China as a country that is creating cities out of thin air at high speed, where an incredible amount of people are moving from the countryside to the big city. In Stadsleven ‘Aan de horizon: China‘ we’ll look at the cities that are being created. What are the negative consequences of this speedy construction process? And: what opportunities does it bring? Neville Mars, an architect living in Shanghai and author of The Chinese Dream, sees opportunities for China to become the leader in sustainable urbanism, but with certain preconditions.
An alien landscape
China’s flash urbanization is, despite all its big numbers, dazzling speed and development extravaganza, shockingly mundane. Its infamous ghost towns and megacities give fodder to juicy articles, but China’s new suburbs are remarkable only in numerical abstractions. Life in China’s newly erected periphery is defined by repetition. Row upon row of stalky towers, plastic windowsills and dusty parking lots form the backdrop for young suburbanites caught in a routine of mind-numbing work and long commutes, that leaves little time for metropolitan refinement. To its residents this radical environment has become entirely generic; an increasingly alienated society at home in an alien landscape.
China’s formula for raw speed
This brutal efficiency driving China’s space production was the foundation of its success story. As economic reform spilled beyond Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone, China formulated the most ambitious planning objectives in human history in order to facilitate a leapfrog transition from a rural to an urban-industrial society. This meant building new production facilities and public infrastructure at the scale of Europe virtually overnight. To achieve this gargantuan task a vast, and highly streamlined planning and construction apparatus was put into place. On China’s communal land, it could plan new cities top-down essentially without any constraints. A new society could be engineered free from historical pretext or hindered by spatial context. Natural landscapes, agricultural land, even existing towns and settlements could be ignored, relocated or simply be leveled entirely. Modeled after Russia’s and America’s antiquated planning regulations, a uniform road network was rolled out across the mainland. Its oversized quadrants subsequently filled with swaths of factories and bleak, hyperdense mono-functional housing compounds. This was the formula for raw speed with which China cemented its role in the global economy, and simultaneously cementing its society in endless rows of tower blocks.
Thought-leader in sustainability
Reduced to these basic determinants of a mass-produced urbanity, the crudeness of the modern Chinese city should become a bit more digestible and fathomable. However, at this very moment as planners and experts are coming to terms with the extent and nature of China’s overhaul, a new and equally extreme reality presents itself: China is now half done. No building, street or city can be conceived without acknowledging the influence of its (fresh out-of-the-box) urban context. Urban density is today omnipresent. The next phase of China’s urban revolution will need to be planned in response to its pervasive but conceptually impenetrable hyper-suburbia. It will also need to unfold in line with sustainable development principles. The West, high on toxic toys and cheap Chinese phones, anxiously eyeballs the world’s largest producer of green house gasses, in the hope it will soon conceive the illusive ecocity, as if somehow this would offset pollution of Chinese goods consumed on the other side of the globe.
Luckily, for many reasons — public health, economic progress and social stability — China is eager to comply. Planeloads of Western engineers and architects have been flown in to offer the latest in ecocity ‘best practices’. But the planning challenge has fundamentally shifted. Ecocity concepts are, much like the nineteenth century garden cities, intrinsically insular. Within the vast context of suburban China they present no more than a drip in a very polluted ocean. Simply put, China can no longer urbanize its way towards sustainability.
Therefore I propose a moratorium on new towns and indeed on all urban expansion. Calculations reveal that slack space across China’s vast periphery offers sufficient growth potential for decades of future urbanization. The planning discipline, inherently designed for expansion, must embrace a radical turnaround away from green-field development towards intensification and diversification of existing cities. If China can foster this second transition with equal ease, urban sustainability comes within reach. As we enter a new stage in global urbanization China can position itself as our green thought-leader.
This column is a preview from the upcoming book ‘Manifesto of Mistakes’ which will be published in 2017 at NAI010 publishers, an ecocity design manual that reveals how micro scale interventions can be aligned to achieve sustainability on a mega scale.
You can find more columns and blogs in our online dossier ‘Aan de horizon: China‘.