As part of the Academy of Urbanism’s recent trip to China we travelled on a bus provided by our hosts between our incredibly cool hotel in Shanghai (in a derelict industrial building) and the Hangzhou International Urbanology Centre where we were staying and which was also the venue for the first AoU International Conference in China. For much of the journey we watched through the bus windows as fields rolled past, except that the crop being grown was towers. Seemingly endless towers, sometimes a score of identical towers rising simultaneously behind their bamboo scaffolding. Sometimes a vista of thirty storey towers as far as you could see against the night sky with lights in none of the windows. This is how you plan with a country where 10 million people are being added to its cities every year. China unlike the UK does not have a housing crisis, it is providing homes for every one of these 10 million people, there is no homelessness or informal settlements. It is just that they are providing vast amounts of housing in a way that may not be sustainable or very urban.
In Shanghai there is a museum of the city, the highlight of which is a model covering an area roughly the size of a five-a-side football pitch. The model is an endless expanse of apartment blocks, ranging from the slab blocks of the 60s and 70s through to today’s modern towers reaching ever higher. It becomes clear from the model that the city centre that we experience as visitors is a tiny part of the conurbation of 25 million people. There are multiple commercial centres across the city, each marked by a cluster of towers slightly higher than their surroundings. The city centre is strangely familiar to those of us in the UK, the Bund looking every bit like Liverpool Waterfront except with more Liver Buildings. Running back from this is Nanjing Road lined with its department stores which would also not feel out of place in a European City. All of this is part of the British Settlement and elsewhere the French and American settlements have their own particular style.
The predominant impression that the city leaves comes however from its skyline. The oldest of the towers is the 20 storey art deco Park Hotel, built as by the Shanghai Joint Savings Society in 1934 (which was the tallest building in Asia until 1958). At the other extreme is the 128 storey Shanghai Tower currently the second tallest tower in the world and standing at the centre of the Pudong peninsular, opposite the Bund. This is a forest of towers including the Oriental Perl Radio and TV tower and two other towers that rank amongst the ten tallest in the world. At night the whole area is illuminated with LED graphics covering entire buildings more Blade Runner than the film itself. What is extraordinary is the fact that the entire peninsular was marshland until it was designated as a Special Economic Zone in 1993 since when it has grown to become the financial hub of China. The skyline may rival Manhattan but at ground level? It is a sea of exclusive podia, shopping malls, high-quality landscaping and massive roads. Again a long way from what many of us would call urbanism.
The same is true of Hangzhou a hundred miles inland from Shanghai. It is a city of 10 million people and is both one of the oldest and one of the most innovative cities in China. Hangzhou also had an inordinate number of towers and its great roads that seemed to go on for ever and were clogged with traffic. We were shown the visitor centre for the Asian games which will take place in Hangzhou in 2022, every bit as impressive as the Olympic Park in London, that was being built by our hosts Sunac with, of course, its own cluster of very shiny towers.
It all raises questions about what we mean by Chinese’s urbanism? As part of our discussions with the Hangzhou Urbanology Centre we explored the sort of places that might be considered for urbanism awards if they were to be run in China. The places suggested by our Chinese hosts were similar to those that we might have chosen, street based, traditional, mixed-use and lively. Indeed we concluded that the typology of towers set in landscape surrounded by large roads is no more indigenous to China than it is to Europe. It is an international style of architecture and urban design that seems to have taken over the world as any visit to the MIPIN Property fair will attest. It certainly has nothing to do with the sort of traditional Chinese streets and neighbourhoods that still cover large parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou, the best of these areas like the Yuyan district of Shanghai or the Qiaoxi Historic District of Hangzhou are preserved as tourist attractions. In Yu Gardens there is a three storey wooden pavilion built in the 1600s which is said to have been the tallest building in the city when it was completed, which gives a sense of what was once the scale of the city. While these traditional areas can seem like museum pieces preserved for tourists, aerial photographs shows surprisingly large areas of this traditional development – districts of dense three and four storey buildings with local shops crammed into their ground floors and selling everything imaginable. These districts are however rapidly disappearing to be replaced with new high rise schemes a process that has been the subject of controversy in Beijing as residents have been evicted from their homes. It raises huge questions about who the cities are for and the process of gentrification and as urbanists we couldn’t help mourning the loss of the city’s street life.
This is not an argument against tall buildings. There are parts of Shanghai and Hangzhou that have lots of towers and yet are still lively and popular at street level. The lesson is that it is the bottom of the tower that is far more dangerous than the top. If the tower meets the ground as part of an urban block that addresses the street and is lined with shops and restaurants then it contributes to the life of the city. If it rises from a inward-looking podium or is surrounded by landscape then it doesn’t. The lesson is as true in China as it is across the world, but it isn’t one that Chinese planners seem to have taken to heart.
In other respects there is a huge amount that Chinese cities can teach us in the west. One of these relates to transport and in Hangzhou and Shanghai you can see a before and after example of the way that this is being tackled. Hangzhou is in the process of extending its metro system to create 8 lines totalling 278km. However for the moment its roads remain hopelessly clogged with traffic and its air full of pollution. In Shanghai by contrast the heroic levels of congestion and pollution that existed unlit recently have all but disappeared. In part this has been achieved through a system of licence auctions, borrowed from Singapore, which has been running since 1994 and puts a quota on the number of new cars on the streets. Because of this the number of cars on Shanghai’s streets has grown by ‘only’ 75% since 2004 despite doubling nationally and growing by 150% in Beijing. However the recent disappearance of congestion has more to do with the ‘Big Traffic Overhaul’ initiated in 2016 by the city’s mayor Yang Xiong. This was a concerted crackdown that flooded the streets with traffic police to deal with motoring infringements like blowing your horn, changing lanes, illegal parking etc… To the surprise of everyone the city persisted with the policy and it worked, the traffic became quieter and less intrusive and many people probably decided that it was just too much hassle to drive into town. One result was that people changed to e-bikes, electric mopeds that are now common on the streets and are not subject to traffic regulations (although the city is now seeking to ban these as well). The city also has a series of bike schemes and great piles of yellow and orange bikes, dusty from lack of use block many pavements.
Beneath ground however is a different story and Shanghai’s extensive Metro system which was only completed in 2012 rivals anywhere in the world. The bullet train we took on our return journey from Hangzhou has been conceived, constructed and opened in the time that we have been thinking about HS2 in the UK, cutting our 3 hour outward journey too less than an hour coming back. It is part of a national high speed rail network that connects most large Chinese cities. The system is a strange combination of planning and investment on a scale that we can only dream of in the west, and rather chaotic experimentation at the local level. We also heard that China is investing hugely in driverless technology, cars and buses, as well smart cities, big data and AI systems. You can guarantee that they will have this technology operational long before we in the West do. So before we get too smug about the Chinese repeating all of our past mistakes, we should prepare ourselves for a period not to far In the future when they will be light years ahead.
One of the urban policies in China that does feel like something from our past is their concern to control the growth of cities. Shanghai is by some definitions the largest city in the world with a population of 25 million. It has put in place a policy of ‘negative growth’ by which the city authorities plan to prevent it from getting any larger. Growth is therefore being redirected to ‘smaller’ cities like Hangzhou and to a huge programme of new towns which in China are called ‘Characterised Towns’. We visited one of these Liangzhu at the very end of the metro line just opened out of Hangzhou (10 miles). This is a community that has been built over the course of 20 years and now has 10,000 homes. Yihan Shen (AOU) otherwise known as Shaun, who set up our visit was formerly responsible for developing the town which, is very impressive and is described in his book replete with a drawing of Poundbury on the cover. The town has an impressive range of shops and facilities including a community centre built by Tadao Ando and a museum by David Chipperfield. It also has one of the best old people’s homes that you will ever see and an active community association that is planning to take on some of the management of the town. The only disappointment was that each of the neighbourhoods was not just gated, it was surrounded by security fences. We asked about levels of crime that necessitated such measures and were told that residents demanded it and therefore developers had no choice but to create gated communities despite the almost complete lack of crime.
In making these comments we are open to the charge that we just don’t understand Chinese urbanism. That we are trying to apply western ideas of street-based urbanism to a culture that has a very different idea of the public realm, that does not feel the same level of ownership over streets and public spaces. However traditional Chinese neighbourhoods are more similar to traditional European cities that they are different. They are structured around a permeable street network, they are densely built with a mix of uses and their streets are lively and sociable. There is a very different feel in the new high rise neighbourhoods that lack life and viability but then again that is also true in the west. Indeed the typology of towers sitting in gated landscape compounds and surrounded by huge roads is not Chinese. It is the same typology that can be seen in Dubai, India and in the growing cities of Africa. You can find it to in Frankfurt, London, Los Angeles and Moscow. Yes it is true that in China it is being done on a bigger scale but the typology his one of global capital.
This may be the only practical way of dealing with 10 Million migrants to the city each year and it is likely that people arriving from the countryside are happy with their new apartments and their increased quality of life just as happened in with the tower blocks of the 1960s in the UK. But what happens in the future, when they have become accustomed to life in the city, when their children grow up with different aspirations? Are the rather soulless environments being created in China going to survive the test of time or will they succumb to the same fate as the council blocks in the UK? We wanted to be optimistic but it was difficult. There was a sense that the mistakes of the west were being repeated in China and are storing up problems for the future. A combination of unpopular high-rise housing and a policy to control the growth of cities by diverting people to new towns risks undermined the whole city. After the war London also had a policy of negative growth, shipping its population out to new towns and overspill estates and its industry to peripheral business parks. The problem was that negative growth became a ‘recession’ and by the mid 1970s London had an unemployment rate of 7.2% and was rapidly shrinking.
This may seem inconceivable in China where the economy continues to out perform the West and the proportion of the population living in cities (58%) has along way to go to match the levels of more that 80% in Europe. However the fertility rate in China is just 1.79 children per woman and in Shanghai is below 1 child (a rate below 2.1 children per family will cause the population to fall). The one child policy (amended in 2015 to a two child policy) is understandable in terms of controlling the overall growth of population and making Shanghai’s negative growth policy possible, but it is storing up problems for the future in a country that will not have enough young people to support its ageing population. What does that mean for cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai? Let us hope that they find an alternative and are able to reform their cities and control their growth without tipping them over into urban decline as happened in the west. Let us hope that their urban renaissance doesn’t first require their cities to be sacrificed.