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Posts Tagged ‘future’

Photograph by The Eng Koon/National Geographic

We all know about the amazing expansion of, and creation of new, Chinese cities over the past couple of decades. Discussion of the significance of all that growth is inconsistent. Perhaps we don’t know what conclusions to draw from China because so much of the world seems in flux these days. Straight line projections are more dubious than ever. A couple of articles in the online journal, Foreign Policy, expose our confusion over China, in my opinion.

On August 13, 2012, the journal published an article by Isaac Stone Fish with the provocative title, Unlivable Cities. Fish paints a stark picture of life in Chinese cities. He says that the megacities “may seem impressive on paper, but they are awful places to live.” Fish’s perspective comes from living in China for seven years and traveling widely within it. He first decries the remarkable sameness of many Chinese cities.

Yes, China’s cities are booming, but there’s a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of “hot” new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, including obligatory new “development zones” (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, “villa” developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.

This model of endless fractal Beijings wouldn’t be so bad if the city itself were charming, but it is a dreary expanse traversed by unwalkable highways, punctuated by military bases, government offices, and other closed-off spaces, with undrinkable tap water and poisonous air that’s sometimes visible, in yellow or gray. And so are its lesser copies across the country’s 3.7 million square miles, from Urumqi in the far west to Shenyang way up north. For all their economic success, China’s cities, with their lack of civil society, apocalyptic air pollution, snarling traffic, and suffocating state bureaucracy, are still terrible places to live.

Fish saves his harshest critique for Harbin, the northern Chinese city with over 6 million residents that is the home of the Harbin Institute of Technology and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. (A good number of Chinese landscape architecture students studying in the U.S. hail from Harbin.)

Like many Chinese cities, Harbin can be extremely challenging to the health — and not just due to the sometimes scandalously toxic food served in dim, poorly lit restaurants. Hospital bathrooms in Harbin and elsewhere often lack soap and toilet paper, ostensibly out of fear that residents will steal the items. Six months after I arrived, a benzene spill in the nearby Songhua River briefly left the city without running water. The air in Harbin was so polluted that I felt as though the coal dust had sunk into my lungs, and a fine layer of black soot seeped in through our windows overnight. But even Harbin wasn’t as filthy as Linfen, a city of 4 million people in central China’s Shanxi province that Time in 2007, on a list of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, said made “Dickensian London look as pristine as a nature park.”

Whoa! Not exactly a gleaming city of the future! Fish lightens up a bit toward the end of the article, but the focus is clearly on the “unlivability” aspect. Contrast that with another Foreign Policy article from the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue  and the cognitive dissonance is hard to avoid. Dustin Roasa tells us that the cities of the future are made in China. Is that supposed to be exciting, or terrifying? Roasa lands on exciting. Roasa’s claims ring true too, as he says “China is at the forefront of the world’s flashiest urban innovations.” Roasa recites a list of Chinese innovations, some familiar, some not, and he begins his article with lines designed to make Americans cringe. It’s the familiar meme:

just 12 years into the Asian Century, the city of the future has picked up and moved to China. No less than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recognized this when he said not long ago, “If I blindfolded Americans and took them into some of the airports or ports in China and then took them to one in any one of your cities, in the middle of the night … and then said, ‘Which one is an American? Which one is in your city in America? And which one’s in China?’ most Americans would say, ‘Well, that great one is in America.’ It’s not.” The speech raised eyebrows among conservative commentators, but it points out the obvious to anyone who has spent time in Beijing, Hong Kong, or Shanghai (or even lesser-known cities like Shenzhen and Dalian, for that matter).

In these cities, visitors arrive at glittering, architecturally arresting airports before being whisked by electric taxis into city centers populated by modular green skyscrapers. In the not-so-distant future, they’ll hop on traffic-straddling buses powered by safe, clean solar panels. With China now spending some $500 billion annually on infrastructure — 9 percent of its GDP, well above the rates in the United States and Europe — and with the country’s population undergoing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, the decisions it makes about its cities will affect the future of urban areas everywhere. Want to know where urban technology is going? Take the vice president’s advice and head east.

OK, China is a huge country, and Harbin and Shanghai are very different places. But the efforts exerted in Beijing to alleviate air pollution in advance of the Olympics make it clear that the horrible and the impressive can coexist. If, indeed, Chinese cities are the cities of the future – models for the rapidly growing cities in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere – what part of the model will we get?

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Jim Robbins, author of a forthcoming book called The Man Who Planted Trees, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that alerts readers to the mounting threats to trees and the reasons why the planet needs them more than ever. The lines below caught my attention, especially the repercussions from the Texas drought that I discussed in a post last summer.

North America’s ancient alpine bristlecone forests are falling victim to a voracious beetle and an Asian fungus. In Texas, a prolonged drought killed more than five million urban shade trees last year and an additional half-billion trees in parks and forests. [Emphasis added.] In the Amazon, two severe droughts have killed billions more.

The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.

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TEDxHarlem, hosted by Majora Carter and two others, will be held on March 27th at the Apollo Theater, and one of the topic areas is built environment. I like this line from the event website (even though its construction needs work):

There is a unique, historical richness in communities steeped in culture, art and innovation and the human spirit’s capacity to hope and dream.

John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, is one of the speakers. You may have seen Fetterman profiled in Rolling Stone or featured in the New York Times (Mayor of Rust).  At 6-foot-8 with a linebacker’s build, bald head, and arms tattooed with Braddock’s zip code and dates when murders occurred there, he’s … noticeable. His public policy degree from Harvard perhaps lends something to the elevated profile of Fetterman’s work in Braddock. But tapping into the “human spirit’s capacity to hope and dream” does seem to be what Fetterman’s goal is, not unlike many leaders in Rust Belt towns. You can get a sense of what John and his fellow urban pioneers are doing by checking out the 15104 website.

From Harvard"s Kennedy School Magazine

And from the Times:

In contrast to urban planners caught up in political wrangling, budget constraints and bureaucratic shambling, Fetterman embraces a do-it-yourself aesthetic and a tendency to put up his own money to move things along. He has turned a 13-block town into a sampling of urban renewal trends: land-banking (replacing vacant buildings with green space, as in Cleveland); urban agriculture (Detroit); championing the creative class to bring new energy to old places (an approach popularized by Richard Florida); “greening” the economy as a path out of poverty (as Majora Carter has worked to do in the South Bronx); embracing depopulation (like nearby Pittsburgh). Thrust into the national spotlight, Fetterman has become something of a folk hero, a Paul Bunyan of hipster urban revival, with his own Shepard Fairey block print — the Fetterman mien with the word “mayor” underneath. This, the poster suggests, is what a mayor should be.

The article is worth reading, as it describes both our hopes for a place like Braddock and the difficulties of turning it around. Ideas worth sharing, yes. And hard work and sacrifices worth making if ideas are to be transformed into reality.

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Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

And on the process:

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

 For more on Hustwit’s thoughts, check out Urban Omnibus – or see the film!

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Gary Hustwit via The Atlantic

On Thursday, I watched Gary Hustwit’s film, Urbanized. It is now available from iTunes, and I highly recommend it! There is much to comment on, but I’m limiting myself to three things.

  1. The power of imagining something differently. Hustwit’s film allows the audience to imagine cities differently, and Hustwit suggests that Candy Chung’s I Wish This Was project invited New Orleans residents to imagine their neighborhoods differently, something that urban residents are not often called to do. “The idea of imagining something differently is the kernel is what I think of as design,” Hustwit says in this Urban Omnibus interview.
  2. A balance between top-down planning and bottom-up, grassroots initiatives is possible with participatory design. In the online journal, Places, Hustwit describes the relationship in this way: “It’s the top mining the bottom for ideas, and really using those ideas to drive development, as opposed to a top-down planning model, where planners get feedback from the people who are actually going to be living in the city, but only after the ideas are already formed.” He also says, “I don’t think DIY interventions are enough to change our cities. I think they are a great compass for governments and professionals to look at to see the types of interventions that people are coming up with on their own when government isn’t doing anything. You have citizens stepping in to try to change their cities on their own. The next step is for governments to use those projects as a model but then formalize them.”
  3. The promise of digital communication for addressing the future needs of cities is tremendous, but the exchange of ideas between mayors, designers, planners, and activists in different cities is just beginning. The film itself makes this point subtly in that we see ourselves in the vignettes from around the globe. Several quotes from interviews with Hustwit elaborate on the point. (more…)

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Among environmentalists, certainly, few people discuss climate change winners – those places where the climate will be more moderate as a result of a warming planet. It’s an uncomfortable thought for some, and the great uncertainty over the extent of change makes us cautious. Nevertheless, Syracuse looks like a winner today! And I say that in an apologetic tone…

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Since last summer, I have been writing about the impact of the Great Recession on planning and landscape architecture. My vantage point, as a college professor, means that I see creative, bright young people who have had the odds stacked against them for the past few years. Today, I am passing on an optimistic article, one of the many written over the past four years. Somehow, this one has a hint of possible truth to it, and I know that I, for one, am eager to hear good news. The premise is that the U.S. has finally reached a point where pent-up demand will finally loosen the purse-strings of those who have been sitting on cash and afraid to spend. Perhaps it rings true because I just came from a meeting where attendees discussed putting a multi-million construction project out to bid (we’ll never get a better interest rate…) because I’m one of the people driving an old car, knowing that it won’t last indefinitely.

Of the people who fear the country’s best days are behind it, a well-known economist recently said that people in 1933 thought the same thing. In that spirit, take what you will from this: (more…)

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