China Reinvents the City
What are the long-term effects of hasty urban planning and questionable construction standards in China?
August 20, 2008
In a single extraordinary generation, China has undergone a process of urban growth and transformation that took a century to unfold in the United States — itself a nation whose speed once awed the world.
Chicago, after all, was the Shenzhen of the 19th century. Chicago’s spectacular growth, especially after the Great Fire of 1871, made it the fastest-growing city in America, just as Shenzhen became the hasty pacesetter of post-Mao China.
All through the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese cities strained to meet or beat “Shenzhen tempo” — a pace set by workers on the International Foreign Trade Center and defined as a finished building floor every three days.
Appropriately enough, that mark was shattered a decade later by workers on another Shenzhen tower, who knocked a full half-day off the previous record.
In China, whole new towns are conceived, planned and constructed in the time it takes to get a small subdivision through the permitting process in the United States.
China built its first Maglev rail system in Shanghai in just two years. It took a decade to build a similar line in Germany, and in the United States we still only dream of such space-age stuff.
In England, once ruler of the seven seas, it took 13 years for Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal Five to see the light of day. The new terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport, the largest in the world, was built in 36 months.
Of course, speed is stunning, but it can also be stupid. Haste makes waste and tends to come at the cost of quality, longevity and even safety. The frenetic pace with which Chinese cities are being built and rebuilt has struck many observers, foreign and Chinese, as reckless and chaotic.
At least one critic, a geographer at the Chinese Academy of Science, compared the present cyclone of creative destruction to the excesses of the Great Leap Forward, a period of political turmoil and misguided policy that led to, among other things, the worst famine in human history.
It is for good reason, usually, that it takes a month of Sundays to build anything in the United States. We have a vast system of checks and balances meant to slow things down, to rule out binge-building and architectural excess.
Colossal urban renewal and expressway projects in the 1960s pushed one too many citizens around and led to a backlash against “master plans” and the “physical planners” who concocted them. The planning profession in turn rejected urban design and snuggled closer to the social sciences.
New theories of advocacy planning, community development and public participation helped make developers and municipalities accountable for their actions.
This is just now beginning to make its way to China, where urban planning is mostly still about spiffy drawings and spectacular visions. There are few, if any, mechanisms to assure public participation in the development process.
The Maoist dictum that the individual should be subordinate to the collective will has been handily exploited to excuse all sorts of abuses in the name of national progress.
In mid-1990s Shanghai, residents who protested their eviction for the Inner Ring Road were excoriated for selfishly impeding China’s development and modernization. But with the exception of occasional (and increasingly common) “stubborn nails,” the development juggernaut faces little opposition.
In the United States, democratic institutions at the state and local levels act like a giant sea-anchor on development. The resulting torpor can be frustrating, and the community input process is all too often hijacked by ignorance, fear and not-in-my-backyard self-interest.
But, just as often, going slow yields a better project. Unchecked, speed is costly and can even kill. Countless Chinese buildings, thrown up in haste, have already outlived their usefulness. The life span of architecture in China is measured in dog’s years.
In 2006, I counted half a dozen office towers in center-city Nanjing that were scheduled for demolition or in the process of being razed. All had been built in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In most places, a building of such recent vintage would still be considered new.
While there have been significant improvements in recent years, construction quality is still often abysmal, even on tony commercial projects. Binge-building yields a high quotient of urban junk.
A Beijing realtor to whom I was praising the spare, elegant architecture of a trendy housing estate in the central business district shook her head and advised me not to look too closely at how it was all put together.
Upmarket housing on the outskirts of Nanjing, built in late 2000, looks today as if it has been built in the 1960s: crumbling staircases, facades streaked and stained.
Even Paul Andreu’s signature Pudong International Airport, opened in 1999, was visibly aging when I was there in 2006. Shoddy construction, a lack of code enforcement and poor building maintenance is not only wasteful, but has killed many people — such as the dozen shoppers who lost their lives when a Dongguan shopping mall collapsed in December 2000.
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the book “The Concrete Dragon” by Thomas J. Campanella. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Haste makes waste and tends to come at the cost of quality, longevity and even safety.
In the United States, democratic institutions at the state and local levels act like a giant sea-anchor on development.
Chicago's growth in the 19th century made it the fastest-growing city in America, just as Shenzhen became the pacesetter of post-Mao China.
The life span of architecture in China is measured in dog's years.
Author and Associate Professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Mr. Campanella joined the UNC faculty in 2002. He also teaches at Nanjing University’s School of Architecture in China, and will be a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in spring 2008. He is a Faculty Fellow of the Institute for […]