chapter  1
23 Pages

Beyond gradualism: China’s urban revolution and emerging cities


Chinese cities are the country’s engine of economic growth. The level of urbanization increased from 18 percent in 1978 to over 43 percent in 2005 (State StatisticalBureau 2006). Driving rapid urban growth is the inflowof foreign capital into coastal China. Since gaining World Trade Organization (WTO) membership in 2001, China has been speeding up its pace of becoming a world factory. But where is the world factory physically located? Many factories for global commodity production in China are located in the cities, or more precisely within the metropolitan region. Global economic production is becoming part of urban economies, concentrated in the cities of the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta but also widespread all over the country. Accompanying economic growth is the emergence of cities on the world stage of super-affairs or megaevents: Beijing will be hosting the Olympic Games in 2008; Shanghai the World Expo 2010; Guangzhou theAsianGames in 2010; and Shenzhen the 2011 Summer World University Games. With the development of international airports, deepwater ports and information port and logistics centers, Chinese cities are rebuilding themselves towards becoming “global cities” (Wu 2006). China’s urban landscapes are being forcefully transformed: in first-tier cities

such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou but also in many other large cities such as Chongqing, Dalian, Shenzhen, Suzhou, Nanjing and Xi’an, skyscrapers mushroom in central areas; fast elevated multilane roads extend to suburbs where gated communities, development zones, and high-tech parks are scattered. Infrastructure is being built at an unbelievable pace. Large-scale urban redevelopment schemes have converted old neighborhoods

into modern office blocks. For example, in Shanghai, the government initiated a redevelopment program to demolish and rebuild 3.65 million square meters of old lane housing, whichwas achieved in 2000 (seeHe andWu, Chapter 10 of this book; Tian and Wong, Chapter 11 of this book). The government then swiftly launched the second phase of the redevelopment program, involving the redevelopment of 20million squaremeters of old housing.With the boom in real estate development, suddenly Chinese cities began to see the formation of a multilayer structure: old

prerevolutionary lane housing remains in residual poverty neighborhoods; workers’ welfare housing, built in the prereform or early reform era, is deteriorating into low-quality residential areas; and new luxury condominiums have upgraded some parts of the city into gentrified residences. In the suburbs, gated high-standard commodity housing estates sometimes even flaunt ostentatious and magnificent gates, demarcating emerging “consumer clubs” in response to the retreat of the state from the provision of public goods (Wu 2005). Chinese cities are now perhaps seeing the “newest” form of urban development

reported in advanced Western market economies: sports-led property redevelopment near Nanjing Olympic Sport Center, leisure-led redevelopment to pursue the nostalgia for colonial or prerevolutionary republic era in Shanghai’s Xintiandi and Nanjing’s 1912, arts-led regeneration near the Great Tang Dynasty Garden in Xi’an, and artists’ enclaves in Beijing’s Factory 798. These landscapes can take a variety of forms: some transplant classical Western styles that are alien to China; some repackage Chinese architectural motifs of imperial palaces into playful fun parks, while others like Beijing’s Factory 798 reuse derelict industrial buildings and adapt them to postmodern cultural production and consumption. Chinese cities are also becoming experimental sites for global signature architects and their firms, ranging from Paul Andreu to Rem Koolhaas. While Chinese cities are modernizing, or even postmodernizing themselves,

classical components of the Third World City have reemerged. Some quasislum areas or deteriorated neighborhoods accommodate millions of “floating population” or migrant workers. Former rural villages encroached on by urban expansion are becoming “villages in the city” (chengzhongcun), spontaneously built by farmers into very high density areas. Farmers rent out their houses, often now with multiple floors, to migrants from other places. But these buildings are so close to each other, because each owner of a land plot wants to maximize the use of the land, that the streets between them barely allow fire engines and ambulances to enter. The infrastructure and public facilities of these neighborhoods are completely missing. However, these villages provide cheap housing for migrants, and are becoming virtually migrant enclaves. It is now even possible to depict a general model of the new Chinese city. While

Chinese cities vary greatly according to their geographical locations and histories of development, some generic elements are present almost everywhere, including

• CentralBusinessDistricts (CBDs) or financial streets such as Shanghai’sBund and Lujiazui Financial andTrade Zone, or Beijing’s CBD in Chaoyang district and Xidan financial street;

• Bar street and night-time entertainment places such as Shishahai and Sanlitun in Beijing, Hengshan road and Xintiandi in Shanghai, Hunan road and 1912 in Nanjing, Kundu in Kunming, and the Great Tang Dynasty Garden in Xi’an;

• Boulevards, pedestrian streets, and magnificent city squares such as the Century Avenue in Shanghai and Jiefangbei in Chongqing;

• High-tech parks and economic development zones such as Beijing’s Haidian university and science park and Shanghai’s Zhangjiang high-tech park;

• Gated communities in Western styles such as the Orange County, Yosemite, and McAllen in Beijing, Fontainebleau in Shanghai, and Creative Britain in Kunming;

• “Villages in the city,” widely seen in almost every Chinese city, with varying qualities of built environment.