The State of Seismic Safety in China


The 7.0-earthquake in Ya’an, Sichuan Province this past April once again brought up the topic of construction quality in China. Images of crumbled buildings also reminded the world of the devastation that overcame the very same region 5 years ago when more than 70,000 people perished in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake.

Amazingly, the loss of life in the Ya’an quake was markedly smaller at only 200 (granted, so was the severity of the quake, but 7.0 is magnitude still a very significant tremor). Ideally, the goal of seismic building safety is to minimize casualties, thus April’s earthquake proved that China is stepping it up in the right direction.

I have a unique perspective on the issue having spent 2 years living and working in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. And given my position working on the inside of China’s construction boom, industry colleagues and acquaintances outside China frequently inquired about the country’s building safety standards.

The reality is that the discussion of building safety in China is complex. Back in architecture school, our structural engineering professor liked to remind us that “earthquakes don’t kill people, structurally deficient buildings do”. This tends to true, both in Sichuan and other seismically active regions around the world. And while China is generally known for questionable regulations and safety standards, Chinese building codes definitely do not allow any sort of leeway with structural safety.

That being said, it is important to note that an architect and structural engineer can design a building to be structurally sound but the final product will only be as good as the quality of construction, which is ultimately the responsibility of the general contractor. Provided the contractor follows architectural and structural drawings as designed, there should be no concern over seismic safety. Yet the process is never that simple.

By Western standards, construction administration in China is a rather opaque process for a designer. Final decisions during construction are made by owner and contractor without much input from the architect. This can cause issues with oversight, especially with the more unscrupulous contractors and owners who “skim off the top” by switching out building materials for inferior product at the last moment and pocket the difference in price.

While this is an unfortunate practice, the consequences are much less severe when applied to finish materials versus structural materials. Virtually all of the buildings that collapsed in both Sichuan earthquakes were a result of unreinforced masonry construction, meaning that builders stacked bricks or concrete blocks without using sufficient (or any) steel reinforcing bar (rebar). Furthermore, most of these buildings were located in rural towns where they were probably built by individuals not formally trained in construction techniques. This isn’t an excuse, but rather a reflection of a country that is still developing.

Further highlighting the urban/rural gap in China is the fact that in both Sichuan earthquakes, Chengdu proper suffered minimal damage comparatively to its surrounding countryside. And with the mad frenzy of construction going on in the city, never once did I see a cause for concern with the structural reliability of city’s new buildings. In fact, the new high-rise buildings rising in Chengdu’s core fared well in April’s earthquake.

So while there is still improvement to be made in construction processes and techniques, especially in the more rural areas of China, my feeling is that safety standards are only getting better. The architecture and engineering professions in China, as well as government authorities, take seismic safety very seriously and do not lack the know-how in designing and building safe buildings.

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was a wake up call, but given how far China has come in terms of development, there is a very good chance that this will have been the last catastrophic seismic event in country.

Organic Farming in China: Chengdu’s Anlong Village

With the ongoing spate of food safety scandals, Chinese consumers are rightly weary of the source and quality of their food. Unfortunately, food quality regulatory bodies in China remain unreliable and direct access to fresh food sources is limited for an increasingly urbanized populace. This is one of the great contradictions of China’s urban development: a country which for most of its history was majority agriculturally based is on the fast track to be one of the most urbanized nations in the world.

Status conscious Chinese urbanites would rather not associate with anything related to farming, as it evokes the recent memory of rural peasant life. For many upwardly mobile city dwellers, international restaurant chains like KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut are considered the best options for upper-class ‘healthy’ dining (that is, food with high caloric content).

The urban growth of China is a boon to these chains as more American consumers shun them in favor of a more organic, natural diet. The shift in American consumer preferences is reflected in the success of supermarket chain Whole Foods, local farmers markets, and the growing popularity of the Slow Food movement.

Given China’s new-found love affair with processed food and growing ambivalence about the role of agriculture, I was confident there was probably not much interest in organic farming. That was until I visited Anlong Village- a wholly organic, zero waste farm 50 km northwest of central Chengdu. With a full-time population of 3,000 residents, Anlong Village is sponsored by the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association (CURA), a local non-profit NGO.

Anlong Village was initially set-up in an effort to help clean up the Funan River, which flows into central Chengdu

Anlong Village is CURA’s flagship project, and unlike other purported ‘eco-cities’ under development in China, lives up to its claim of being 100% sustainable. The partnership was established in 2003 as an effort to help clean up the adjacent Funan River, which flows through central Chengdu, after it was discovered that most of the river pollutants come from agricultural runoff upstream.

Anlong helps abate this problem by avoiding the use of chemical pesticides and instead using natural methods to fight agricultural pests. These methods include surrounding plots with mint (a natural pesticide) and planting garden plots with a variety of different species (so if one crop succumbs to disease, it does not destroy the entire plot). This not only avoids dumping unnatural chemical waste into the river, but ensures that the farm’s soil is nurtured over the long-term.

The village also features a comprehensive composting system. Composting toilets turn waste into organic fertilizer and animal waste is recycled into concrete pits treated with anaerobic digestive microorganisms that convert it into methane gas used for heating and cooking. Plant waste is also re-used as organic fertilizer.

Organic waste is mixed together in large pits and composted naturally before being re-used as fertilizer

Throughout the village, greywater is treated in a series of specialized ponds that naturally remove pollutants. Treated greywater can then be re-used for agricultural irrigation. Constructed wetlands adjacent to the Funan River also treat greywater, assuring that potentially harmful waste water is filtered before entering the river.

Constructed wetlands treat greywater, naturally removing pollutants

Despite the initial apprehension of local government officials, Anlong Village is a tremendous success. Of the few plots available to non-Anlong residents (primarily health conscious families living in the city who tend to their crops on the weekend), demand outstrips supply.

Demand is also great for the organic produce grown in Anlong. This is in large part due to Chinese consumer mistrust of the validity of produce labeled ‘organic’ in large Chengdu supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, or Isetan. Anlong, on the other hand, offers a trustworthy source.

Unfortunately, at this point there are very limited formal distribution channels for purchasing organic produce grown in the village. Farmers frequently venture to the city to sell their crops, but usually only those ‘in-the-know’ will know when and where exchange points are. To make it a bit easier for consumers, CURA is currently in the process of training Anlong farmers how to use microblogging sites to announce the time and location of exchange points.

An outdoor dining hall in Anlong Village. The 100% organic & vegetarian lunch I ate here ranks up as one of the best meals I’ve eaten in China

In its relatively short history as a 100% organic farm, Anlong Village is already a benchmark for other aspiring sustainable farms around China. Yet like in the U.S., there is ongoing debate about the scalability of such a model. Considering the high markup on price compared to commercially farmed crops (produce grown in Anlong can be two to three times the cost of commercially farmed produce), many argue that this method of farming is not practical to feed a nation with such a huge population as China.

In spite of this debate, and given China’s struggle with pollution as it continues to develop, Anlong Village is a blessing and a valuable reminder that practical steps can be taken to protect its environment.

View from the Ground in the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone

New development outside Jiangyou, Sichuan Province

The following post is an adaptation of a comment I made on my good friend and Chengdu-based American writer Sascha Matuszak’s recent ChengduLiving article about the development of the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone. The comment recalls my own experience of a business trip to one of the smaller cities in the zone: Jiangyou, Sichuan Province:

Thanks for the update on the Chengdu-Chongqing Economic Zone, Sascha. Having been to several of the 3rd and 4th tier cities in Sichuan you mentioned (Suining, Mianyang, Nanchong, etc..) I’ve often wondered how the prosperity in the region’s two dominant cities (Chengdu and Chongqing) would trickle into these other cities as well.

It seems as if most of the young ambitious Chinese people I meet from these cities who now live in Chengdu feel like there is nothing left for them in their hometowns. They also tell me that if they want to move ahead the best opportunities are found in Chengdu or Chongqing.

This isn’t to suggest that Chengdu and Chongqing will continue being the only cities absorbing all the region’s young, educated and ambitious talents. As is clear from what you wrote, the government is pushing for the prosperity to spread throughout the region. And given the enormous combined population of Sichuan Province/Chongqing Municipality at a whopping 110 million people, this is certainly a reasonable plan.

Unfortunately, observations on the ground often tell a different story. About a year and a half ago I was in a city called Jiangyou (famous as the hometown of the poet Li Bai and now actually considered a part of greater Mianyang) to meet with a housing developer for a potential new project. The developer had just finished building a series of faux Italian-style villas on the outskirts of town and reveled in showing us the finished product. No one had moved in yet, but the units were sold out.

Why anyone would buy these villas as anything other than a pure (risky) speculative investment is beyond me. Quality of life couldn’t possibly be a factor. Just outside the gates of the project, the developer drove us around in his brand new Mercedes-Benz to show us what is Jiangyou’s newly planned ‘center’. At this time, it was nothing more than block upon block of empty dirt lots, cleared away for new development. No people in sight except for a few construction workers taking a cigarette break. There were absolutely no amenities in the area and the air full of dust.

The developer then drove us to the real center of Jiangyou about 5km down the road. Finally, signs of life abounded as local residents went about their day in the downtown area. Though the downtown Jiangyou locals didn’t look like they suffered from abject poverty, a brand-new Mercedes with a young laowai passenger inside was enough to stop people in their tracks and turn a lot of heads.

We stepped out of the car and walked through the center of town, which was a series of 1-2 story ramshackle shacks that were destroyed in the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. The buildings were too damaged to be safely occupied, yet markets still flourished in the pedestrian street directly in between the collapsed buildings.

The juxtaposition of the physical damage with the bustling life on the street gave the place the feeling of a disaster zone frozen in time. Given the time since the earthquake struck, I wondered why there hadn’t been any progress on clearing out the damage.

I got my answer when the developer took us to Jiangyou’s planning department- a bland, 5-story grey building with peeling paint, typical of government of offices in China’s 3rd and 4th tier towns.  Inside the building, there was not a soul in sight in the poorly lit hallways and stairwell until we got up to an office on the 3rd floor that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A middle-aged man with a baijiu-belly offered us plastic cups of teas leaves with lukewarm water and introduced himself as one of the officials in charge of urban planning for the city. Maps of the city and region covering the walls of his office confirmed his position.

What we found out in that meeting is that despite an outward appearance that would suggest otherwise, the city of Jiangyou is rich. Or rather, the city government is sitting on top of piles of cash that was given to them by the central government as part of the Wenchuan Earthquake rebuilding effort. At that point, there was not much to show for the money they had received except for plans drawn up on paper. So far, our potential client, the developer of the luxury Italian villas had been one of the few in Jiangyou savvy enough to use his connections with the local government to gain favor and build the project, even though it was clear that the money might’ve been used for other, more pressing matters (e.g. clearing the rubble in downtown).

And while the planning official was soliciting master plans for redevelopment of the downtown area, most of the effort was still on developing the ‘new’ center with plans for new government offices and more luxury residential projects. I found it more than unfortunate that this took precedence over rebuilding the place where most of Jiangyou’s population lives.

Upon leaving Jiangyou, my Chinese colleague said something to me akin to “f*ck that guy”, in reference to the developer who showed us around. Apparently there was more going on than I could gather from my limited understanding of Chinese at the time.  Yet despite these misunderstandings, the physical state of the city said enough about where the rebuilding money was going.

Ultimately, it is the countless smaller cities like Jiangyou that will determine the future success of China (it is also good to keep in mind that city size is relative, and although Jiangyou is ‘small’ by China standards, the population sits at almost 900,000 people). With the upcoming government leadership change and an economy that begs for an evolution in its level of transparency, the fate of the country lies within its urban areas, especially the ones not on the international or even national radar.

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.

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.

Chengdu Enhances Urban Environment With Recreational Paths

It seems that too often talk about China development focuses on ‘hard’ infrastructure projects including roads, bridges, power stations, rail systems, etc.  Yet what is often overlooked in discussions about China’s infrastructure are projects designed to enhance quality of life for city dwellers. I recently discovered one of these new projects in the city where I live, Chengdu.

For months leading up to summer, large portions of the promenade along the Jinjiang River, which runs through the middle of the city, was walled off while new landscape construction took place. Upon completion, the riverside opened up with sleek modern guard rails and wide lanes with brand new pavers and newly planted trees.

As soon as the promenade opened again, I resumed my usual jogging route which runs from the city center to about 5 km south along the river. Besides having a smooth new surface to run on, I also found that when I reached the fenced off area where I usually turn around and head back, the fence was gone. Curious to explore further, I carried on along the river.

I ran through some formerly industrial areas and eventually ended up in Chengdu’s suburban periphery outside of the south section of the 3rd Ring Road where new residential towers sprouted up from the ground among vast swaths of green space. The path continued on along the river but at that point I thought it best to turn around before sunset.

It turns out that the extended path is part of Chengdu’s ambitious plan to add 800 km of recreational path by next year. Keeping in line with its self-proclaimed status as a ‘Modern Garden City’, the city is actively promoting green space that enhances quality of life. Given that Chengdu has a temperate climate, a system of recreational paths linking the city center with its surrounding suburbs  is a worthwhile investment.

A Guide to China’s Rising Urban Areas

Source: Demographia World Urban Areas: Population & Projections: 6th Edition.

I have a new piece up at NewGeography about China’s rising urban areas. Below is an excerpt from the introduction:

From a Rural to Urban Dispersion in the Middle Kingdom

China’s rise to economic prominence over the past 30 years has rested in large part to its rapid    urbanization. Prior to ‘reform and opening up’ that started in earnest during the 1970s, cities in China were viewed as pariahs by the party leadership. Millions of young urban dwellers were forced into the countryside to labor on farming communes during the Cultural Revolution. In stark contrast, today millions of rural migrants make their way to the city.

The scale at which this is happening is unprecedented. Currently, there are 85 metropolitan areas in China with more than 1 million people, compared to 51 in the US. By 2015, urban regions will account for half of China’s population and by 2025, the urban population’s share should reach about 75%.

To date, international attention has remained fixated on China’s largest cities of Beijing and Shanghai (and to a lesser extent, Guangzhou and Shenzhen). This is not without good reason, as Beijing and Shanghai are not only the respective government and financial centers of mainland China, but both were host to two of the most visible world events of the past decade: the 2008 Summer Olympics and the recently concluded World Expo.

Second and Third-Tier Cities Enter Onto the World Stage

Increasingly, however, the real trajectory of urban growth is shifting to China’s so-called ‘second-tier’ and ‘third-tier’ cities. To the outside observer, China’s lesser-known cities might seem all too similar to one another given the monotonous aesthetic of their newly constructed cityscapes. Indeed, the newfound appearance of Chinese cities is a point of contention among local urban development scholars who are concerned about the converging ‘identical faces’ of these urban areas.

Yet to Chinese locals and foreigners who have spent some time living here, it Chinese cities are defined more by their local cuisine, dialect, history, geography, culture and climate rather than their architectural character. These often-overlooked nuances of local culture are much more essential to the identity of these cities than buildings. In the future, these distinctions may prove more effective in attracting investment and talent than flashy new construction projects.

To continue reading about these cities please click here.

Torrential Rains and Flooding in Chengdu

It’s been a rough start to the summer season for provinces in central and southwest China. Torrential rain and floods have affected millions, destroying crops and forcing many to evacuate their homes. Chengdu was largely spared any flooding up until this past Sunday when a heavy storm dumped on the city.

The storm blew out power lines while the flooded streets created traffic chaos throughout the city. My colleague took some photos of the flooding near his apartment in the low-lying southern part of Chengdu.

Some drivers mistakenly judged water levels and got stuck in the middle of flooded streets.

The storm drainage system in this part of the city couldn’t handle the huge quantities of rain that came down in such a short time period – resulting in covers being pushed off the tops of manholes. The girl in the above picture had the misfortune of unknowingly stepping into one of those holes. Luckily a nearby man came and rescued her before anything more serious happened.

Even though Chengdu experienced some flooding, the real damage took place in the more rural parts of Sichuan province. In Yingxiu county, flooding brought down part of a bridge, stranding villagers. Video of the dramatic rescue can be seen here.

Shifting Real Estate Development Priorities

Last week I had a chance to chat with Russell Flannery, the Shanghai bureau chief for Forbes magazine, at a conference I spoke at in Luoyang, Henan Province. I talked to him about the shift in real estate development focus in China from residential to the retail and commercial sectors. Below is a reproduction of the interview from Forbes:

Shopping Malls Become China Real Estate Hot Spot As Economy Shifts

Shopping malls are becoming a China real estate hot spot as government efforts to ease housing prices reduce interest among developers in building apartment complexes.

So says Adam Mayer, a USC-educated senior project architect based in the western Chinese city of Chengdu for Cendes, a Singapore-founded architecture firm with projects in more than 20 Chinese cities.   Rapid growth in Chinese retail spending, he says,  “represents a shift of the Chinese economy from one of production to a more domestic, consumer-oriented market.”

I talked to Mayer on the sidelines of a conference about the business outlook in central China held yesterday in Luoyang, one of China’s ancient hubs. The event was being organized by Forbes China, the licensed Chinese-language edition of Forbes magazine, and the city government, and attracted speakers from IBM and GE. Excerpts follow.

 Q. China’s government seems to be slowing down the pace of the real estate industry right now. To what extent do you feel any of that in your own company?

A. We do see it in the sense that there’s a shift away from such rapid development of residential property. Not all residential types, though, just, specifically, the high-rise clustered residential you see in all cities across China. The shift is more toward villas, which in the U.S. we would call detached houses. These are not intended to be primary residences. Rather, they are intended and marketed towards wealthy individuals who want a second home or a vacation home that’s outside the city.

What we’re seeing now is a huge growth in the retail sector in the design and developments of shopping malls, especially in Chengdu where we have a lot of work, and also in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. We’ve been seeing a lot of mixed-used developments in the planning phases now. These are typically 4-5 storey retail shopping malls (that) in architectural terms we call a podium. These are usually high density sites. They have high floor to area ratios, which are zoning numbers that tell you how much square meters you can build on that site. These are usually in center city areas, and also around the second or third ring roads that are developing out from the center, typically around transit hubs where there might be a subway station. There are retail podiums with office towers, or it could be a hotel tower and also some residential tower on top.

Q. What’s driving that investment?

A.  I think it’s really more about retail. The developers are maximizing the FAR (floor to area ratio), and that’s why they’re building towers on top, but the retail really represents a shift of the Chinese economy from one of production to a more domestic, consumer oriented market. So we see real estate developers really pushing hard (on) the retail development.

Q.  In the old days, Chinese developers were making plenty of money just by building those tall residential buildings and selling them out quickly. Now, those same builders appear to be increasingly interested in commercial property. Do you see signs of that?

A. For sure. If developers are only in the residential sector, they definitely need to diversify. Also, when it comes to geographical development, (there’s a) shift of development of China moving from the coast inward (and) west. We see that happening to even further west than Chengdu, and, if you can imagine, into Urumqi and Xinjiang Province.

Forbes: Shopping Malls Become China Real Estate Hot Spot As Economy Shifts

Population’s Role in an Urbanizing China

China’s cities would not be urbanizing at their current rate without the help of the country’s huge population. It is a well-known fact that China is the most populous country on earth, yet this is sometimes forgotten in commentary questioning the breakneck pace of physical urban development. Recently, I came across a very clear reminder of just how many people reside in the Middle Kingdom: a great infographic from The Economist that compares the population of Chinese provinces to different countries around the world.

The province I live in, Sichuan, has roughly the same population as the entire nation of Germany. Now, consider that Germany has a handful of well-known big cities like Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg, just to name a few, that spread the population across the country. Sichuan also has many large cities  spread across the province yet compared with  the famous German cities, chances are that no one outside China (or possibly even outside of Sichuan) has heard of them.

The point I am trying to make here is that large population does  not automatically give a city international clout. Although Chengdu, the provincial capital and largest city in Sichuan, has come up on the international radar in recent years (thanks in part to the terrible earthquake back in 2008), the city is still an afterthought compared with more high-profile cities on the east coast like Beijing and Shanghai.

This is not to mention all the 3rd and 4th Tier in the province that are gaining population like Mianyang, Nanchong, Suining, and Ya’an, among several others. Mianyang, for instance, has a population of 5.2 million residents. Nanchong has 7.3 million residents.

It should also be noted that the scope of what defines a ‘city’ in China is generally larger by means of what is actually counted as part of  an urban area compared with other cities around the world. Cities in China are generally defined at the prefecture level, meaning that there could be several smaller ‘towns’ within a given prefecture (city). This arrangement most likely has to do with China’s system of top-down government and keeping a consistent hierarchical line of command from the central government down to the provincial, prefecture and even village level.

Another interesting part of The Economist infographic is the comparison of Chinese provinces with different countries in terms of per capita GDP.

What this tells us is that despite China’s number two spot on the list of world’s largest economies, from a per capita basis, the country still has a lot of developing to do. Tibet has the same GDP per capita as Congo-Brazzaville, Shanxi the same as Namibia and Henan the same as El Salvador! Granted ,these are poor provinces in comparison to their eastern neighbors, yet offhand one would not expect these numbers from the world’s second largest economy.

Oftentimes, China’s leaders will loudly declare that China is still a ‘developing country’ when accused of not being a responsible player regarding issues such as carbon emissions or human rights. They may have a point.

Though China has come a long way in lifting millions out of poverty into the middle class over the 30+ years since reform and opening, the transformation is far from complete. The country will continue to urbanize well into the future, fueled by its enormous and ambitious population.

The Economist: Comparing Chinese Provinces With Countries

Chengdu and Chongqing Leading the Way in Hukou Reform

The hukou system, or household registration system, is a method of accounting for the country’s population by requiring each citizen to officially register his or her place of residence.

Possessing an urban hukou in a large city means that one is an official ‘resident’ of that city and eligible to receive benefits such as  access to medical insurance and education as well as the right to purchase property. This poses a problem for the floating population of rural migrants to cities who are not afforded similar benefits due to their lack of an official urban hukou.

Given the difficulty rural migrants have in obtaining an urban hukou, most have no incentive to settle in a city once their period of work is finished. This means that until the system is reformed, rural migrants will always have one foot in the big city and one foot back in the village.

When China first opened up 30 years ago, opportunity was limited to places like the Pearl River Delta, where access to overseas markets made it the logical place to begin economic reform. As economic growth and prosperity has spread from the coastal regions to the interior, migrants from the western part of China have less incentive to head all the way to coastal areas to look for work. In fact, the Pearl River Delta has even seen a migrant worker shortage recently.

The expansion of economic growth throughout China has been of great benefit to interior cities like Chengdu and Chongqing- both large cities surrounded by vast rural areas. The growth of these two cities means that rural migrants from Sichuan and nearby provinces need not go too far in order to find good job opportunities.

Seizing the opportunity to strengthen urban growth, both Chongqing and Chengdu are taking the lead in hukou reform. Chongqing recently pledged to grant 3 million urban hukous to farmers by 2012, and 10 million altogether by 2020! Chengdu has initiated a pilot program to unify rural and urban hukous, granting access to urban unemployment benefits for migrant workers.

It is clear that hukou reform is the key to long-term successful urbanization of China’s cities. While economic reforms first emerged in China’s coastal areas, could social reforms arise from the country’s great cities on the interior?

China Daily: Chongqing Turns Into Red Capital

Chengdu Living: Chengdu’s Pilot Program to Abolish the Hukou

Urbanizing Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

An article I wrote about the sustainable development in China’s cities was recently published in the Winter 2010/2011 Issue of the British Chamber of Commerce South West China Magazine “Face“. The piece examines the historical context under which China’s cities are currently developing and looks at some of the important decisions being made  by civic leaders, arguing that they will ultimately prove to be beneficial in the long-run.

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

Urbanising Towards a Clean and Sustainable Future

By Adam Nathaniel Mayer

China is urbanizing at a time when world opinion regarding climate change means that those involved in city building cannot afford to ignore sustainable solutions to development. Fortunately, China is at a stage in its modernization where leaders have the ability to make decisions that will have far-reaching effects on the environment and quality of life in its cities. This presents a unique opportunity for China to create a new paradigm for efficient cities in  the 21st century.

China receives its share of criticism from the international press about the environmental quality of its cities. Yet while criticism certainly has its place, it is important to keep in mind that the cities in the developed world which went from pre-industrial communities to manufacturing centers and ultimately post-industrial metropolises did not get there overnight. One needs only to recall James Joyce’s Dublin or Charles Dickens’ London to bring to mind the growing pains that cities in the industrialized West went through during their own evolution.

China is following the same urbanization pattern seen in the West, yet at what the late British geographer David Drakakis-Smith called ‘a speed unprecedented in human history’. Drakakis-Smith also noted that China added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe in the entire nineteenth century!

And there is still a long way to go. It is projected that by 2015, the rural and urban populations of China will each stand at 50%. By 2025, the urban population is set to make up 75% of China’s total population. Thus, the future success of China depends largely on how well the country’s cities sustain economic growth and absorb the continuing influx of rural migrants.

So far, China has done a good job of transitioning relatively smoothly from a rural to urban nation. Not only have China’s urban areas grown economically and expanded physically, they are also striving to meet highly functional levels of sustainability. Lisa Hoffman, Professor of Urban Studies at the University of Washington in Tacoma, attributes this in large part to the openness of China’s leaders to learning from what she refers to as ‘proven models sustainable urban practices’. That is, as she clarifies, municipal officials in China will often visit sites and invite planners, politicians, technicians and businesses to teach them how to be ‘green’.

In practice, this means that rather than setting guidelines arbitrarily for land use planning (also known as ‘zoning’), municipal leaders are open to hearing from architects and urban planners before coming to a decision about what should be built and where. Recommendations are typically manifested in what are known as ‘master plans’ or ‘design studies’ of large swaths of a city.

This flexibility in zoning means that China’s cities are adaptable to  emerging international urban planning trends. Most of these trends are guided by an earnest desire to create cities that are high in density, walkable and served by efficient public transportation. Other, albeit less glamorous aims include effective waste management, crime reduction and the ‘greening’ or beautification of important streets.

In Chengdu, guided by the Garden City concept, the local government has successfully initiated two street beautification projects – on Binjiang Lu along the river that flows through the city’s downtown area, and Renmin Nan Lu, a primary north-south boulevard that bisects the city. In both cases, efforts were taken to update building facades, plant trees, and design lighting schemes that enliven the night-time atmosphere of the streets.

As in Chengdu, underground subway systems are being built in nearly every large Chinese city in anticipation of continued urbanization. High population density means that mixed-use projects around subway transit hubs have a high probability of becoming lively urban spaces in the future. Mixed-use developments are tightly packed projects that feature a mixture of retail, commercial office, hotel and residential uses. In order to reach high densities, most new mixed-use projects consist of high-rise buildings rising out of lower retail ‘podiums’.

Many of these projects are being built not in city centers, but in outlying districts on previously undeveloped land. Today, the construction sites outside the 3rd or 4th ring roads of many Chinese cities might not look like much, and may even look like physical signs of an impending real estate bubble bust, but in fact what is happening is smart urban planning for the future. Transport links such as new roads and subway lines make this kind of expanding growth possible.

China’s cities are following a similar process as cities in the developed world. Many of the largest cities have already seen their heavy industry move outside of central areas. As China’s economy continues to grow and wages inevitably increase, manufacturing will eventually move to other developing countries. At this point, it will be up to China’s leaders to shift the economy from one largely based on heavy industry to a post-industrial economy focused more on knowledge-work and creating new technologies.

By the time this happens, China will be thankful that it invested so much into building its infrastructure and developing its cities to accommodate unprecedented urban growth. In the future, it is highly likely that China’s cities will no longer be following other models, but rather be the new standard by which cities in the developing world shape themselves.

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a Senior Project Architect at Cendes Architecture in their Chengdu office.

Lan Kwai Fong Entertainment District Opens in Chengdu

Lan Kwai Fong, the trendy bar district in Hong Kong, has been the island’s premier nightlife spot for the better part of three decades. Developed by Canadian investor Allan Zeman, the small collection of hilly streets above Hong Kong’s Central is an energetic zone of debauchery.

Not long ago, Chengdu, a city well-known for its love of leisure, recruited Zeman and his brand of cosmopolitan nightlife to collaborate on opening a Lan Kwai Fong location in the provincial capital. Given the city’s reputation, Zeman readily agreed and chose a site next to the Funan River in the city’s burgeoning Central Business District.

LKF Chengdu sits along the bank of the Funan River in downtown

LKF Chengdu officially opened at the end of last year. Unlike LKF Hong Kong, which made use of an existing neighborhood, LKF Chengdu is a completely newly built complex. Consisting of a series of pavilion buildings, linked by a snaking roof, the development features high-end restaurants, coffee houses, bars, clubs and a few retail shops catering to the consumption of luxury goods such as wine and cigars.

A snaking, polycarbonate roof covers the complex, unifying the buildings

Unlike the businesses in LKF Hong Kong which cater to the tastes of Western expatriates living and working in the city, LKF Chengdu is geared towards local  Chinese tastes and preferences. This was a conscious decision by Zeman to appeal to local consumers. As such, the bars and clubs in LKF Chengdu are not ‘pubs’ like one would find in Hong Kong, but rather more in line with existing Chengdu nightlife hot spots in decor and atmosphere.

A provocative image of young woman sipping a martini greets clubgoers

That being said, there are a few overseas chains operating in LKF Chengdu such as Starbucks and Tony Roma’s. Lei Garden, an upscale Hong Kong restaurant chain also has a location in the complex.

Strange sculptures dot the  grounds, adding a quirky air to the complex

Based on a few personal outings to the new complex, LKF Chengdu doesn’t seem to be living up to its ambitions in terms of becoming the top nightlife spot in the city. Not only does it have to compete with the neighboring club district Jiu Yan Qiao, the businesses in the complex may be too far out of reach price-wise for the majority of Chengdu’s young party-goers.

This is not to suggest that LKF Chengdu will not become one of the city’s hottest spots for nightlife in the future. In the overall scope of development of Chengdu’s Central Business District, Lan Kwai Fong’s arrival is a bit early. A high-end residential complex next door is still under construction as are several office towers, and a metro line with a stop only one block away is not slated to open for another year.

Though it seems now that LKF Chengdu isn’t meeting expectations, in a few years time Allan Zeman’s investment foresight may once again prove to be right on target.

City Journal’s Guy Sorman: China Basher

Beijing’s 798 Arts District

While browsing through the front page of the planning website Planetizen the other day, I came across a link to a story from the autumn issue of City Journal titled ‘Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree‘. City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, is one of my favorite publications about urban issues, and usually produces well-reasoned, thought-provoking pieces. And given the topic of this piece, I was excited to read what I thought would be a compelling article about the rise of Asian cities.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The article’s author, Guy Sorman, spends the first half of his piece tearing apart Chinese urbanism by belittling the country’s two largest metropolises Shanghai and Beijing. He continues the latter half by discussing why Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is superior to those cities. Sorman’s argument is rooted in the notion that China’s cities are not dynamic because their residents are not afforded the same ‘freedoms’ as those of Seoul.

Sorman’s position is essentially a political one. He thinks that China’s top-down government approach to urban planning and development means that its cities are  bound to be drab and uninspiring wastelands. For instance, he describes Beijing as ‘not a friendly city’ and a ‘dead city after 8 PM’.

Has Mr. Sorman ever spent more than a few days in Beijing? His comments sound like they are coming from someone who spent his entire time cruising in a Crown Victoria down the showcase boulevard Chang’an Jie peering at the gargantuan government buildings thinking that this is all the city accounts for.

To be sure, Beijing has major challenges to overcome such as traffic and the accompanying air pollution, but to deny that it is one of the most dynamic cities in the Asia (and the world) is totally off base. The city is huge, and with having seen explosive growth over the past three decades, there are myriad nooks and crannies to discover that are teeming with life. He also misses the point that Beijing is China’s cultural capital, with a burgeoning arts and music scene that is redefining Chinese identity for the first time after having been decimated by the Cultural Revolution.

Sorman’s myopic focus on only China’s two largest cities is extraordinarily shortsighted. There are dozens of other booming Chinese cities with millions of people enjoying the rewards of successful economic development and a significantly increased standard of living.

The city I live in, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is a city boasting a population of nearly 5 million people. Dubbed ‘China’s Party Capital’ by the LA Times, people in Chengdu know how to enjoy life, whether it is spending dinner with friends around a fiery hot pot or wiling away  for hours over a cup of tea in one of the several municipal parks. If Mr. Sorman thinks that China’s ‘totalitarian Communist regime’ is an impediment to Chinese urbanites enjoying the good life I challenge him to come to Chengdu for a few days and see that he couldn’t be more off the mark.

Sorman contrasts China’s cities with Seoul, making the case that it is a more ‘bourgeoisie’ and interesting city due to South Korea’s system of government. Yet, as he clearly articulates in the article, the country did not see a democratic government until 1993, before focusing on economic expansion and urban development.

Did it ever occur to him that this is exactly what China is going through precisely at this time? It is a key characteristic of societies around the world that government reform follows on the heels of economic reform, not the other way around. Another misconception abounding in urbanist literature is that promoting so-called ‘creative industries’ will produce successful metropolises. Wrong again! Creativity and leisure also follow on the heels of economic prosperity.

I agree with Sorman that today Seoul is a compelling city full of enterprising and creative people. It is likely that it is in fact a much more livable city today than it was in previous decades when it was undergoing substantial urbanization. But who is he to suggest that China’s cities cannot follow the same path? Instead of being a pessimistic observer, focusing only on the negatives, he should realize that China is changing for the better and its cities will come into their own over time.

City Journal: Asian Megacities, Free and Unfree

Planetizen: The Political History of Asia’s Mega-Cities

China, Japan, America

Japanese Retail Chain Uniqlo at Chengdu’s Chunxi Lu Shopping Street

After spending the previous two weeks in the U.S. visiting friends and relatives, I returned to chaos in Chengdu last week. Just a few blocks from my apartment, protests were being held at the city’s main shopping street, Chunxi Lu, against Japanese-owned businesses. I had no idea this was going on until I was alerted by my friends over at Chengdu Living who were there documenting the scene with photos and video.

This anti-Japanese demonstration came about due to a recent dispute about the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands in the Pacific. The cultural rift between the two countries goes deeper than that though, with bitter feelings about Japan’s invasion of China during World War II still prevalent among those living in mainland China.

Now with China having recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, the Chinese are feeling more confident about their growing influence in the world, and especially in East Asia. The protests against Japanese businesses in Chengdu reflect this newfound confidence.

Strangely, China and Japan are very similar in that both are ethnically homogenous countries, with strong cultures and long histories. The successful development process of both countries (and South Korea as well) can be attributed to this fact. Yet too much of the same kind of ethnic pride, if taken to extremes, can lead to radical patriotism- a kind of ‘us versus them‘ mentality. North Korea currently possesses this radical patriotism. Unfortunately, the Chengdu demonstrations hinted at this poisonous mentality as well.

On the other side of the Pacific, the United States is suffering from the opposite affect- a stark lack of consensus among the population. This is exacerbated by fact that America is an ethnic melting-pot, making cultural unity more difficult to achieve. Citizens and politicians alike cannot seem to agree on anything, therefore, nothing happens to help repair the U.S. economy.

Perhaps the lack of ethnic unity is one of America’s primary strengths. After all, there is a lot to be said for a place where people from all over the world are welcome to make a better life for themselves (at least this was the case up until recently). There are some groups though, namely the fringe element known as the ‘Tea Party’, who oppose the notion of openness upon which America built a successful nation.

The Tea Party is America’s own version of radical patriotism. They purport to be about putting an end to frivolous government spending, when in reality it seems to be the last gasp of air for a dying Anglo-Saxon American hegemony. Instead of putting a stop to ALL government spending, Tea Party members and other concerned Americans should be encouraging the U.S. government to make investments in things that promote opportunity (cutting-edge infrastructure, IT research and development, education).

America will never be an ethnically homogenous country like China or Japan. Yet the U.S. can take a cue from the success of East Asian countries by focusing on investing in nation-building rather than sitting around waiting for opportunity to magically come back to its shores.