Monthly Archives: October 2011

Speculation: China’s Proposed Eco-Cities

A piece I wrote about China’s proposed eco-cities appeared recently in the  inaugural issue of Dwell Asia magazine. The article takes a look at two proposed eco-cities, Dongtan in Shanghai and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin, examining the implications of the ideas presented in both proposals.

For the readers of the China Urban Development Blog, here is a reproduction of the original piece:

Today’s urban development zeitgeist suggests that cities should move towards sustainable models of living to combat climate change and reduce resource consumption. Of course, how to achieve that is a subject of ongoing debate among design and planning professionals. Unfortunately, branding new developments as ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ is often a loaded attempt to satisfy marketing and public relations needs for developers and government officials.

Nowhere is the use of greenwashing strategies more common than in China, where new cities practically arise overnight. Many new developments, particularly large-scale residential communities consisting of repetitive tower blocks, with names like Authentic Gardens and Spring Flower Court, claim to be environmentally friendly, but have little in the way of sustainable design strategies aside from a few patches of green space.

There are few problems with this mode of development. For one, new residential projects often take up entire city blocks, turning their back on public streets and discouraging a mix of uses and walkability. Secondly, tower blocks are often built cheaply without proper insulation or sealed windows, leading to more energy consumption for heating and cooling. With the demand for new residential units so strong, there is generally no incentive for property developers to spend extra on things that would save energy in the long run.

The need to make new residential developments sound greener than they actually are reflects a deep contradiction between China’s traditional love of nature and its current state of hyper-urbanisation. As more farmland makes way for expanding cities, promoting a sense of nostalgia ensures that newly developed properties will appeal to first time Chinese homebuyers. Yet a new mode of development is emerging in what might ultimately serve as more appropriate and honest model for China to reconcile its agrarian past with its
urban future.

Enter the eco-city. The eco-city concept, which has gained a wide international audience among planners and environmentalists over the last two decades, aims to build new cities and neighbourhoods in a way that uses the best of sustainable technologies and planning strategies to reduce waste and carbon emissions. Given its current state of development, China is an ideal testing ground for new eco-cities.

Dongtan: A planned Eco-city on Chongming Island in Shanghai

China is lauded for two planned eco-cities in particular: Dongtan, on Chongming Island in Shanghai, and the Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin. Both eco-cities lie well outside the traditional urban cores of their respective municipalities and seek to become self-sufficient sustainable communities complete with residential, commercial, retail, educational and recreational uses. The way in which these eco-cities differ from other new developments around China is their focus on clean energy, including solar, wind and bio-fuels and urban design promoting sustainable transportation methods such as walking and cycling.

Despite the good intentions of their designers, there is some concern over the viability and appeal of such developments. Some critics argue that Dongtan, which is now indefinitely on hold, is nothing more than a ‘Potemkin Village’ meant to make government officials look good. Others argue that the high initial cost of sustainable technologies means that the cost of living will be too far out of reach for middle-class Chinese urbanites.

Perhaps most misleading about China’s eco-cities is the overall impact they will have on the entire country’s carbon footprint. Together, Dongtan and the Tianjin Eco-City are planned for less than 1 million residents…a drop in the bucket compared to an urbanising population of more than a billion.

Sino-Singapore Eco-city in Tianjin

Eco-city hype aside, China is doing much more to develop towards a more sustainable future in ways that will have much greater impact. Construction of transportation infrastructure, including a national high-speed rail system and extensive metro systems in nearly every large city, will help reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, China is already the world leader in renewable energy technology, with enormous investment into wind and solar energy.

Whether or not China’s eco-cities ever come to fruition, there are lessons to be taken from the ideas presented in the plans. Promoting genuine mixed-use neighborhoods and buildings with sustainable technologies such as passive heating and cooling and low-flush toilets are a step in the right direction. Yet given the type of development that is currently en vogue in China (the quickly built, tower block type), perhaps it best to start with the unglamorous basics: wall insulation and properly sealed windows.

9/11, China and the Enduring Symbolic Power of the Skyscraper

1 World Trade Center Rising in Lower Manhattan

Now that it has been about a month since the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., I have had some time to reflect on the enduring significance of the skyscraper. With One World Trade Center finally starting to form a new image in the Manhattan skyline, we see that in spite of protestations to building such a tower on sacred ground, construction crews move ahead to realize what will perhaps be the city’s most ambitious project in years. Some question why it has taken so long to get to this point while others still see the entire rebuilding effort as an affront to the memory of tragedy.

It really seems not long ago at all- I was barely into my third week of architecture school at the University of Southern California when terrorist attacks brought down the Twin Towers. Despite living in America’s second largest city at the time, it was difficult to fathom the horror that was taking place across the country in New York. Like everyone else around the world, my classmates and I watched the television in shock as we tried to process what was happening.

In the days and weeks that followed, I expected there to be some discussion in my classes about the symbolic power of architecture- more specifically an in-depth analysis as to why the World Trade Center was the target of such an attack. Surprisingly, my instructors were reluctant to talk about this topic and instead centered most of the discussions around debating the technical details about how the buildings failed.

Looking back, it is clear why Al-Qaeda chose the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America’s respective symbols of commercial and military strength, as targets for attack. Yet why did my architecture professors fail to acknowledge this at the time?

For the younger instructors, I suspect the modernist paradigm had already ceased to be relevant since architectural historian Charles Jencks declared the death of modern architecture when Pruitt-Igoe, a failed public housing project in St. Louis designed by Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed the ill-fated World Trade Center), was imploded in 1972. For this generation of architects who were educated in the 1980′s and 90′s, it was the tongue-in-cheek classicism of post-modernism and the cynical musings of deconstructivists like Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi who influenced their outlook. To them, I presume, the World Trade Center was already a dinosaur from another era long before the attacks that brought the towers down.

For the older generation of tenured professors, to question why the World Trade Center was the target of terrorist attacks was to question the entire legitimacy of the modernist project in the U.S.A. These are individuals whose careers fortuitously coincided with the golden age of American prosperity during the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s. In retrospect, perhaps it was out of a sense of respect to the modernist paradigm in which they believed and spent their careers teaching aspiring architects that they not publicly question the ‘why’ of 9/11.

It was not until my first full-time job after graduating in the summer of 2006 that I fully grasped the symbolic power of architecture, specifically the skyscraper building type. I worked for an architect by the name of Richard Keating, who spent most of his career in the 1970′s and 80′s as a partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), the gold standard in American corporate high-rise design. While at SOM, Keating designed several of the commercial office towers that define the skylines of cities like Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

While many architects and commentators declared the end of the tall building type after 9/11, Keating was not among them. On the contrary, he understood the enduring appeal of skyscrapers not only to property developers and government officials, but also to the common man as an aspirational device.

Coincidentally, the first project I worked on in Keating’s office was a lobby renovation for Minoru Yamasaki’s other twin towers- the triangulated Century Plaza Towers in the Century City section of Los Angeles- originally built in 1975. Rather than let the modernist icon be relegated to the dust bin of history, we were tasked with updating the project’s public spaces with a 21st Century twist.

The Century Plaza Towers are a pair of classic high-rise towers of their era: pure rational forms in plan, extruded up 44-stories towards the sky

Building tall is somewhat formulaic as the considerations of natural forces such as gravity, wind, severe weather and potential seismic activity are always taken into great account when designing high-rise buildings anywhere in the world. Being as such, skyscrapers are just as much feats of engineering as they are architecture. In fact, some of the most recognizable skyscrapers make use of structure as the central focus of their architectural expression. One only needs to think of the cross-bracing structures of the Hancock Tower in Chicago or Bank of China building in Hong Kong to be reminded of this.

Bank of China building in Hong Kong by I.M Pei

Today the trend in high-rise design is not structural, but formal expression. Rather than being exposed for all to see, structure is now most often hidden behind shimmering glass curtain-walls while the towers twist and  torque upwards. Thanks to computer programs that allow architects to explore unconventional forms, skyscrapers need not be strictly Cartesian in nature.

“Absolute Towers” by Beijing-based MAD Architects in Mississauga, Canada

The ongoing economic crises in Europe and the U.S. put a dent into the skyscraper building program in the Western world. This is not the case in developing nations, especially China, where towers are rising in myriad cities across the country. When it comes to building the high-profile ‘supertall’ towers (buildings over 300 meter tall), Chinese clients still prefer to outsource the design to the experts with a track record in high-rise design, namely American firms like SOM, KPF, and Smith+Gill.

Yet these marquee projects do not account for nearly the thousands of other tall buildings over 100 meters being built in China, both in central business districts and outlying suburban areas. Most of these towers are nondescript and serve the straightforward purpose of housing an increasingly urbanized population. Perhaps bland on an individual level, collectively the high-rises that define rising skylines in Chinese cities represent the aspirations of an upwardly mobile population.

The Chongqing skyline, quickly becoming one of the most recognizable in the world

Cynics would argue that high-rise buildings in reality represent nothing more than real estate developer greed, benefiting few while exploiting the working class for cheap construction labor. While criticisms have their merit, the overwhelming consensus in China is in favor of a modernization program that includes the construction of tall buildings.

Not long ago I was walking down the new ‘financial street’ in Chengdu near my home where several new high-rise buildings between 150 and 200 meters tall are currently under construction. I noticed a beat-up car with license plates from a small Sichuan Provincial town stopped at a red light. Inside the car was a family of two parents and a child, looking up in awe at the glistening new skyline.

I knew at that moment that it didn’t matter if they never set foot inside those new buildings…what the towers represent was enough to inspire a sense of awestruck wonder in this family. And while American economists continue to bash China’s urbanization process, calling this the ‘biggest real estate bubble ever’, they tend to forget that it was in America that the skyscraper was invented and perfected. There is a certain universality of a desire to reach for the heavens, and China’s urban areas are the best reminders of that today.

China and the Legacy of Steve Jobs

Fake ‘Apple Store’ in Kunming

It is not hard to understate the influence that Apple has had on China. If we examine the role the country plays in the supply-chain of Apple products, then China’s relationship with the company is undeniable. It is safe to say that without China’s contribution to the manufacturing and assembly process, Apple’s stylish products would be unaffordable to the average consumer around the globe.

That’s why last year when a string of suicides hit Foxconn, the company that manufactures products such as the iPad and iPhone, Steve Jobs was quick to announce that Apple would look into the working conditions. Jobs, a marketing genius, knew that negative PR associated with Foxconn would hurt Apple’s sleek and stylish image in the U.S.

What commentators in the U.S. failed to notice is the relative ambivalence of people in China regarding the Foxconn suicides. When I asked my Chinese colleagues what effect the incident had on their perception of Apple, they responded that there was absolutely none. Not only that, they defended Foxconn by saying that the rate of suicides among workers (there are tens of thousands of them) is not abnormal for society at large.

The willingness to defend Apple and its manufacturer is a testament to the huge popularity of the brand in China. From first-hand observation, it seems that Apple products are as ubiquitous here as they are in my native Silicon Valley. It is certainly not only about function- rather, owning an iPhone or iPad is akin to owning a luxury handbag from Hermes or Prada. I know many people who are willing to spend 2 or 3 months salary or even borrow money from friends to purchase an iPhone.

Perhaps more baffling is the fact that Apple products cost more in Mainland China than they do outside. This defies logic given that most of the products are made here…one would think that a reduction in transport cost would bring the price down. The reality is that despite being ‘made in China’, Apple products are treated as ‘imports’ and are taxed as such. This is done to encourage the consumption of domestic products rather than foreign competitors.

The high price point has done nothing to deter Chinese consumers from buying Apple products. Even when the comparable Lenovo tablet computer is advertised for 1000 RMB (~$156.00 USD), Chinese consumers are willing to pay 4 to 5 times that price just to have the iPad.

Furthermore, the desire for Apple products has created an illicit industry of smuggling from Hong Kong and other places. Not long ago, authorities shut down a zipline stretching across the border from Hong Kong into the Mainland city of Shenzhen. Flying on that zipline was none other than shipments of  iPads. Women in overcoats concealing a body covered in iPhones and iPads have also been caught trying to cross the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

In a country known for its knock off products, Apple products are worth the price of their authenticity (even if those real products are purchased in ‘fake’ Apple Stores). Given this fervor, the overwhelming reaction from Chinese Apple fans upon hearing about the passing of Steve Jobs is not surprising. Netizens took to Weibo (China’s ‘Twitter’) commemorating his contributions to the world. Others visited Apple vendors around the country to offer their condolences in person.

Steve Jobs’ popularity in China demonstrates a universal admiration for ground-up innovation and entrepreneurship. Despite having a reputation as a culture that discourages innovation and forces workers to ‘toe the line’ in order to maintain social stability, China’s rising living standards and gradual shift to consumer economy will create an environment more conducive to the kinds of innovations that have come out of places like Silicon Valley in the past.

American economist Panos Mourdoukoutas disagrees with this notion in a recent Forbes article (Why China Doesn’t Have It’s Own Steve Jobs). Mourdoukoutas cites the ‘nature of Chinese institutions’ and ‘lack of incentives to develop pioneering products’ as reasons for this being the case. While looking back at the past few decades, his observations might be correct, looking into the future, he could not be more off the mark.

As I have said before, China’s economy is in a constant evolutionary state. What may appear a static, archaic, and centrally controlled beast from the outside is certainly not reality within China. One only needs to look at the evolution of China’s neighbors, Japan and South Korea- both places once known as bastions of intellectual property theft- to get an idea of where China is headed in the innovation department. Only this time, the scale will be much larger.

Only once the country’s ‘hardware’ (infrastructure, buildings, etc…) is in place, will China make the full shift to a more consumer driven economy. Mourdoukoutas finally acknowledges this reality at the end of his piece:

“To have its own celebrated entrepreneurs, China must develop a consumer-centered market economy that releases the ingenuity and creativity of its people in the search for novel ways to change consumers’ lives, amassing wealth for themselves in the process.

On the ground here this is already happening, but the process might be too gradual for outside observers to see. If reverence for Steve Jobs is any indication, China is in for a golden age innovation and entrepreneurship…the people here are hungry for it.

Go West Project at the Chengdu Biennale

I had the privilege of sitting in on a round-table discussion led by the ‘Go West Project‘ at the Chengdu Biennale this past weekend. Go West Project is an independent think-thank based in Shanghai founded by two Dutch nationals, Michiel Hulshof, a journalist, and Daan Roggeveen, an architect. For the past two years, Hulshof and Roggeveen traveled around the country documenting the phenomenon of urbanization in China’s lesser-known cities (hence the name ‘Go West‘).

Their research culminated in a recently released book titled How the City Moved to Mr. Sun. The title refers to one of the several personal narratives they encountered in their travels. Mr. Sun, a corn farmer in a village on the outskirts of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, saw his land seized by authorities nearly 20 years ago. Like many of the other villagers, he used the compensation money to develop his own 4-storey ‘mixed-use’ building complete with retail space on the ground floor, living space on the 2nd and 3rd floors and a small group of guestrooms for migrant workers on the 4th floor. On the roof, Mr. Sun created an organic garden to continue doing what he knew how to do best.

Inevitably, the pace of urbanization caught up to Mr. Sun once again, and after about a 10 year run of profitability, his self-developed building was razed by bulldozers. He reluctantly gave in and accepted compensation and now lives with his wife in a modern high-rise residential tower block where ‘he doesn’t know any of the neighbors’.

Mr. Sun’s story is one of several Hulshof and Roggeveen document in their book. In addition to Shijiazhuang, they visit 12 other cities in China’s interior including Zhengzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Hohhot and Kashgar, among others. Each city focuses on a different aspect of urbanization in China, and in Chengdu they chose to focus on cultural development.

And cultural development in Chengdu is what we focused on at the Biennale discussion. Hulshof and Roggeveen were interested in hearing from the people in attendance, mostly artists, designers and musicians from Chengdu’s local arts scene, what they thought of promoting ‘special arts zones’. As preposterous as this idea sounds, given that artists typically establish themselves from the ‘bottom-up’, China has already established designated arts zones throughout various cities in China.

This is perhaps no surprise as China’s approach to development in virtually every sphere comes from the ‘top-down’. As a matter of fact, the Chengdu Biennale coincides with the opening up of the new East Music Park, a re-used industrial zone that is also the site of the event. Spearheaded by the local government, the East Music Park is a new area full of bars, clubs, restaurants and gallery space intended to promote the arts in Chengdu.

Of course, the profit motive behind the creation of such arts districts is not hidden. Yet regardless of this commercial aspect, most Chinese artists agree that anytime the government is on board to promote culture it is a positive thing. China’s top-down development model excels at creating the ‘hardware’ of cities:  roads, bridges, public transit, buildings, etc…but when it comes to the development of ‘software,’ or the cultural side of cities, governments have a harder time of deciding the best route to take.

That is why in the case of Chengdu, the local government looked to the artists themselves for consultation on how to proceed. In their book, Hulshof and Roggeveen mention the story of local painter Luo Fahui, once a renegade who had to move around the country to avoid run-ins with government authorities, who later was literally given free gallery space developed by the local government to pursue his artwork. Change of fortune indeed.

As China’s development model continues to evolve, the ‘software’ of cities becomes increasingly important. And as more Chinese citizens realize that there is more to life than the acquisition of money, they will demand more ‘meaningful’ experiences, including patronage of the arts. This is the conclusion we reached at the Biennale round-table and the conclusion Hulshof and Roggeveen reached after their travels around China.

China is at a crossroads now. Next year will see a nationwide change in leadership and with analysts predicting the end to China’s growth model, the country is looking to new ways to continue economic evolution. That is why Hulshof and Roggeveen’s work is timely. To see where China is, and where it is going, I highly recommend their book.