China’s urban disease (2)

Wide roads and vast buildings are contributing to a metropolitan malaise in China, Zhang Song tells Zhang Chuanwen. Public engagement in planning is, he says, the only way ahead.

Zhang Chuanwen: China used to criticise the “urban disease” of the west, but now it seems to be suffering from the same affliction.

Zhang Song: In some respects, it’s more serious. In the past, China avoided talking about such things as “urban disease”. During Mao’s time, the government didn’t want the cities to develop – it wanted to move city residents to the countryside, and right up to the 1980s the focus was on developing smaller cities. It was only later that the scale effects of large cities were realised.

You can’t say that China’s cities suffer from all the same symptoms as those in the west, but there are definitely bigger problems with the urban environment. Large-scale urban developments only have a little artificial landscaping and greenery, there’s no ecosystem to talk of. You need to remember that greenery and landscaping aren’t just to look nice, they actually improve the ecological environment.

Also, problems relating to employment and urban culture in China are different from those in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan. China just focuses on the economic impact, measurable in hard cash. Social and environmental impacts are not easy to quantify and are taken into account last, if at all. Think about it – how many social networks and jobs have been lost as a result of large-scale reconstruction? How hard is it to rebuild those networks? And how will the government deal with that?

The issue of reconstruction aside, China’s cities are also too big and there’s a real problem with urban sprawl. All the cities in the Yangtze River and Pearl River deltas are expanding outwards, and if you include industrial zones, villages and towns, plus all the highways and rail lines, human construction may have already reached an ecological limit.

ZC: What are the reasons for these failings?

ZS: First, there are underlying errors in the government’s understanding of cities. For example, there is a misconception that bigger cities are better cities. But it isn’t a question of size, it’s a question of comfort, efficiency, environmental quality, liveability and, in particular, suitability for different types of people to flourish. The government needs to recognise the nature of cities, rather than treat them as a source of prestige or as a copy of other urban centres like New York. And when there’s a change of leader, there are new ideas, and things chop and change – something that central government has actually spoken against.

Second, urban planning is a social activity that citizens can get involved in. City party secretaries and mayors place huge importance on planning, but only listen now and then to expert advice and there are no channels for public opinion to influence planning. There’s a lack of legislation to support this, a lack of process for public participation and a lack of professional input. Urban planning has become a case of simply doing what the leaders say. The market economy has caused planners themselves to lose their way, to abandon their professional knowledge and ideals. They have become mere draftsmen.

Third, you can’t treat urban land simply as a source of economic gain. The land is also part of the environment. And, in old places, it has its own history and culture. If people can live successfully on a piece of land, then it becomes a community with beneficial social networks. If land is seen as a commodity to be bought and sold at will, much potential social, economic and cultural benefit is lost – this is the root issue.

In the west, land is largely privately owned and, if a piece of land needs to be protected from development for reasons of history, culture, natural beauty or public interest, then the government purchases it. This is how national parks work in the United States, and how historical buildings are protected in much of the west. Cities take shape over time, as the work and wisdom of generations accumulate. They are the crystallisation of the public’s pursuit of betterment. To let those with money and power play around with this as they wish is extremely rash.

ZC: How do you bring about an urban awakening? How did it happen in the west?

ZS: I’m sure that China’s leaders and developers already know everything we’ve been discussing here, but for the sake of their political records or particular interests, they want this pattern to continue. So, if it’s left to them, our cities are done for. The future of the Chinese city depends on the citizens waking up, not just a few officials. Our urban problems show that we need to change mistaken ideas and methods. It’s time to put a stop to such crude notions of development.

In the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I saw photos of environmental pollution from the 1960s – scenes that I fear can be found in every Chinese city today. At that time, a vigorous environmental movement got going in the west. Later it developed into an urban conservation movement and became an important part of western social activism. The issues themselves are nothing to be scared of – if you first recognise the seriousness and gravity of the situation and take it seriously.

ZC: Perhaps it was a lack of knowledge about urban planning that led to these failures, to the wrecking of our cities. Are we ignorant?

ZS: The public lack relevant knowledge about urban planning and don’t have much opportunity to go abroad and see anything different. The media’s view of planning is that it’s government business and they just go on about how China’s cities are becoming more beautiful. In fact, cities do not need to reinvent themselves so often, at least not when the changes are only on the surface.

The appearance of many European cities hasn’t changed for a century, but internal and underground facilities have been modernised in order to save energy, protect the environment and increase comfort. When Europeans design new areas, they do so on a human scale, as far as possible using pedestrianised zones, cutting down on car journeys, reducing energy use and making the city diverse and green. Although China also has slogans about putting people first, it doesn’t happen that way.

The marker of liveability for a city is its human scale. The biggest issue for Chinese cities is the roads – they are too wide, and the density of the network is too low. In Shanghai’s Lujiazui [a major financial district], the roads are too big, the huge buildings leave people feeling alienated, the space is badly organised and living and travelling are extremely inconvenient.

China has managed to turn urban planning into something mysterious. In other countries, everyone from elementary school students to pensioners discusses it, and community meetings to talk through the issues are often held. Everyone has a right to pursue a high quality of life and everyone has the right and the ability to participate in urban planning. The necessary awareness and ability to do so are not lacking in China. And if they were, the government and expert community would have a duty to open up the necessary channels to improve the degree and quality of public participation.

The Shanghai Expo slogan – “Better City, Better Life – has raised a question. To answer it requires more pragmatic urban planning.

Part one: China’s dying cities

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 by Antonis SHEN