Resisting the urban dinosaurs

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

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.

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