June 7, 2006

China's Cities

China's Cities

One neighborhood in Shenzhen… [JesseWarren / Flickr]

…another neighborhood in Shenzhen [JesseWarren / Flickr]


Our show on internal Chinese migration made it clear that millions of workers moving from farms to city factories are changing urban China at an almost unimaginable pace:

Shenzhen…was farmland basically in the 60s and 70s, and it was deliberately left undeveloped because the Chinese government under the Communists, the Mao Zedong years, was afraid of contamination from Hong Kong (Hong Kong was a British colony, it was an outpost of capitalism)…And then suddenly, after Deng Xiaoping began to institute changes in 1978, this city became the exact opposite. They had named it a window to the outside world, and they decided…this is where we’re going to invite outsiders to come and invest and hopefully build a private economy. And so that sort of change is something that just happened within the span of a couple of decades, but it’s a monumental shift in outlook, and of course the city boomed after that.

Peter Hessler on Open Source, 9 May 2006

Shenzhen is one of China’s “overnight cities” that seem to have materialized out of thin air; but ancient cities like Beijing are also developing and changing at a rate the West has never experienced:

Beijing homecomings were jarring: a month-long journey could make me feel like Rip Van Winkle. New districts were constantly springing up throughout the capital, replacing old sections that were demolished one by one…The pace of development was so intense that speed was always the first priority, and most new buildings were completely undistinguished: quickly designed, cheaply built, badly finished. They looked temporary, like awkward new neighbors who don’t fit in and probably won’t stay for long.

Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present

So we’ve been wondering: what does this explosive change mean for urban planning and public infrastructure? How do you design (or adapt) a city to absorb massive, rapid population growth? How are social relations shifting in Chinese cities? What’s happening to city centers as vast numbers of residents flee to new suburbs? What are the environmental effects of new factories and skyrocketing demand for resources like water and electricity?

Help us think this through.

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  • My wife and I have visited various parts of China several times over the last 10 years; the latest trip in March involved a return trip to Bejing – the first since first going to that city in 1996.

    The biggest impression of everyday life I came away with in 96 was the rivers of bicycles, and saying to myself that Beijing wouldn’t become an efficient city until/unless they improved their mass transit and got rid of the bikes.

    On this year’s trip, some bicycles are still there, but nothing like 10 years ago. However, they didn’t seem to be replaced by improvements in subways or buses, but by a huge increase in individual automobiles. The new set of “ring roads” – concentric sets of highways – in the city seems to do a fair job of moving traffic when going distances in the city, but the congestion and pollution on local streets is no real improvement over the bikes of the 20th century.

  • avecfrites

    The environmental trouble in which China finds itself is hard to appreciate without experiencing firsthand. I was in Changsha (capital of Hunan Province) a year and a half ago. When I stepped off the airplane upon landing, I initially had trouble breathing. The air was like that of a crowded nightclub, or the inside of a factory. And that was outside, all day, all of the time. The pollution provided a gauzy cover for the sun on a cloudless day. Just being in a Chinese city is like smoking multiple packs per day.

    And it was like this to some extent in the other cities I saw. Everywhere the water is bad and getting worse. Even at a Starbucks, in the capital city of Beijing, the combination of which should guarantee you the cleanest environment, we couldn’t safely order cold drinks. Everything had to be boiled to be trusted (though I’m not convinced that boiling water helps with heavy metals and other non-biological pollution). Water quality is a huge problem nationwide, made ever worse by advancing desertification.

    I was struck by China as a larger version of Dickens’ London. London emerged from the hell of industrial pollution; perhaps China can too. It seems to me that it will take a massive public works effort centered on applying environmental technology broadly. Otherwise it might become the first large nation derailed by environmental problems.

  • Katherine

    frankpatrick and avecfrites: these are great snapshots — thank you.

  • avecfrites

    I just ran across this article on the terrible pollution in China’s cities:

    http://www.theepochtimes.com/news/6-6-10/42510.html

  • ayla

    Edward Burtynsky is a fantastic large-format passionate photographer who recently did a collection on industrialization in China – he has a unique abaility to go beyond what usually gets phographed, and gives a unique look at the sheer scale. I’ve seen him give a public lecture before, and his reasons for creating the art are very thought-provoking.

    Edward Burtynsky

  • mulp

    Nightly Business Report, I think, did a story on Euro design American suburb developments being built (my description, not theirs) being created on the “if we builtit, the buyers will come” plan. Two of the comments about their lack of buyer banging down the doors were: the lack of connection to family, and the need to commute a long distance/time?

    The second point I understand, but the first in interesting. On the one hand, we can imagine a Chinese extended family living together, providing the dual opportunity for support to and aid from others in the family. But the stories of the young women in particular leaving the farm and then going to the factories and over time moving from job to job and making a life as an individual, longing for family, but dreading the dreariness of even short visits home.

    Are the children who left the farm to thrive in the cities, still clinging to their childhood image of family, and then merely viewing an apartment as only temporary until their, never to be made, return to their family home? Or are they finding a way to create a cluster of housing so that they can bring their family from the farms into the cities?

  • christopher poteet

    after having toured throughout china for the first time this past spring, i was struck not only by the degree of development but also by the anachronistic style.

    among the most prominant features around a typical chinese city are the vast multi-tower apartment complexes going up everywhere to accomodate the influx of new workers and migrants from the provincial areas. these often consist of anywhere from 1 to 20 buildings averaging 20-30 stories each, and clustered by themselves as a kind of stand alone mini-city.

    and what is most striking about this, is that this is the very kind of urban development model that has now been almost completely discredited in the united states and the west. so at the same time that china looks outward for development cues in the fields of technology and economic principle, it is building for its citizens a sea of cabrini-greens to live in.

    and my sense in talking with common people is that these kind of buildings are seen as desirable trappings of the modern world. and a step up in the world.

    and i wonder if a uniquely chinese perspective can make harmonious what would seem to us to be human warehousing. or is it simply another example of chinese central policy favoring the short term solution in the interests of rapid growth?

  • Jackson

    Apart from two semesters of Chinese history in college — I haven’t forgotten you, Prof. Roger des Forges! — my experience of China has largely been limited to mysteries. Judge Dee was a kind of walking archeological dig from the hands of a Dutch diplomat who died, I believe, from a fall down a flight of stairs.

    But the mystery writer who has captured Shanghai for me is Qiu Xiaolong, whose Inspector Chen is charting the spasms of growth in his hometown while capturing what’s happening in the residue of other times. A great series.

    Which brings to mind Pablo Neruda, who alerted us to the value of Raymond Chandler as mystery writer slash witness to the collapse of capitalism. Qiu Xiaolong is documenting likewise a city that is defying the laws of physics in its growth — all while making me long for exotic street food…

  • Mark Wolfe

    I lived in Taiwan for 20 years and am wondering if by “China” you mean the PRC alone? Are you including Taiwan’s development? It is, after all, home to the world’s tallest building.

    Mark Wolfe

    Koh Samui, Thailand

  • ans

    Good posts on the subject of Chinese cities and the future on the Worldchanging blog:

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/004378.html

    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003403.html

  • jtang

    I’m living Nanjing this year, having been here (and other places) last year and in 2002, and in Beijing in 1986.

    Indeed, the pace of change is overwhelming, and has a lot to do with the rage to “catch up”, which is sadly, as Christopher Poteet points out, about 50 years out of date. Last year the billboards on the walls around the construction sites bore slogans, in English, such as “March into the immensity of newness.” Across the street a block of an old neighborhood was being torn down, and this year I found it replaced by a park and, of all things, the city’s institute of urban planning.

    Different cities have been variously successful in their “renewal.” In many places it appears that the only old sites that have been saved have been targeted for tourist consumption, viz the hutongs (old alleys) in Beijing, and temples and some historical sites. Nanjing so far has fared relatively better than, I would say, Beijing, for a number of reasons. For one, the demolition and reconstruction cycle began much later (around 1997, rather than in the 1960’s and 70’s), thus sparing the city much truly horrendous architecture. Nanjing has also historically been more history-minded than Beijing, which has historically spent more energy trying to be “modern.” Some (though not as many as one would hope) older buildings have been renovated very tastefully and recycled into livable, workable space. Nanjing also has a tremendous resource in its vast urban parklands, some of which are quite wild, and some of which have integrated old relics into modern spaces. It is, as well, a smaller, more manageable city, so that walking and bicycling can actually function efficiently as a primary mode of transportation. The density of shops and services within walking distance blows me away — there are more bookstores, for instance, than I’ve been able to count within half a mile (I stopped counting at 10), not to mention every class of restaurant, electrical parts, department stores, musical instrument shops, computer shops, clothing, household goods, live chickens and eels, etc etc etc.

    It’s not clear what’s going to happen to the idea of family in China. Charlotte Ikels is an anthropologist who writes on this subject. Also, Martin King Whyte of Harvard is apparently working on a large scale survey to assess what people actually think about the rapid social changes now going on. I myself am here this year to find out and document how traditional ideas about growing old are changing.

  • tbrucia

    When I hear about multi-million person cities going up in a couple of decades in China, and I see ruined New Orleans almost untouched after a year, I find myself wondering: ‘Can America learn how to build cities from scratch from the Chinese?’ ‘Should America simply turn the reconstruction of New Orleans over to the Chinese?’ ‘Would the World Trade Center site still be a hole in the ground after five years were the Chinese given control over the reconstruction project in Manhattan?’ In short, how has China come so far in so little time, while America seems tied up in terminal paralysis when it comes to city planning and construction?

  • mswp

    A year ago, a friend commented on our Shanghai neighborhood saying “just wait 15 minutes, something will change.” Every day, walking through my neighborhood, I catalogue the changes. Buildings come down in a week. 35 story apartment buildings can go up in a matter of months. Stores turn over, with major renovations occuring every time a new tenant moves in. Subway lines are under construction, it’s astonishing.

    One day a crew of workers descended on my street – this phenomena reminds me of ants, this incredibly focused mass of men came pouring in, and nothing could stop them from doing what they needed to do. In two days, all the electrical poles and wires came down, and everything was re-wired underground. They set up temporary housing, which was neither air tight, private or clean and lived 8 to a room with a communal kitchen/washing area, and then as quickly as they came, they disappeared.

    When outsiders move to Shanghai to work, they get a residence permit, but don’t become registered citizens of the city. It means they cannot send their children to school here, so many families are fractured, sometimes one parent stays in the rural region with the child, and other times grandparents raise their grandchildren and the parents visit a few times each year.

    It isn’t all wonderful – people have been burned out of (and burned in) their homes to clear the way for new construction. There are a host of reasons to question the durability and structural integrity of buildings. The workers don’t have OSHA protecting them. And no one is making sure that they get paid. There is a glut of luxury housing and a shortage of affordable housing. Most of the luxury stores operate at a loss so that they can have a Shanghai presence. The roads and highways are not keeping up with the new cars. The one-time fee for a license plate has gone from around $3,000 t0 $5,000 in less than two years, which is more than many people make in a year. It means that instead of tightly controlling the number of new cars added to the city, it has become worth while to go to a neighboring region and register a car there. And the health problems of wealth. I was in a Taco Bell the other day — it’s a sit down restaurant, different from the US, and quite expensive. Almost everyone in the restaurant was overweight.

    None the less, it is a vibrant, booming city, where people have a sense of a future that will be better than the life known by their parents. In an English class, I asked students to describe how their lives had improved over time. A 16 year old boy described the biggest change was that instead of eating meat only twice a week, he can eat meat every day. And he really liked having basketball sneakers.

    I’ve watched my mother spend more than a year trying to create a little park in a suburb of Boston. It’s been painful to get through the planning/approval process, but I’m not convinced that the structure used here is a workable alternative. What China is doing is a lot of catch up — it is remarkable, but is it sustainable?

  • As a former builder and current resident of Bejing, I’ve noticed some disturbing things about Beijing’s buildings. As Christopher Poteet notes, the urban planning is poor- few parks, a severely underdeveloped subway system (which is supposed to expand before the olympics get here…) huge roads and massive blocks that make walking difficult and dangerous, and very poor ground-floor planning for most of these big buildings. More worrisome is what I hear from other builders and architects- that the quality of construction on some of these buildings is quite bad. Inspectors are often bribed, and engineers are expected to fudge numbers if necessary.

    Much of the new construction in Beijing is happening on the sites of the hutongs, the mazy tile-roofed neighborhoods that show up in kung-fu movies. Conservationists, like Hua Xinmin, say that demolishing the hutongs erodes a traditionally Chinese way of life, but many hutong residents want to move into the new apartment buildings. Apartments offer more space and better water and sewage services. What’s ironic is that the buildings they’re moving into may have to get knocked down themselves in a couple of years, once the problems related to poor construction and bad planning become clear.

    In the US, real estate speculation is about trapping the most valuable bit of empty space you can- buying or building in the “best” place. In China, it seems to be about how much steel and concrete can be poured into a 40-story high column. Like in Japan, building in China looks like it’s become an omnivorous monster, gobbling up whatever it can, for the sake of more buliding. Corruption and lack of citizen input makes it all the worse.

  • howardpark

    Will desertification take over any of China’s major cities?

  • David Cowhig

    You’ll want to interview;

    — John Pomfret, long time reporter for the Washington Post.

    — Anthony Saich, Prof. of Int’l Affairs at the JFK School at Harvard is eloquent — he directed the Ford Foundation office in Beijing including anti poverty and health projects in China.

    — Also an eloquent economist, Albert Keidel of the Carnegie Institution — he worked at the World Bank office in Beijing http://www.carnegieendowment.org/experts/index.cfm?fa=expert_view&expert_id=230&prog=zch

    — Joan Kaufman worked on rural health and poverty in China while at the Ford Foundation in Beijing. You could ask her about migrant workers.

    http://www.radcliffe.edu/fellowships/show_pastfellows.php?file=kaufman.html

    — The Australian political scientist David Kelly has spent year in China and follows social issue closely. http://www.nus.edu.sg/NUSinfo/EAI/dk.pdf

    These press clippings from the US Embassy Beijing website could give you some ideas.

    http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/sandt/sandsrc.htm

    Another good source of ideas is China Development Brief, a survey of NGO activities in China.

    http://www.chinadevelopmentbrief.com/

  • I would be very interested to hear some discussion of how people react and cope with the move from a rural area to an urban one, particularly to the high density of people. Cultural factors are relevant here: attitudes to noise, space and privacy.

    I can imagine a whole progamme simply on the things that go on in Beijing’s parks, tai chi, walking backwards, sword- and fan-dancing, clapping, ballroom dancing, drinking tea while having your ears cleaned out, etc, etc: are some of these traditions appearing in the parks of the new cities, or will they fade away with the older generation?

  • jonallen

    It will be amazing if Beijing can clean up its water, air, and overall appearance in time for the olympics, but that is what the Chinese government is supposedly intent on. How much really environmentally sound cleanup occurs is another issue.

    Historically, China was the dominant world power until the 17th century. China had advanced technologies that were highly sustainable for populations much larger than 17th century levels. In the 18th century, China started to become corrupted with western technologies, and rapidly developed dangerous urban levels of contagion and pollution. Since then, China has repeated the same horrific mistakes of other developing nations, despite the “late deployment” advantage of being able to watch and so avoid most of these mistakes.

    Having visited Shenzhen myself twice, I have observed that in the most recent growth burst, they are able to build clean, well planned neighborhoods with what appears (appearances can be deceiving) to be sound infrastructures.

  • Though I loathe the show for being a consistent apologist for global capitalists, I was fascinated last year by a week long series the APM show Marketplace did on China. The number of cities in China with populations in the millions that Americans have never ever heard of is astounding as is the level of internal migration undertaken to fill them: http://marketplace.publicradio.org/features/china2006/

    Additionally, there was an article in Harper’s last year that discussed the rate of infrastructure development—the numbers were equally mind bending. I am at work now… but I will look up some specifics and add them when I get home.

  • Tom B

    For those interested, here’s a list of China’s 41 largest cities, all of them with populations exceeding 1,000,000 persons….http://www.citypopulation.de/China.html#Stadt_gross . It would be interesting to know how many are familiar to Westerners (including Americans). Incidentally, there are 50 American MSAs (Metropolitan Statistical Areas) over 1,000,000 population…

  • Tom B
  • I’m afraid that the air quality might be a real problem for the athletes in 2008 in Beijing. It might tarnish China’s reputation, and serve as another reminder to all of us to clean up our planet.

    FredR: I found the parks in China absolutely fascinating, and alluring. I saw multiple string quartets (just friends playing together), painters, and ballroom dancers, along with kids playing, pigeon coops, tai chi practitioners, etc. I was amazed to see public employees picking up litter and sweeping the walks. And people smiling and enjoying their public space, for free. I was jealous, and wished that we still had public spaces and the notion of city-wide (not tribal) community here in the US.

  • Potter

    I hope this show happens; there are some very interesting posts here.

    I just finished reading Pankaj Mishra’s “The Train to Tibet:Beijing Comes to Lhasa”, an article in this (4-16-07) week’s New Yorker Magazine ( not online). As the title indicates, it looks like Lhasa is more and more a Chinese city every day now with the new train service from Beijing to Lhasa- the highest railroad in the world. The train has already speeded immigration such that Tibetans are now a minority. According to the Tibetan government in exile, of the 5000 visitors that come per day, 2000 stay. That’s awesome, if so.

  • valkyrie607

    I’ve never been to China, but there’s a fellow here at the Uni in Burlington who has. Have you heard of John Todd, Ocean Ark, and living machines?

    He did a test case for his system for natural wastewater treatment in Fuzhou, China. The city was apparently full of canals into which residents dumped effluent; the solution put into place by Mr. Todd use plants and bacteria to purify the water–the canals now have rows of aquatic plants running down the middle, with a walkway too.

    Could China present a prime opportunity for testing new ecological design solutions?

    Here’s a link to his page with the pdf files of the Fuzhou project: http://www.toddecological.com/casestudies.html

    I saw his presentation a couple of years ago, it would be interesting to know how it’s working out now.

  • Sutter

    I hope this show goes forward too. Oracle Bones comes out in paperback May 8 — perhaps that’d be a good hook?

  • It is ironic that China is reputed as one of the most polluted countries when biologist assert there is also are some of the most diverse eco-systems on the planet. In other words, they have a lot to loose.mr. closets

  • tbrucia

    This thread just celebrated it’s first anniversary (in case you didn’t notice…) If, as I’m told, a year in China is like experiencing 10 years anywhere else, I suspect what was true last year has been overcome by ‘facts on the ground.’ Are China’s cities massive experiments from which people all over the world can learn? What lies before us if we follow their trajectory? And where does it all end up in a couple of decades? My eyes are on China as ‘The World’s Laboratory’. Hypothesis: Unrestrained growth can work. Experimental options: Hypothesis valid; hypothesis invalid. I hope frequent visitors can keep us appraised of their data so we can draw experimental conclusions before we follow…