Monday, November 10, 2008

In China, many eggs broken for omelet of massive urban tranformation

Last week, I mentioned how an urban planner was impressed by China's massive efforts at urbanization, and that a critic listening was appalled at the casual dismissal of the costs of upheaval.

But how much transformation is there? In an interview in the September issue of Metropolis, headlined The Chinese Century, Thomas J. Campanella, author of The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World, explained that this is unprecedented:
We’ve never seen anything like this in terms of the sheer amount of stuff being built. But we’ve also never seen so much destroyed in order to build. You know the old maxim “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”? Robert Moses was very fond of that saying. Well, China has busted a lot of eggs to make this great big omelet. The amount of urban fabric that’s been razed to make way for all this new construction is unprecedented in the peacetime history of world cities. In fact, the only comparable thing we have—and I don’t want to make too much of this because in China it’s reconstruction—is the wartime bombings of cities like Dresden and Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sledgehammer vs. gavel

Campanella suggested that, while China should offer more community participation, in the U.S. things go too far:
We have these long time frames in America when it comes to urban planning. I’ve served on the town-planning board in Hillsborough, North Carolina, for several years, and there’s this little river-walk project that we have been trying to get built for about six years—coddling, wheedling, nurturing, and arguing with the landholders to convince them to give an easement; trying to get funding for it; writing grants. In the seven months that I was in Nanjing, the local government built this incredible world-class trails system around the lake and mountain there. I remember looking at it, thinking, The happy medium is somewhere between these two poles. In the U.S. we have what I call an “excess of gavel”—too much participatory democracy. Anybody can come out of the woodwork. It doesn’t take more than a couple noisy people to bring a project to its knees for a long time. The problem in China: they have the opposite set of issues. They have no gavel. They have nothing but a sledgehammer. I’ve argued that we could use a little bit more sledgehammer here, and China could use a little bit more gavel.

The Chinese century

He agreed, that while the last century was the American century, we're now in the Chinese century:
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Henry James had spent about twenty years away from the United States. They were critical years: the industrial revolution, large-scale immigration. And then he came back around 1904, and he wrote about seeing those towers in Lower Manhattan for the first time. The tone that he writes with, regarding these buildings, had that same mix of awe and fear, envy and admiration and befuddlement, that I’ve felt myself and seen in others writing about rising skyscrapers in Pudong, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were the Shen­zhen and the Guangzhou of one hundred years ago. I feel that we now look to China in a way that’s remarkably similar to the way old-world Europeans felt about us. We have become the Old World. Now, I’m not saying we’re finished. But, as far as urban ambition, we are, I think, finished.

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