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E-Commerce And The Future Of The City

Chinese cities have grown at an astounding pace over the past few decades, wholeheartedly embracing the automobile. The upcoming IPO of Alibaba and the rise of e-commerce heralds a new, possibly troubling chapter in China's urban development.
Josh Stephens | June 8, 2014, 12pm PDT
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Sometime in the next few months a bell will ring in New York City and, on the other side of the world, an age-old pattern of urban growth will begin to crumble.

One of the axioms of urban development is that, generally speaking, cities grow according to the mode of transportation predominant at the time of their growth. The layout of Lower Manhattan owes itself to feet and hooves. From the kernel of the Battery, Midtown and Harlem grew because of horsecarts and elevated rail. The subway enabled Manhattan to grow higher. Trolleys dropped off commuters at the first streetcar suburbs. Suburbanites fled to Nassau County, Westchester, and New Jersey on parkways and then highways.

You could tell the same story for just about every other urban place, from the Roman Forum to the Ikea in Burbank. Latter-day retrofits like streetcars and long-overdue subways perpetuate this pattern, as streetscapes grow more lively and transit-oriented zones become more dense.

Each of these stages engendered their own street patterns, mixes of uses, and building typologies. The life of cities is defined, in large part, by the relationship between the places where people gather and the ways that they arrive at those places. We may soon find out what the post-transportation city looks like. 

Among all the behemoths to come out of China over the millennia, only a few have captured the imagination of the business world like that of online retailer Alibaba Group. Founded innocently by a former English teacher, Alibab's initial public offering, to be listed on NASDAQ, will rank among the top-5 richest in history. It may generate somewhere between $55 billion and $120 billion.

It’s tempting to call Alibaba the of China, but that does a disservice to Alibaba. Its sales are more than twice those of Amazon and are growing far more quickly. A more apt comparison is to Walmart, but it too may be dwarfed by Alibab. Pretty soon, Alibaba won't have any more companies against which to compete; its rivals those of all but a few sovereign nations. 

As a macroeconomic force, Alibaba makes up 80 percent of Chinese e-commerce and more than 2 percent of its GDP, with $295 billion in sales in 2013. That's about the same as the GDP of Switzerland. The upshot is that when Chinese consumers go shopping, they often go nowhere. When Alibaba gets its infusion of new cash, that chunk will, presumably, grow larger. 

The first column on urbanism I ever wrote, as a junior in college, compared Walmart to iceberg lettuce (and Whole Foods to arugula – that was prescient stuff in 1995). I’ve criticized it routinely since then. So, I can’t believe I’m saying this: whatever devastation Walmart and the other big boxes have wrought on American cities is nothing compared to that which Alibaba may wreak on China’s cities.

My favorite place in Beijing is an alley between 1950s-style buildings that are, in turn, in the shadow of early-2000s luxury apartments. Food carts materialize there every morning, as they do on many corners and alleyways. I found a woman who sells breakfast sandwiches—fried egg, ham, hot sauce, and greens all exploding out of a bun like an English muffin—for the equivalent of 40 cents. That’s the side of China that I like.

Otherwise, every day I've spent in Beijing has come with different measures of pollution, traffic, ugliness, and disorientation. Beijing has its charming places, and it has plenty of wonderful people. Sometimes I reunited with old college friends; other times I had business meetings, with locals and expats. No reunion feels right, though, in a city as uncomfortable as Beijing.

Beijing is just the most famous of dozens of mega-cities, some of which were scarcely more than villages a generation or two ago. 

What Chinese cities aren’t has been well documented and much lamented. They are not the historical hutongs, the tight-knit neighborhoods built around alleyways and smoldering coals. The communists and, later, the capitalists did away with them. Everybody knows about the CCTV Tower and the strato-scrapers of Shanghai’s Pudong. We know, at least, what their tops look like. But what of their bases? The Chinese street often isn’t even a street. It’s freeways and superblocks, with high-rises that recede from each other.

Who knows when my alley and the egg muffin cart too will be replaced by a skyscraper. China has no choice but to build, because the people keep coming—mostly to their and the country's benefit. It’s just that this influx, and the building boom, is happening at the worst possible time.

Not only have Chinese cities grown up in the age of the automobile—they’ve grown fast in the age of the automobile. They’ve grown with a tension between the informal economy of ephemeral street vendors and the centrally planned economy. Many of them lack, or demolished, the historic cores that redeem even the most sprawling American cities. Mom and pop tend to their cart while eight lanes’ worth of traffic roars by.

Many of those cars aren’t headed to the store anymore. Alibaba’s entire existence is based on the notion that people in Chinese cities prefer (or have been conditioned to prefer) that their goods arrive on their doorsteps, either because they do not want to go out into the city or because there isn’t much of a city to go out into.

It’s a vicious cycle: if Chinese public spaces and retail areas are unpleasant, then Alibaba becomes more indispensable. The more indispensable Alibaba becomes, the less incentive there is to improve the Chinese public realm. That’s doubly true when so many new urban residents have moved from tiny country towns and therefore may have no conception of what great urbanism—attractive, lively, human, distinctive—can look like. Autocratic rule doesn’t help either.

E-commerce has hurt American cities, to be sure. Just look at the demise of the book store and record shop. On the other hand, coffee shops are booming, and traditional malls have been devastated whereas creative merchants and entrepreneurs have whittled old downtown bones into some handsome places. Most American cities had at least a few of their formative years before the automobile came along, so they have something to work with.

In the United States, it seems that Amazon and other online retailers lately have denuded malls far more than they have Main Streets. New Urbanist revitalization of urban cores has been facilitated at least in part by telecommuting and tech jobs that have made young adults more footloose than they were in the land-line era. 

Alibaba will not single-handedly put the Chinese streetscape out of business. And yet, this is the direction in which the world’s largest nation, and now largest urban nation, is headed. Granted, Alibaba’s IPO may be symbolic. But so was the assembly of the first Model T. Every yuan that goes into Alibaba will feed a virtual juggernaut that not only affects cities but, indeed, takes the place of cities. Before long, the only strip of brick-and-mortar in China could be the one that is 2,300 years old.

So much for a public offering.

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