I just got back from my first trip to China, after a week-long charrette for a new town. The project being in Zhengzhou rather than Beijing or Shanghai, however, did not generate any less of an impression of China’s economic boom. The phenomenon of rapid Chinese urbanism is incredible and appalling at the same time. The collision of repetitive towers, colossal avenues and iconic starchitecture is as daunting as the cultural and political forces nurturing this development frenzy. It challenges our preconceptions of what cities are, and how they are made – at least by Western standards.
But then it occurred to me that we were in China precisely because we are from the West. We were given this commission because we are planners from a part of the world that carries a weight of perceived superiority and prestige. This weight is also establishing itself in other more tangible ways in China, for it appears that the very image of a literally “Western”, not “Chinese” town, is now a hot sell in the Chinese market. Numerous mainstream developments emulating known Western places are mushrooming across China, an extreme example being the notorious nine themed towns outside Shanghai, where you can literally go from Spain to Britain just by walking or riding a bike. Of these nine, Thames Town is perhaps the best known, literally replicating a classic English market town with cobbled streets, Victorian terraces and corner shops, a church, a pub and fish & chips shop. Of course such themed Euro- American-centricism is now becoming a pan-Asian phenomenon. Hong Kong has a gated community named Palm Springs just as Turkey a Dutch fishing village simulacra called Orange County. The “Western town” has become a distinctly Asian urban trend.
In Zhengzhou, I got to walk a version of this trend called Provence – a significant urban infill development built over the past decade. Nothing about it is traditionally Chinese in form, or style. It presents instead a suburbanscape of Mediterranean and Deco style mid and high rises, and Tudor and Gothic style townhomes. But interestingly, its layout is neither that of a traditional European village or American town, nor a cul-de-sac laden American suburb. Provence is a series of large fenced and guarded precincts, each containing parallel south-facing arrays of repeated dwelling types of exclusively high, middle or low densities with greens and intimate streets, lanes and paths, all anchored on a pedestrian-only town center that everyone drives to. Security fences and gates on a dwelling, cluster or complex basis is a buyer expectation in China, and the idea of an unfenced street-frontage is a non-starter. Further, Chinese codes require at least one room in every dwelling to have southern solar exposure (a remnant of the 70’s code intended to enhance heating in winters), and with buyers also preferring this orientation for sacred reasons, the freedom of arranging dwellings, particularly attached ones, in any direction has severe marketing consequences. Compared to other developments in Zhengzhou, Provence is a breath of fresh air, and undoubtedly one of the most progressive things in the city. Inasmuch as we may chastise such developments for their Western veneers, they are in fact genuinely nurturing new forms of urban space and community life previously non-existent in recent Chinese history.
Talking of Chinese history, one of the things that stood out for me was how all our design and development discussions during the charrette centered rather consistently and unapologetically on traditional American and European examples – from Chelsea and Hampstead to Paris and New York. Not a single traditional Chinese example, not even an Asian one, came up during the process. And why not? Weren’t we there to impart our local knowledge and experience from Western cities? And then every effort certainly does not warrant a mandatory indigenous nod. Even so, my Asian roots at first seemed a bit flustered about all this: Are European and American towns and cities the only models of good urbanism? Is this self-imposed Eurocentricism annihilating Chinese authenticity? Does such imported image-making expose an enterprise of unconscious societal beliefs and representations concerning the lagging behind of a post-colonial world?
On deeper reflection however, it seems to me that to dwell on such issues is to miss the point, and more importantly, the real opportunity that lies here: If traditional Western cities are becoming an increasing inspiration for Chinese (sub)urban developments, why can’t they become catalysts towards more progressive city making across China? Our charrette eventually came down to precisely this point - what new, progressive trends can such mainstream developments (and I emphasize the word mainstream) create and help influence beyond the ones China has produced over the past fifty years? Can they inspire alternatives to autopian dominated sprawl? Can they inspire compact towns, walkable neighborhoods and great streets? Can they exemplify conserving nature and agriculture, and reduce water and energy consumption? Can they help humanize the street and block scale nihilism of China’s high rise developments? Can they inspire larger integrated and sustainable regional frameworks within China’s extant political and economic structures?
As professional urbanists we always work within a context of limitations, where we have to pick our battles, strive to transform the things we can, but ultimately accept those we cannot. This indeed is what the art of urban transformation is all about - to negotiate our personal biases on what cities and places ought to be, within a set of cultural, social and economic circumstances we may not be in a position to change. The pertinent question therefore is: Can we transform China’s Eurocentric towns from architectural caricatures into urban catalysts, and from one-dimensional exports, into reflective antidotes to the unequivocal and rapacious sprawl that continues to ravage its urban landscape? It seems to me that as Western planners and urbanists increasingly working in China (and other parts of Asia,) this is a latent opportunity for us recognize, and a larger responsibility for us to take on.