China’s urban disease (1)

Zhang Song is a Shanghai-based planning professor and urban-preservation expert. In the first half of a two-part interview, he talks to Zhang Chuanwen about the death of vitality in China’s flash new cities.

Despite the “Better City, Better Life” theme of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, many argue China’s cities are becoming ever less habitable. Southern Metropolis Daily reporter Zhang Chuanwen discusses the problems facing China’s cities with professor Zhang Song of Shanghai Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning (CAUP).

Zhang Chuanwen: For the first time, the theme of the World Expo is “the city”. What does that signify for China?

Zhang Song: China needs to pull together the mistakes made and lessons learned from building cities and look at advanced practices in foreign countries. The Expo has many showy buildings, but it doesn’t seem like any of them will become classics. The former dean of CAUP, Wu Zhiqiang, was the chief planner for the Expo, and at the start of planning proposed a focus on the city rather than landmark buildings.

His proposal for the Expo was to create an “eco-positive” urban concept focused on purifying water, producing energy, increasing greenery and reducing temperatures. Buildings, spaces and landscaping would demonstrate this concept and, at the same time, showcase the latest methods of reducing urban energy and resource consumption. But given the time available for construction, I’m afraid it wasn’t easy to achieve this ideal. Maybe some buildings used some sustainable technology, some energy-saving materials, but the Expo is huge and limited by available funds and technology. So there was a big gap between the original plan and the actual outcome.

The site of the Expo was originally home to hundreds of thousands of square metres of factory space. If that had been made full use of, perhaps things would have been simpler, or have better embodied environmental principles. But, while a few old buildings were kept, the majority were demolished. Outside of China, a huge proportion of large cultural facilities are housed in old buildings. Paris’s bid for the 2008 Olympics included plans to remodel old factories as stadiums. 

China is currently urbanising very rapidly – the number of urban dwellers is approaching half of the country’s total population and there is a significant rural population that is temporarily resident in cities. Despite China’s massive efforts, there are still many problems with cities of all sizes, even in the “New Villages”. There’s a real need for an examination of how urbanisation in China should proceed. 

ZC: Many people complain about unsatisfactory transportation, environment, housing, public facilities and buildings. Many places suffer from congestion and polluted skies. Cities are changing at an incredible pace, with many modern and post-modern buildings appearing, but lacking any sense of intimacy. I fear there is a common feeling of oppression arising from unfamiliarity and dislocation.

ZS: China’s cities are becoming ever less habitable, there’s no debate about that. It’s due to overdevelopment of urban areas.

At the start of reform and opening up, special economic zones such as Shenzhen [a city in south China] were established to boost industry, and planning rules were applied flexibly. This spurred local economies, particularly in industrial development. At that time, it wasn’t possible to consider issues like the environment. Some industrial zones might not have given enough consideration to their local environment, but they did promote rapid industrial growth – and so have historical significance.

Since then, large scale rebuilding programmes have transformed the appearance of old cities. For years we neglected preservation of older areas, and so the environment declined and facilities decayed. China’s approach to development is also extremely backward. Developers take a piece of land they believe will be profitable and then completely rebuild it as they see fit. 

If the government’s main function cannot shift toward the social – concentrating on things such as housing provision – then it will be led by the market. Currently, a completely commercialised mode of development is gaining strength and the quality of urban spaces is declining. And, of course, the government makes no small income from land development.

After World War Two, the west also saw many of its old cities rebuilt. The war had left many old houses empty or ruined, and some cities reconstructed these areas or built new areas to solve housing issues and improve the environment of the original city. But in Europe, the United States and Japan, this was done through special legislation, with the state or public companies taking the lead. In Japan, a housing corporation under the construction ministry was responsible – it obtained local government land and used it principally to provide housing.

In China, development was originally carried out by companies owned by the housing authorities, but this has changed, with Hong Kong developers, private corporations and listed companies now taking the lead. Of course, state-owned firms also exist, but market competition and the pursuit of productivity means they act no differently from the others. So China currently has no city with government-led housing provision and, as land becomes more expensive, profits from development increase and house prices go up, the authorities are often left powerless.

ZC: Does the single-minded pursuit of maximum profit mean that China’s cities are bound to be unpleasant to live in? Is there anything we can learn from other countries?

ZS: Why did the west change its approach after a decade or more of large-scale and intense urbanisation? Because it was causing environmental destruction across entire cities. Densely packed, tall buildings were spoiling the ecological balance; and rebuilding old cities was failing to solve transportation pressures, housing costs and unemployment.

They realised what was happening and very quickly shifted policy toward the protection and restoration of old cities, emphasising the reinvigoration of communities and public participation in planning and construction. Protecting and changing the use of old buildings is better for the environment and saves resources and energy – and also touches on hidden issues such as social structure.

ZC: People get the feeling that cities are all identical, that they lack individual characteristics and are just emotionless giants.

ZS: A city isn’t a mechanical thing, but an organic life form with history and culture that needs to grow. The identification of residents with their city is also extremely important. But China views cities as machines to be dismantled and put together at will. That has created numerous problems, including the loss of urban characteristics and a crisis of urban culture. 

Urban-rural planning issues have not been solved at root, and the disparities in economic levels and welfare across cities are increasing. Within cities, social segregation and stratification are intensifying and there is a very clear problem when it comes to identification with cities – residents move too frequently, old areas have been developed and destroyed and the original architecture lost. Many new arrivals cannot integrate into the city and so feel alienated and have no sense of belonging.

There is an expert in Japan who says that, where planning is concerned, the difference between Japan and China is that the Chinese consider things visually – since reform and opening up, China’s metaphorical path has widened, and so the roads in cities have to be wider too. This kind of idea is deeply rooted in the minds of many leaders, with planning often aimed at creating large spaces, restricting or removing the vitality of the city. Beijing is a classic example. Huge roads make it difficult for citizens to get around, and there are major transportation problems. After the reunification of Germany, West German planners found the work of their colleagues over the border to be dehumanising. But when I went I thought it was actually not bad – because our roads are even wider.

Many new districts are even more open, are drawn in even larger strokes. This increases the cost of maintenance. For example, the large lawns running through the middle of Guangzhou [south China] are an example of an artificial environment – maintaining that grass carries a huge annual cost. A good environment will look after itself without a great deal of human intervention and, therefore, will not cost much. Many cities are looking for a quick impact and so they just go for superficial projects.

NEXT: the need for an urban awakening

This article was first published by
Southern Metropolis Daily on May 9, 2010. It is adapted and used here with permission.

Zhang Song is professor and PhD supervisor at Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In 1996, Zhang was awarded a PhD in urban design and historical preservation from the University of Tokyo. He is also a member of the China Urban Planning Association’s Historical Culture Preservation Committee and Shanghai Building Association’s Historical Building Preservation Committee

Zhang Chuanwen is a journalist at
Southern Metropolis Daily.

Homepage image from Jakob Montrasio