Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

China and the Urbanism of Ambition

with 2 comments

SFU City Program

Tom Campanella – Amacon Beasley Resident at UBC

The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World
(Princeton Architectural Press, 2008)

He started by saying that the “enormity of urban development in China”was to be the subject. Of course he was not using the word in its literal sense (‘monstrous wickedness’ was the most common definition until recently) but in the current usage of “very big indeed”. In fact he used the word in that sense several times in his presentation. He might have done better if he had stuck to the old meaning.

In 1992 “the doors blew open” –  in other words China embarked on a new era of embracing capitalism without democracy. This, he said, was the “great epic of our time: the redevelopment of Chinese cities”.

He was unabashed about taking an American perspective. He has viewed this urban revolution from American standpoint  for last 25 to 30 years. The cycle of creative construction has proceeded at greater speed and a scale well beyond western experience. The Chinese have been building for the record books, and they now have the largest malls, the longest bridges and tunnels, the tallest buildings, the largest airport terminal, as well as the largest gated community. The Chinese construction industry workforce is equal to the population of California. 70bn sq ft of housing was built between 1980-2000 which is equal to half  of  the entire US housing stock. In fourteen years the city of Shanghai added the equivalent of 133 Empire State buildings to their office space.

This of course also meant huge destruction of existing property and displacement of the population as most of the old cities were destroyed in this process. For example nearly all of the old Hu Tongs of  Beijing (traditional courtyard houses) have been demolished.

Unlike  the US, cities and suburbs are growing at the same time: in the US the suburbs grew mostly at the expense of the centres. Chinese suburbs are denser but they still sprawl – indeed it can be seen as explosive sprawl – the Chinese word literally means “make a big pancake” and this has  reduced food supply with significant loss of arable land. An area the size of New England has been lost – loss of “The Good Earth” .

China is becoming a nation of motorists: often the suburbs are car dependent and owning a car is a major status marker. The bicycle is now a stigmatized relic of the past. By 2020 China will have more mileage of Interstate highways than US, from none at all in the 1970s. With this has come the malls,   big box stores and theme parks as well as drive-in fast food places and cinemas.

There has been an enormous demographic revolution: the rural migration to cities is the largest in human history. Due to the current recession, now they are going back but in China in 1 year the move to the cities was of more people than 100 years of US immigration. Even so the population is still only 39% urban which makes it like New England after the civil war: the US now is around 80% urban.

This he says requires recalibrating the critical tool kit used to understand cities. We must be willing to accept that things are very different in China and all is happening at a much larger scale than the US “narrative”.  Herbert Gans wrote about the displacement of people due to urban renewal (The Urban Villagers) but that occurred at a much greater order of magnitude in China. Americans need to learn a certain degree of humility. Americans embraced the vision of limitless growth and once had faith in the city. They developed cities of unprecedented scale while the old world watched in awe.

Nebraska’s Senator Kenneth Wherry, speaking in 1940, uttered this disturbing sentence: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

He concluded “We have become the old world” – the process of rapid urbanization that crossed the Atlantic has now crossed the Pacific.

Q & A

1 – If this rate of growth keeps up the climate change impact will be disastrous. How cognisant are the Chinese of the need for sustainability?

Increasingly so: their highway development is highly unsustainable. China realises this, but not too much has happened yet. The current slow down may help: there are some small signs. Most homes have rooftop solar water heaters and these are out front at B&Q (the British equivalent to Home Depot that is very popular in China) where in the US we might put barbecues or riding lawn mowers. However,  every two weeks a new coal fired power plant comes on line. China could put its industrial muscle into things line photovoltaic cells, which would see the same transformation ion costs and availability as we have seen in airconditioners.

2 – Did China spend enough on medical services, education and the environment ?

China has spent on things like parks. They attempt to build projects that get them good “face” with their leaders – motivations are not the same as us. Their  investment in medical services etc has lagged behind infrastructure

3a – What are the big social ideas? (“the software not the hardware”)

The great benefit is that they have lifted out of poverty more people than anywhere else. The quality of life that they have now, they did not have until quite recently. “This is rich terrain for young scholars to mine.” We only have anecdotal evidence from China whereas there are tons of studies of  much smaller US movements

3b – Is consumerism part of that?

“We probably are doomed if China goes the Walmart route.” There is a degree of compensatory consumerism (people knew real shortages) but the pendulum will swing back eventually

4 – Trevor Boddy asked “You now have a chance to think again. These metastases of  cities are defeating your own argument.  Can you now talk about what should be done?”

“I don’t even understand the question. I am  now working on two books:  neither has anything to do with China.”

5 – William  McDonough says that the greenest cities will be in China – what do we have to learn from China about cities about sustainability?

“I am not sure that there are lessons for Canada from China.” They are not really sustainable yet though they may show the right path and anything that happens in China is applied on immense scale.  Canada may be the model of wise urbanism.  The US model was not the right one. Chung Ming Island in Shanghai was put on the back burner. “But we are now in uncharted waters”

6 – What are the values and ideologies apart from consumerism? That is  ideology as related to urban form.

Striving to improve life chances has been an important driver. “China had a long and interesting ride with ideology.”  Currently it is consumerism and wealth creation


The evening ended somewhat rapidly. It seemed to me that he ran out of steam and realised that the audience was not at all as impressed with his “gee whiz” presentation as US audiences might have been not so long ago. It is perhaps unfortunate that it takes publishers so long to bring out  works such as this. The world has changed dramatically in the last two years, and growth in China has been as affected by the collapse of the US economy just as the rest of the world has.  Sadly this means that we are now less impressed by their record breaking buildings and more concerned about how the Chinese will now react to changed circumstances, but Mr Camapanella was ill equipped to  do much forecasting.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Posted in Urban Planning

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Vision Vancouver spent most on election [Globe and Mail] China and the Urbanism of Ambition [Stephen Rees […]

    re:place Magazine

    March 14, 2009 at 7:16 pm

  2. […] China and the Urbanism of Ambition « Stephen Rees’s blog China and the Urbanism of Ambition « Stephen Rees’s blog […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: