganisation.”

Let’s stop for a moment and consider the contemporary landscape of greater Kunming. There are now 330 areas classified as “urban villages” covering 18 square kilometres in the main city construction zone. Imagine, if you will, all this “remodelling” of the urban villages as a form of “strip integration”, which draws in neighbouring localities – even those that were outside the initial demolition and remodelling plans. A recent example is the urban village renovation of Panjiawan in Kunming. Although this urban village is only 39 acres (0.16 square kilometres), the area to be demolished is 129 acres (0.5 square kilometres).

Imagine now the picture of this future city: high-rise towers; every residence over 40-storeys high; the concrete forests and steel cities interspersed, of course, with green space and plazas. Imagine the legendary “Oriental Geneva”, the “bridgehead to south-east Asia”, the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful”.

This is no isolated case, but increasingly a model of Chinese urbanisation. I call this sort of city renovation and urbanisation “urban dinosaurisation”. The dinosaurs refer the enormous bodies formed by this urban expansion; to the unsustainability of this urban development; and also to their eventual, dinosaur-like fate. It can be fairly predict­ed that the cost of these dinosaurs will not be borne by those who created them: the city leaders, planners and real-estate developers. These people will leave early – and the price will be paid by those living in these areas.

It’s not going too far to call such cities dinosaurs. While satisfying a modernist desire to gaze over the human realm from some cosmic vantage point, such high-rise communities are hollow and will extinguish the intrinsic vitality of the city. In the cities of China today, vitality comes from three types of residential areas. First, traditional neighbourhoods like the hutongs of the Xuanwu and Chongwen districts of old Beijing. These have centuries of history; the city’s life was formed in these neighbourhoods, with their mixtures of residents always in view of each other. Second are the work unit communities formed in the 1950s. While the architecture of these areas is unremarkable, they have, like the older city neighbourhoods, social capital and vitality.

Third are the urban villages: city communities formed in a village framework. These are completely stigmatised in the current urban remodelling movement. However, as serious researchers and those who have lived in these places will attest, they are the same as the first two types of urban community in terms of being places that are functionally intact and orderly (albeit not in the eyes of city leaders), and whose residents are in close contact in a liveable environment.

It is these places that extend the life of the city, and promote the vitality that the modernist dinosaur city wants to extinguish. Can communities in the dinosaur city promote urban vitality? When a host of such communities emerged in the 1990s, planners designed ideal social spaces for these places, such as democratic homeowners’ committees and market-oriented property management systems. But still the most fundamental problem of these communities remains: the impossibility of the community to organise and the difficulty of forming committees of homeowners, leaving residents to skirmish with – rather than resist – the property companies.

Superficially, these areas look bright, but apart from minority groups of residents brought in from work-units that bought their housing collectively, they cannot properly solve residents’ or management problems. A great deal of social scientific investigation has confirmed this view. Such modernised communities need several decades of people living among each other before enough vitality gathers to change them from being empty giants.

Urban dinosaurisation is reflected further in the city’s external expansion and its engulfing of land and other resources to sustain it. Let me stay with Kunming as a case I know well. The area of the entire Dianchi Lake watershed is 2,920 square kilometres. Counting the plains and basin alone, the area is only 590 square kilometres. According to official plans, the central city area of Kunming should have been confined to 164.25 square kilometres by 2010, but the main urban region of Kunming already reached 249 square kilometres in 2008.

The consequences of such “urban dinosaurisation” have already been expressed by experts on resources and ecosystems. Following this year’s devastating drought in the Kunming region, experts pointed out that one of its causes was the rapid advance of urbanisation in the Dianchi Lake Basin, which has brought the capacity of its supporting water resources to the limit.

A muck-rake farmer by Dianchi Lake

Another example is the insertion of the north-south Kunluo Road, which extinguished “muck-rake” farming – where crops are planted in raked, muddy flats – along the east coast of Dianchi Lake: the route of the road destroyed irrigation system built in the 1950s, so that a place that in former times maintained high yields has been turned into one of alternating droughts and floods. Such roads also intensify urban expansion: once there is a road, property-development frenzy ensues. Kunming in the pre-drought years was already one of the nation’s 14 most water-stressed cities. This may seem ridiculous, but it’s true.

My warnings about urban dinosaurisation were once based on the notion that the dinosaur-makers entertained a naïve, modernist aesthetic. But I see that, in fact, all the 40-storey buildings imagined by these people are nothing but heaps of silver reaching to the sky, from the huge land transfer fees arising from urban village demolitions to the astronomical prices of the buildings and the so-called political merit that results. Such are the dreams of the dinosaur creators.

So, how can we put an end to urban dinosaurisation? Let’s start by giving up on the utopia described by Jane Jacobs as the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful”. The violence of profit-driven demolition and construction finds legitimacy within the enchantment of this utopian ideal, while the world of daily life of countless people meets its end. Let us hold fast to each “decrepit” neighbourhood and compound, and firmly reject the hard and soft violence of this silvery utopia. If we take this stand, we can stop the spread of the urban dinosaurs.

Zhu Xiaoyang is associate professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology, Peking University.

This article first appeared in
Southern Weekend. It is translated and reproduced here with permission.

Homepage image by Philou.cn 


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


(由Jieping Hu翻译。)

Who will "live" in these tower blocks

There is of course another dimension to such policies - who will live in these tower blocks?

Yunnan is known for its ethnic minorities. The tower blocks are likely to help increase the marginalisation of such people, as in other border areas of what is currently China.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

恐龙or not?





Dinosaurs or not?

Take a second to think about Chinese historical architecture; there's no question that historical architecture took shape according the "fashionable" forms of the time, or perhaps, from the builder's point of view, it was dinosaurisation within a certain situation...

Every analysis of the architectural styles and features of every era cannot stray from the social context of the time, as well as individual lifestyles, among other things. Likewise, with regard to today's so- called "dinosaur" architecture, it is also limited by social contexts in a way, and is also a display of individual lifestyles.

Could it be that this so- called prevention of dinosaurisation in fact indicates deviance from modern contexts in social affairs and personal lifestyle? Although we claim to reject such "empty" social scenery from the bottom of our hearts, this is a factual manifestation of which we cannot get rid. You could say that we will live amidst this dinosaurisation forever.

In future, to consistently attribute this dinosaurisation to the government, as the responsibility of whichever leader, is in fact quite irresponsible on our part.

(Translator: Ruaridhi Bannatyne)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复 “恐龙 or not?”



In Reply to 'Dinosaurs or not?'

I think you may have misunderstood the author's original intention. My understanding is that the author is attacking the the policy-capital oriented, man-made rapid process of urbanization, rather than paying attention to the changes in the landscape and "singing Elegy" for the agricultural community.

My dwelling is just in Kunming. From the most intuitive point of view, I feel these things happen now are not right. Things are now taking place in Kunming such as forced demolitions of anti-theft cage of the residents, Luoshi Bay incident, and compulsory relocation of irrelevant communities under the name of demolishing Urban Village. Apart from interpreting to performance and financial aspects, hardly could find any other reasonable explanation.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


英文版本中,意思为“昆明中心城区住宅项目规划中,低于40层以下的住宅不再需要原则上的审批”。(It states that in project planning for residential apartments under 40 storeys in downtown Kunming, “approval in principle is no longer required.)
但在中文版本中,意思却变成“昆明中心城区住宅项目规划中,不再受理审批低于40层以下的住宅。”(It states that in project planning for residential apartments under 40 storeys in downtown Kunming, “ in principle will no longer be approved.)
(由Jieping Hu 翻译。)

Chinese and English versions does not seem to match

In the English
It states that in project planning for residential apartments under 40 storeys in downtown Kunming, “approval in principle is no longer required.
But the Chinese text sounds more like:
It states that in project planning for residential apartments under 40 storeys in downtown Kunming, “ in principle will no longer be approved.
If the English text is accurate, that the approval of lower building is no longer required, why would "every residence over 40-storeys high"?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Response to comment 4

Thank you for pointing out this mistake. The text has now been corrected.


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Kunming- Deformed International Metropolis

From the point of view of a citizen of Kunming, it really is a dinosaurised city, as the author says. Kunming is in the process of being changed into a giant work site by the political ambitions of officials and the demand for real estate speculation on the part of property developers. What's more, repetitive construction has developed to the point of brazenness.
Green areas and trees in Kunming are being planted and dug up, dug up and replanted, according to the needs of the government , who are trying to create a "garden city", are under pressure from the ongoing transformation of the second ring road, as well as the current light rail construction, with no end in sight. Furthermore, the developers' construction sites, as they are established one by one, are making Kunming filthy beyond all endurance. Although Kunming is becoming a modern metropolis, it is losing its character.


(Translator: Ruaridhi Bannatyne)