China’s Urban Revolution

Saturday 22 October, 16.00 - 17.15 , Frobisher 1-3 Urbanism and its Discontents

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When seeking insight into the future of the city, it is often to China that architects and critics now turn for answers. For some, China’s rapid urbanisation is a cause for celebration, helping in the space of just 30 years to lift almost 400 million people from the worst levels of poverty. To others, inhabitants of rapidly growing Chinese cities such as Beijing appear to be engaged in a city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. This, they say, is the creation of an ‘airpocalypse’ in which smog filled cities become almost uninhabitable. This ambivalence among Western observers remains even when Chinese ‘eco-cities’ are mentioned. We hear either that they represent an environmental coming of age or that they are inscrutable Chinese confidence tricks: they are either over-flattered or disbelieved. While Finnish environmentalist Eero Paloheimo calls eco-cities ‘standard-setters… a tourist attraction for designers’, ex-Huffington Post author Bianca Bosker says Chinese eco-cities are ‘the same sprawling McMansions under a different name’.

In China, the debate has moved on from simply building new cities. Nowadays, urban commentators talk of ‘mega-cities’, ‘meta-cities’ or even ‘hyper-cities’. Allegedly, China will have 15 new ‘supercities,’ each of 25 million people, by 2025; not to mention giant urban corridors, regional powerhouses and 200 new ‘ordinary’ cities. Will these new kinds of urban development be good, humane, healthy places? Undoubtedly, they will be well planned, but will they provide the higher quality of urban life aspired to by the rising Chinese middle classes?

In the West, environmental urbanism has tended to act as a constraint on development, but how should we view the recent emergence of the Chinese ‘eco-city’?  Can they supply the quantity and quality of housing and other urban amenities that China and the world needs? What does the 21st century Chinese city mean for the notional liberty of the individual and the actual preservation of the authority of the state? Are there lessons for other developing countries or even for the West?