Urban redevelopment: a city’s life and death

This is the Thinking China Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

This week’s digest is taking us through various aspects of China’s urbanization process. Zhang Tianpan and Wei Yingjie’s pieces reflect on the tension between development and heritage preservation by looking at recent projects in Kaifeng and Nanjing. Zhou Qiren considers why the rate of urban land use is increasing more quickly than that of urban population. Finally, Lang Yaoyuan proposes Australian cities as a model of harmonious urban planning, contrasting them with China.

Urban redevelopment: a city’s life and death
By Zhang Tianpan, 22 August 2012

Kaifeng is redeveloping its historic city centre, a multi-billion yuan project which entails relocating over 100,000 residents. This kind of large scale project is not unique to Kaifeng: hundreds of Chinese cities are under reconstruction, in an attempt to attract international attention and investment.
This article underlines a weakness in those plans: they follow a business logic, and sacrifice local people and culture to the developers’ economic interest. Although they claim a cultural logic, they only preserve a pseudo-culture, with fake heritage buildings replacing originals so new developments can benefit from a retro flavour.
Livability should be the ultimate touchstone of a city’s culture. Yet under the pressure of development, many Chinese cities have experienced an inner death: inhospitable centres, inadequate hidden infrastructure – including sewers – and an exodus of residents. Instead of pursuing the grand narrative of building an international metropolis, governments should measure the success of urban planning efforts at community level, by residents’ satisfaction with their living conditions.

Marco Polo translation: Urban redevelopment: a city’s life and death
Original link: 城市改建:一场城市生与死的考验

Who is the Nanjing city wall elevator built for?
By Wei Yingjie, 02 August 2012

As part of its plan for tourism development, the city of Nanjing proposed to build a glass elevator on the Ming city Wall. This would increase accessibility for tourists, but also disfigure a major heritage landmark. As Wei Yingjie points out, tourism development and heritage protection often clash; but the issue is also one of conflicting long and short term priorities. The proposed elevator is likely to endanger the registration of the Nanjing City Wall on the UNESCO World heritage list, which itself would be beneficial to tourism in the long term. Similar conflicts have occurred in many places in China, and if no halt is put to over-exploitation, authentic heritage may quickly disappear from all Chinese cities.

Marco Polo translation: Who is the Nanjing ancient city wall sightseeing elevator built for?
Original link: 南京古城墙观光电梯为谁而建

Urbanization and the balance of rights
By Zhou Qiren, 11 September 2012

This article proposes a reflection on a recent trend in Chinese urbanization: the rate of land urbanization – what proportion of the country’s surface is used by cities – has increased more quickly than that of people urbanization – what proportion of the population lives in cities.
Zhou Qiren notes that this could actually be defined as a process of de-urbanization, as cities are therefore currently losing density. And because population density is a driver for the urban economy, this is a potential concern for the long-term dynamism of Chinese urbanization – which is supposed to drive the country’s ongoing economic growth.
In the second part of his article, Zhou Qiren seeks an explanation for this phenomenon. He proposes the following: a lack of balance between two sets of rights. It is comparatively easy to reallocate land to urban use, but hard for farmers to relocate to the city. Since the Cultural revolution, freedom of movement is no longer a part of Chinese people’s constitutional rights. But the State is fully allowed to re-allocate land use in the name of public interest. Observation does show large flows of migrant workers from rural areas to the cities, but these migrants do not all settle, and integrating them in urban health and education systems is a hard task for governments. The phenomenon of land urbanizing more quickly than people is therefore ascribed to the simple fact that the one is easier than the other in the current state of the law.

Marco Polo translation: Urbanization and the balance of rights
Original link: 城市化的权利不平衡

Comparing Chinese and Australian cities
By Lang Yaoyuan, 05 September 2012

After a week’s trip around Australia, Lang Yaoyuan outlines in this post six markers of high quality urban development which he could observe there.

  • Cities have clear cultural landmarks – such as the Sydney Opera House, Canberra’s Capitol Hill, or the Sports precinct in Melbourne – set up in iconic spots, which serve as symbolic markers of the city’s identity.
  • Careful urban planning has resulted in harmony between the urban and the natural environment; in contrast, Chinese cities often directly reproduce imported models without much reflection on local conditions, resulting in fragmented functional precincts which fail to form an organic whole.
  • Development considers future generations, and in particular, green spaces and parks are reserved inside or close to city centres.
  • Architecture is rich and creative, so that the cities are more like ‘art forests’ than monotonous concrete jungles.
  • Finally, historical building are preciously preserved by strict government control over demolition – a moving detail for such a young country, and a stark contrast to the Chinese practice of destroying historical buildings to give place for high-rises – or fake versions of these old buildings.

To finish, Lang Yaoyuan proposes reasons for the poor state of Chinese urban planning: short-sighted officials whose only concern is short-term interest; an education system that does not encourage creativity; and finally, no respected evaluation system or awards for good quality public construction.

Marco Polo translation: Comparing Chinese and Australian cities
Original link: 中澳城市大手笔有何不同

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Marcopoloproject.org. Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are two other publications supported by the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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