9. China, a tale of two cities

The urbanisation of China is regularly discussed, not least because the challenges and opportunities faced everyday by planners there make our own planning preoccupations look very small indeed.  But dig deeper, beyond the rows of shinny new office buildings, new highways and endless new residential slab blocks, and in most of China’s urban areas we find a tale of two cities.

On the one hand, unprecedented consumption is increasingly flaunted by the few, as is an unbridled determination by the new middle classes to join that club – this is undoubtedly the most capitalist society I have ever seen!  On the other hand, and often side by side with the ‘haves’, the swathes of ‘have nots’ eke out their existence, living from day to day in a society with no safety net and an almost callous disregard for the very obvious poverty that is everywhere to be seen – this is undoubtedly the least socialist society I have ever seen!

So what of the built environment?  How are these disparities being reflected in what is being built, and equally, in what is being knocked down?  Again, here we find a tale of two cities.

Take Shanghai, for example.  This is a city of extreme contrasts – historic, yet modern, Chinese, yet always with a Western outlook, wealthy (by Chinese standards), yet a magnet for the rural masses who flock to the city in search of work and a better life.  Here, a once predominantly low-rise city is rapidly being subsumed by new high-rise development.  This is happening not only in the city’s brand new districts such as Pudong (an area that makes London’s Docklands look distinctly un-ambitious and sluggish), but also throughout much of the historic city, where traditional housing – the Hu Tongs and Lilongs – are being pulled down and replaced by the new high rises.

New residential towers springing up,the caption on the wall quotes Jonathan Livingstone Segal ‘Those who fly highest, see the furthest’.

Traditional Lilong housing. a mixed use, high density, permeable living environment

The sight is disturbing in the extreme, and reminds one of the clearances of the 1950s and 1960s in the UK.  In Shanghai, however, whole communities are being destroyed, not to build new and (at least in theory) better housing for the communities whose physical space is being ‘renewed’, but instead to satisfy the insatiable demand for land for yet more (and expensive) apartments for sale.  Moreover, in a context of poor public transport and the increasingly nightmarish traffic problems exacerbated by state policies that encourage the purchase and use of private cars, the pressure is on from those with money – and therefore choice – to live centrally.  As a consequence, those without choice increasingly seem to be relegated to the city periphery, further undermining their already rather meagre lot.

Cumulatively, the impact is massive.  The city is fast loosing many of its traditional housing areas, whilst Western, pseudo-Modernist landscapes (high-rise blocks within a landscape setting) are filling the spaces left behind.  Thus a highly permeable, high density, low energy and climatically suited urban form is being replaced by endless privatised green space and walled compounds, with energy hungry towers that almost certainly house less population than the low-rise accommodation they replace.  It is not overstating the case to say that the whole character and quality of the city is changing.  Moreover, this is happening across China’s major cities.

Unfortunately, the very poor state of much of the traditional housing that remains (no one has invested in it for years given its likely demise), means that this process is likely to continue until almost all of the remaining traditional housing areas are either knocked down or fall down of their own accord.  That is unless processes that recognise the value of these areas begin to gather pace.  Some evidence suggests that this is beginning to happen.

These processes amount to a form of gentrification, with the best traditional housing exchanging hands for a considerable premium – once suitably modernised of course.  The problem however is that this continues the trend towards excluding the poorest sections of Chinese society from housing areas that they have long occupied.   In doing so, the processes ape those which have been well established in the West for decades, processes through which traditional housing areas become attractive as heritage assets, and as authentic places worthy of investment.  They hold out the hope of saving some of the physical fabric, but not the social one.

Another less authentic and equally worrying trend is apparent in China; the creation of mock historic developments that copy the forms, layout and details of traditional development, but fill them with contemporary living, retail or work space.  A classic and very popular example of this genre is the Xintiandi district in Shanghai.  This artificial and sanitised recreation of a traditional Chinese neighbourhood is in fact a shopping centre, replete with its Starbucks and MacDonalds (of course) and the full compliment of ubiquitous international high street brands.  Whilst the tourist flock to experience this little piece of psudo-authentic China, all around it (literally) the real thing is being bulldozed without a tourist in sight (and only the occasional urban designer) to witness it – far too gritty!

Starbucks marks the gateway to Xinitiandi

This development is far from unique.  In Chongqing, for example, one developer I met has collected up examples of historic buildings from across the region (lovingly taking them apart brick by brick and stone by stone), and plans to re-create them as a kind of museum to the regional vernacular, in the form of a commercial gateway to his private residential enclave.  Given that their alternative fate is the bulldozer, one might argue that this is a good thing, but with it – and the many others like it – Chinese culture is being cheapened and commodified.  With it also, the tale of two cities persists.

A single traditional house remains.  The tactic of developers is to buy up and demolish, until just the last few stubborn owners are left in a sea of destruction, before they agree to sell up to.

Yet with all these concerns, these developments at least try to find a middle way – something between total annihilation and the preservation of culturally important building forms.  In effect they make a nod to a distinct Chinese cultural heritage, and recognise that not everything needs to be a poor copy of Western Modernism (on a massive scale) to denote progress.  Perhaps this middle way will eventually deliver a new Chinese urban design, fusing new with old in a more authentic manner.  If it does, lets hope that it is used to at least partially address that other great divide, the need for new, culturally appropriate housing for China’s massive and increasingly disadvantaged urban poor.  That, however, seems a very long way off.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


October 2005