Is There a Future for Human-Scale Chinese Cities?
Facing south from the Park Hyatt’s 65th floor China Bar in Beijing. Photo by James Fallows.

Facing south from the Park Hyatt’s 65th floor China Bar in Beijing. Photo by James Fallows.

James Fallows of the Atlantic recently blogged about “today’s enormous, expanding Chinese cities,” comparing the more intimate architecture of Shanghai to the sprawling concrete slabs in Beijing.

“This is not a ‘which do you like better?’ discussion,” he emphasizes.

Rather the question is why the look and feel of Beijing seem so clearly to represent the direction Chinese cities are heading. To oversimplify what this means: although Shanghai probably contains more people than Beijing, it feels smaller. The roads are narrower, they’re more likely to bend or twist, the city unfolds on a smaller scale of neighborhoods and courtyards and little houses. Beijing is bigger and squarer and broader and more grandly imposing.

Fallows confesses that he prefers “the look and feel” of Shanghai and then goes on to ask himself why he feels that way:

“Do I like these small streets and human-scale settings in Shanghai because I am foreign?”

It’s an interesting question. Consider a Mercer Consulting study published in BusinessWeek about the “World’s Top 100 Most Livable Cities,” ranked by the “quality of life” they offer to expatriate executives and their families. Zurich, Geneva, Vancouver and Vienna top the list. Shanghai comes in at #100, flanked by Bratislava, Slovakia and Johor Baharu, Malaysia. Beijing comes even further down the list at #116. Other Chinese cities towards the bottom include Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shenyang and Jilin. Certainly, in this study, it appears expats prefer safe (i.e. Zurich), walkable (i.e. Vancouver) and clean (i.e. Vienna) places to live. But it’s hard to imagine why locals wouldn’t want the same thing.

“Am I being like the French visitors who love Vietnam because it’s so easy to find baguettes there?”

Shanghai has long been seen as the more “cultured” city, compared to Beijing (read about the inter-city rivalry in the Washington Post). But, as Shanghaiist says, “while Shanghai has the global industry, business and sophistication stemming from early European colonialism, Beijing has the upper hand, at least in this round,” thanks to the recent Summer Olympics. So I’m not sure Fallows perception about Shanghai’s convenience and comfort for foreigners holds as much weight as it might once did.

“Does the Chinese version of me really appreciate the huge grandeur of the Beijing-style approach? Or do I like them because I am human — and because something in human nature fits better with structures of a manageable size? And if this is so, what does it mean for the hundreds of millions of Chinese human beings living in these big concrete cities?”

“I feel compelled to ask because so much of modern China is being built on supra-human unmanageable scale. And presumably someone, at some level, must be doing this intentionally. (Alternative theory, for later: it’s all about construction contracts.)”

Fallows instinct is probably right that “small streets and human-scale settings” are likable for everybody, not just expats in a foreign land. At the same time, it is true that China is trending toward large-scale excess.

According to Mara Hvistendahl from WorldChanging:

People in developed countries have had a few decades to try out and reject excess. It isn’t just an awareness of environmental degradation that pushes us to go green; it’s a knowledge, gleaned from firsthand experience, that conventional living generates a level of waste that makes us uncomfortable. In urban China, however, bigger is still better. Most middle-class Chinese are still preoccupied with finding ways to display their wealth, not minimize its impact on the world.

However, in China’s quest to urbanize, there is a huge potential for the country to invest in “mass-scale sustainable construction,” as explored by the Green Dragon Media Project, which produced a 45-minute documentary about the rapid development of the green building industry in China.

One of the obstacles to achieve sustainable transportation and architecture is educating the general public about the benefits of “green” building.

From Green Dragon Media:

In one generation, many urban Chinese have achieved a level of economic development that took the West over three generations to achieve. They have refrigerators, computers and cars. Their next major purchase will be a home, but few include green building aspects in their selection criteria and instead focus on location and external design features.

In general, people are quite satisfied with the new generation of government leadership. Nevertheless, the public is increasingly demanding health and safety as well as clean food, water and air.

Rural Chinese aspire to own their own red brick or concrete homes and look down on the use of natural building materials (straw bale, cob, rammed earth, etc.) These materials are too similar to the mud and straw huts of their recent past.

This means that “it is essential to link green building techniques such as natural building and various energy efficiency technologies with aspirational, ‘modern’ imagery” and “in addition to making green design modern and aspirational, linkages with the health and comfort of loved ones and future generations resonates well with the general public.”

Efforts to create environmentally sustainable “eco-cities” in places like Dongtan and Huangbiyu have encountered many setbacks. The lesson to learn is that in order to calm reckless urbanization, it’s best to think small.

“The evidence suggests that planners wanting to reduce pollution would do better simply to focus on improving the places where people already live,” according to Ethical Corporation.

Small, local and manageable projects yield far better results and make far more people aware of energy conservation than the handful of eco-beauty-pageants that have received so much publicity in the past few years.

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