Aspects of (Chinese) Overpopulation and Urbanism

Aspects of (Chinese) Overpopulation | collage by Bert de Muynck

If one were to analyze the twentieth century in a thousand years, a crucial point will be this one: the total world population grew from 1,6 billion (1900) till 6,1 billion (2000).

The investigation by MovingCities into several “Aspects of (Chinese) Overpopulation and Urbanism” was conducted and published in the period 2005 to 2008. This research continues untill today in various forms: writings, projects, workshops and academic teaching.

The research and writing departed from exploring the rise of the Chinese population in terms of numbers. A popular resource for this were the United Nation reports (UNWP2300 and UNWU2003, see, thereby understanding visually this evolution. This research was later on brought in relation with the different levels of urbanization and urban hierarchy in China.

After setting this stage, it is obvious that architects and planners are facing, while building, new design challenges for the period to come after the so-called boom of the Chinese urban landscape. The question raised here is how to think about design strategies for the future after the future? How to keep on housing the millions?

Is it thinkable that the ongoing “manual mass-production” that characterizes the Chinese building industry can be altered by rethinking the theorems of Le Corbusier, John Habraken (SAR), Yona Friedman or the Metabolists?

Shenzhen | Super Skyline | MovingCities 2011

Ningbo | Yinzhou New Town Skyline | MovingCities 2010

Nanjing | skyline | MovingCities 2010

Grazer Architektur Magazine [2005]

Design Science in Architecture | Graz Architektur Magazine, 2005

Throughout the past years MovingCities have been publishing and lecturing on the topic of overpopulation. In 2005 we wrote our thoughts and analysis on this issue down for the Design Science in Architecture [download table of contents] issue of the Graz Architektur Magazine. In that essay the state of affairs was analyzed follows:

Today, we celebrate spontaneous urbanism, instant architecture, self-organization and growing or shrinking cities. Architects facilitate phenomena with or without an understanding of their impact. They test technological innovations on un-profitable scales. This leads to a slowing down, qualitatively worsening off, and increase in construction costs. On top of that one can’t deny that the split between architectural and urban thinking is today legendarily painful. Where technology would bridge architectural and urban thinking, it now widens the chasm between them. Does the rural-urban shift challenge thinkers and designers? As we gave up theorizing the (Western) city, a new concept of urbanism enfolds before our eyes. In Content Rem Koolhaas seems to blame the Western (read European and American) architect for this gap:

Below 30% urbanization, the balance between city and country feels organic – two mutually reinforcing identities. Above that percentage, the advance of the city triggers alarm: as its growth accelerates, it becomes artificial; modernization takes hold. (…) Between 1900 and 1980, when their cities more than doubled, Europe and America produced their key manifestos. (…) The stream stopped abruptly exactly at the moment where urbanization on both continents reached a plateau, around the ‘70s: now tracts were written not about how the city should be constructed, but based on interpretations of the city as it existed.

The rural-urban schism happens on ‘other’ continents, the ones that didn’t reach their plateau; the ones changing without blueprint, the ones constructed on different paces and are there to be interpreted.

According to the UN 2004-reality 3.04 of the 6.3 billion world population, 48.3 percent, lives in an urban environment; Europe and America make up one-fourth of this. The UN expects that by 2030 4.94 from the then 8.13 billion people, 60.8 percent, will live in an urban environment, and that Europe and America will account for one-sixth of this, 899 million people. This leads to a situation in which 50 percent of the total world population will live in a condition that no architect or urban designer seems to have thought about. What balance are we talking about then?

The two UN-reports call for a fundamental thinking and designing exercise in which we think (with madness) about the relation between demography, density, territory, culture, economy, ideology, poverty, leisure, masses, politics, topography, climate, program, technology, religion and eroticism. In which water and hygiene are primordial. The radical rethinking of a quantitative and qualitative organizational concept is necessary, as the logic and reality of the city to come will be without precedent. Cities won’t sprawl eternally, population won’t grow forever, but architecture and urbanism will more than ever deal with organization and shelter. The renewal, upgrade and progress of the city will happen within the city, will be about future and after-life of the skyscrapers we erect now and the slums, bidonvilles and gecekondu’s that are booming by the thousands. What happens if we think that the urban explosions in Africa and Asia are transitory episodes in a story for the concept of urbanism to find opportunities to re-invent itself? Can we think and be specific instead of generic?

Beijing | SOHO Sanlitun & skyline | MovingCities 2010

Macau | urban snapshots IV | MovingCities 2009

Shanghai | Skyline Scan | MovingCities 2012 [2006]

In 2006 we elaborated some of the thoughts expressed in the above text and wrote a China case-specific interpretation for the now abandoned

China has throughout the past half a century been creating a new society. After a struggle to temper its population growth, China is now, maybe overly, excited in developing new cities. Unfortunately this hasn’t led to to the exploration of new models of urban organization, housing schemes and ways to deal with manufacturing architecture. What is happening is in-situ urbanization. In our contribution we analyze China’s population struggle as follows;

We can’t project the methodology, or better the lack of it, by which we today analyze the Western City onto the Chinese one. Our problems are not (necessarily) theirs. What we need to understand is not only what we today in China experience, feel, taste, smell and do, but more important the history of urban development in relation to ideology, era, industrialization, form, population, organization and structure. In China industrialization, and consequent urbanization, didn’t occur gradually, it went with leaps, through a process which one could coin as an uninterrupted revolution. About this ‘artificial’ speeding up of industrialization Carlo M. Cipolla, wrote in his book The Economic History of World Population (1965) the following:

Actually, when ‘industrialization’ occurs gradually, these socio-cultural changes take place in a balanced process with economic changes. But when, as in many backward areas today, ‘industrialization’ is artificially speeded up, the socio-cultural environment may show a much greater degree of resistance to change than the economic structure. If such is the case, the static socio-cultural environment can indeed represent a formidable bottleneck and invalidate all efforts to achieve industrialization. This is the reason why some of those societies who want, or are forced, to quicken the pace of industrialization may feel – more or less emotionally – the urge to resort to political and social revolutionary movements.

The socio-political revolution is a rough way to break through the socio-cultural bottleneck. All the miseries and the hardships that follow then become part of the price of industrialization. Since 1948 China had the urge to resort to these kinds of political and social revolutionary movements through action and reaction when it comes to the issue (over)population. Analyzing the recent history of China, we see a process of “struggle-criticism-transformation” when dealing with these issues and implementing them. Today we are overwhelmed by this process of urban transformation. What comes after this? Another round of “struggle-criticism-transformation”? In order to do so, there needs to be the understanding of the fundament on which a new society has been created and can be recreated.

Mao’s stated China’s position in 1958 as follows: “China’s 600 million people, have two remarkable peculiarities: they are, first of all, poor, and secondly blank. That may seem like a bad thing, but it is really a good thing. Poor people want change, want to do things, want revolution. A clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it…” The question is if China’s people are still poor and blank, or if we heading toward a new two line struggle, this time between the rural and urban population? Almost half a century later, China’s population reached an almost stable level of 1,300 million people, which means a more than doubling of its population within fifty years. The two remarkable peculiarities that Mao noticed underwent change, or a split; the rich vs the poor, the blank vs the complete.

During this half a century, China quickened the pace of its industrialization (some call it an industrialization without urbanization, in situ urbanization, or “doorstep urbanization”) , thereby exploring new methods in establishing a viable relation between its urban and rural population, which resorted to a history of political and social revolutionary movements, experiments and challenges. China’s consecutive governments used sociopolitical revolution as a rough way to break though the socio-cultural bottleneck, a situation it found itself in at almost every moment in the (young) history of the People’s Republic of China. Throughout its history, and in order to deal with its growing population, planning at both an economic, philosophical, population and rural-urban level was a necessity; its ambition was to combine a rapid economic advance with a conscious, self-remolding in the social group. The governing of its population, exemplified by the notorious one to- two-child policy, has been the main challenge for the government of the PRC, one with repercussions not only on the organization of the family (leading up to the idea of the spoiled and perfect 1-2-4 child, one kid receives all attention from his two parents and four grandparents where these grandparent has to spread their attention over dozens of grandchildren) but also with regard to the organization of its territory.

In their book Governing China’s Population – From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics (Stanford University Press, 2005) Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler explore the concerns, the solutions, the failures and the ideology steering the PRC’s governmentalization regarding the issue of population. Throughout the history of the PRC, the authors discern the following concerns: Those concerns focused initially on the location of the population (keeping rural people out of the cities), but gradually grew to embrace its quantity (slowing growth and limiting size) and its “quality” (enhancing not only health and education but also social morality and political commitment).

Guangzhou | Uncertain Cities | MovingCities 2011

Zibo | part I | MovingCities 2009

Chengde | urban snapshots I | MovingCities 2008

Fudan University International Urban Forum Conference [2006]

On November 4, 2006, we reworked the above text and presented this as a paper at the Fudan University International Urban Forum Conference in Shanghai 上海, China. This presentation was part of the panel on “mega-city and mega project” chaired by Professor Peter G. Rowe, Professor in Urban Design, Harvard University.

The Fudan University International Urban Forum (FUIUF) was established at Fudan University by the School of International Relations and Public Affairs and Center for Urban Studies in 2005 to explore the nature of contemporary urban transformation and its effect on future generations. The mission of FUIUF is to build a global intellectual platform for academics, urban professionals, government officials, and design practitioners to explore and discuss critical urban issues, share information, and build interdisciplinary strategies for urbanism through active exchange.

MovingCities [2007-…]

MovingCities is a Shanghai-based think-thank investigating the role that architecture and urbanism play in shaping the contemporary city. Established in Beijing in 2007 by Bert de Muynck [BE] and Mónica Carriço [PT], MovingCities publishes, collaborates, talks and walks, and operate as embedded architects.