Kyong Park: The New Urban Ecology [2007]

Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007
Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007

An interview with Kyong Park

On April 1, 2007, Kyong Park gave a lecture in Beijing on his work in Detroit in the context of Get It Louder! The presentation was centered the work he did as a founding member of International Center for Urban Ecology in Detroit [1999-2001], of which results where published in Urban Ecology: Detroit and Beyond [2005] published by MAP Book Publishers in Hong Kong.
Next to this Kyong Park has throughout the last 25 years been involved in different projects such as being the founding director of Centrala Stichting voor Toekomstige Steden in Rotterdam [2005] that initiated “Europe Lost and Found”, a project on future geography of Europe, and “Lost Highway,” a mass expedition through the Western Balkans [2006]. He was a co-curator for “Shrinking Cities” in Berlin [2002-2004], a curator of the Kwangju Biennale in Korea [1997], and the founder/director of StoreFront for Art and Architecture in New York [1982-98].
In the end of March and beginning of April 2007, Kyong Park was two weeks in Beijing to participate in the Urban Body workshop, organized by the Technical University of Delft. Bert de Muynck interviews Kyong Park on the relation and relevance of his work in the Chinese context, his understanding of Asian and Chinese urbanism, the notion of shrinking, expanding and moving cities and his upcoming involvement in the University of California, San Diego.

Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007
Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007

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On Sunday April 1, you presented in the context of Get It Louder! a series of projects you undertook during the last years in Detroit, why did you show this work in the context of GIL?

Kyong Park: The work I showed was done between 1998 and 2001. For the Get It Louder! lecture Ou Ning asked me to present the Detroit project because he felt the relevance for Beijing and other cities in China. The project itself deals with cities in a state of dramatic loss of population and economy and investigates the issue within. Shrinking Cities, as a project, originated from Berlin under curatorial ship of Phillip Oswalt, and was a program initiated and supported by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. The overall project focused on Northern America and Western Europe, the regions that are considered as economically developed territories, or the first world. Ou Ning, wanted to understand the importance of the shrinking cities project, thus questioning how to understand the critical relation between shrinking cities in the developed nations and expanding cities in the developing nations, such as in China. The relevance lays in finding ways to understand the relation between these two different urban dynamics, which seemingly heading in opposite directions.

How do you see the relation between shrinking and expanding cities?

KP: The relation between shrinking and expanding cities is both critical and relative. During my curatorialship for and participation in the Shrinking Cities project I repeatedly stressed to look at today’s cities not solely as shrinking but to explore and investigate the relations between expanding and shrinking cities, expanding and shrinking economies, expanding and shrinking population. If one area experiences a shrinking of populations and economy, then this means that in other regions there will be growth of the same factors. Basically, one could state that growth in one sector causes shrinkage in another. In today’s world of globalized capital and labor, everything is interconnected, so both shrinking and expanding are not a phenomenona completely of their own separate event. One important mistake in the Shrinking Cities project, that I believe, was the isolation of the shrinkage phenomenon, and by doing so, we do not get to understand the full scope or extent of its relations with the dynamics of urban growths. That is why I pleaded not to look at our subject cities as shrinking or expanding, but rather as moving cities.

I am intrigued about this notion of moving cities because it not necessarily connects with the physicality of the city. Could you elaborate further on this concept, give an example how it appears in your work?

KP: For me, Detroit is a quintessential example of moving cities. For the project I decided to move from New York to Detroit. For me to understand the urban dynamics I need to work, observe, study and analyze the city from within. In that way one can see the changes of rapid transformation and find a principle that could be applied to all cities. In this search for a principle, it is for me very clear that time plays a much more important role in this evolution than has given a credit for. We have been overwhelmed by the study of cities in spatial terms and have failed to understand the importance of how time itself relates to space. As a city, Detroit embodies an urban thought that was popular in the sixties and seventies; the notion of the ring cities and the reformation operating in the pattern of successive rings radiating from the center outwards. Detroit illustrates the impact of suburbanization on the city, a doughnut with a hole at the center. In losing half of its population and 75 percent of its economy in the last fifty years its center is hollowed and emptied out, while the periphery got much bigger and denser, as the population and economies successfully moved further out in a concentric pattern every year. Detroit essentially expanded out from the center to the peripheries approximately 40 kilometers in the last 50 year, almost a kilometer a year. It is literally moving out and leaving the center behind, in a rippling effect.

The city, at the center of this centrifugal effect, faced a reduction of its population from close to 2 million to less than 1 million, while in the same period, the suburbs grew from half a million to 3,5 million. The shrinking cities books, one and two, but especially book one, featured the research side of the project. When you combine the economic expansion and decay of the center you see it literally moving out. In my video/film called “Old House/New House,” which was commissioned by and exhibited in Shrinking Cities Project, it is very clear that the general public understands the capitalist reality of moving their home, perpetually, further out to the suburbs. By moving further out you have economic gains. The properties are cheaper and the houses are bigger for the same monthly mortgage cost. The whole capitalist dynamic that is processed by the building industry and supported by the financial institutions, forces people to move further away from cities in order to sustain their economic motives. Already in the early 80s, one out of four Americans were moving their home every year, resulting in the fact that the population center of the United States was moving 29 inches to the south and 75 inches to the west every day. It is not just the cities that are moving, the entire nation and society are moving too. The United States is the most dynamic moving population, but as the world becomes more modern and more globally connected through information and financial networks, the whole world becomes more dynamic and less sedentary. This is an inevitable condition of today’s contemporary economic and political reality. The entire civilization seems to be returning to nomadic existence.

Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007
Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007

What was the role of the city government of Detroit in this evolution?

KP: Detroit represents the general reality of the American urban system, with its rippling effect on the rest of the world. The governmental sector is supposed to defend the interest of the society and the public but it doesn’t play any active role in this dynamic. The government have taken a position of the least resistance by taking a non-political position to this dynamic. This is the reality of the deregulation of governments during Reagan and Thatcher era, now continued by the neo-liberal policies of European Union. In much longer text called “The Urban Conspiracy of Detroit,” which gave the narrative to my first video/film called “Detroit: Making It Better For You,” the economic and industrial sector takes the dominant position than the states, and ultimately defines urban and public policies of cities. In that video/film, I explain, clearly as I can, how the financial industries are strongly tied with the real-estate and banking industries, and how they are the ones that who defines the new urban development of the American cities.

In the Old House, New House video you show people that at the one hand stubbornly defend their territory or one that on the other hand are victims of this effect of moving cities. What was the basis to select this people for your video/documentary?

KP: In the Detroit it is not difficult to find people that prescribe to the overall picture of the urban dynamic. First, I concentrated on families, as a subject entity, and that in four categories; 1. people born in the city who were never able to move out to the suburbs, so moving from one home to another within the city limit, 2. people born in the city, who had their first home in the city and then moved out the suburbs, 3. families born in the suburbs who continued to move further and further out to new homes in the suburbs and finally there was a family born in the suburbs and wanting to move into the city. The latter one is a very small sector in Detroit that is just emerging. In the end people are rather moving out of the center than moving into the city. From 1998 on I lived in the East side of Detroit, the largest ghetto in Detroit, immediately outside of the central business district. This residential area of about 3 by 3 kilometers was located within the first ring and was developed as the community that surrounded the first mass production and large scale automobile companies. Today this area less than 20 percent of the built environment remains and, in about 50 years, 80 percent of it has disappeared through abandonment, erosion and demolition. About half of that still remains are left empty, so you have a countryside in the heart of the city, featuring a quiet rural landscape. On the satellite photos from the center of Detroit one can see that it is actually as green as the farm land beyond the suburbs; the condition is so that even wild animals like deers and coyotes migrate to the city. When the center depopulates, nature enters the city and replaces the people. This combination of natural and artificial ecology gave me the idea of Urban Ecology, which became the title for my book. As such urban ecology is not only based on the idea of green, but I consider the city as an ecology of its own, just like the natural world lives in an own method of ecological behavior which leads to think that a city is an organism rather than a machine. These elements together help to explain my deep interest for Detroit.

When it comes to the book I have two questions, 1. why the beyond in title?, and 2. how important is it to incorporate 30 other voices in the book?

KP: “Beyond” was added to explain that the condition of Detroit is not an isolated one. Detroit is one of the many examples to the problems of contemporary cities. representatives. Of course Detroit is one of the most intriguing examples to understand the notion of urban ecology and moving cities, and that city helps to understand many active ingredients or a general principle for other cities in other nations, territories and continents. Beyond means exploring the expansion of the urban ecology ideas to other areas, cities, and other continents, therefore the book also contains work that I have done in Europe, especially in East Germany. The book also features other projects I did outside of the Shrinking Cities project. For example, if we look at the case of East Germany, we see that it has lost 10 percent of its population since the unification of Germany, with people moving from East to West. So East Germany is experiencing a great number of shrinking cities as well. And in Germany, it is not only the cities that are moving, but the whole nation itself is moving within its own territory. The same thing goes when one looks at the European Union following their ten nation expansion in 2004, which included many nations in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and so forth. This causes a dynamic shift of population economy from East Europe to Western Europe. At the same time, the Western Europe’s industries are outsourcing to Eastern Europe, embodying the constant nomadic dimension of labor and capital movement. In this complex process you can see the effect of moving nations and cities and their overall influence on the European Union. For the book I also invited 26 other urban theorists who are difficult to categorize in one artistic sector, or wants to be categorized into one discipline. The reason for inviting them was to show that, in today’s critical urban studies. There are many disciplines that are engaged simultaneously in developing and engaging in multi-disciplinary practices. Another reason was to say to that I am not presenting myself as the only one engaged in this new urban practice, but merely a part of a larger movement from different disciplines and individuals that are, unofficially, connected to one and another. In this network or self-generating movement that many people are participating, we are mutually constructing this new urban practices. All of these peoples work in and involved with different cities in different continents. As such, the book also shows the work, research, thought, ideas and projects in an emerging and globalized movement for new urban practices and studies.

Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007
Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007

You are talking about the contradictions and relations involved when it comes to shrinking and expanding cities, which overall could be analyzed as moving cities. As know Chinese cities are undergoing a rapid transformation, both in population, as in capital and labor. Do you have any idea how this idea of moving cities could be implemented or work within the Chinese context?

KP: Moving city doesn’t mean looking at the city as what it is, but of what is was and what it will be. As such it incorporates time to understand space and it observes things by its behavior, not necessarily always on how it is shaped. I am not discrediting the shape, the form or the structure of the city, I am only saying that we need to go beyond that, in order to discover the power of transmutations that happens over time and space, and the process of cities are more important than just the shape of them at any specific time. The scale and changes in China represent the best at this point. We need to understand how it behaves, destructs and recreates; for example in Beijing where the destruction of the old city leads to the creation of a new city on top of it. The expansion element of Beijing is very similar to Detroit; Beijing is expanding through a very decentralized pattern, with different nodes of more higher density of urban formation, or semi-centers. Beijing does not seem to have one center, although historically the Forbidden City is the center. One could understand the Forbidden and the Tiananmen Square as an empty space. This is my first impression of the city, as this is my first visit to Beijing, where it seems that Tiananmen Square is devoid of its purpose and meaning after the communist economic reform. I realize I need to study more about this, but at the intuitive level the ideological shift is extremely contradictory. Tienanmen is positive, not as a political space, but as a tourist space in the new economically reformed communism. It is not about physical emptiness, like in Detroit, but in terms of its purpose and meaning, the content is empty or replaced by a new cultural regime, now less ideological but more profitable.

Last Sunday during GIL you talked about Beijing as a strange coexistence of fantasy and reality, the celebration of a strange illusion, and the fact that the construction of the new Beijing is not so innocent as it might appear. Could you elaborate on this and by the fact that you are Korean-American, can you see similarities with the way Korea has evolved?

KP: Before answering to this question I want to put two disclaimers. My first disclaimer is that this is my first time in Beijing and second time in China, without really being equipped in terms of research and knowledge to clearly read what is taking place here, I am merely sniffing the air here at this moment, try to gather some sense of what is in the air, as opposed to investigate what is in the mind of experts here, that can help to better understand more precisely what is taking place in Beijing and other expanding cities of China. The second disclaimer is that I was born in Korea and I left Korea when I was twelve, and migrated to the US. So I lived four times as much in the US as in my young Asian years in Korea, so my reading of Asian cities and Asian culture is a new situation to me. I need to engage more with China so to exactly understand what my position is, whether I am Asian or Western. In the end this question might be irrelevant because, obviously, I am a combination of both. I could be in a privileged position to read both, the advantage of being and insider and outsider at the same time. Largely the reading of urban conditions and phenomena of Asian cities happens either by Westerners with a complete outside perspective or Asian experts who read it from a complete Asian perspective, although many of them have studied in the West for briefly or practiced after. I am looking forward to dissolve such a disclaimer in the next years, in relation to my new position at the University of California San Diego.

In my short period of staying in Beijing, only two weeks, I experienced that the transformation of Beijing is real, the destruction of the old city within the second ring road is real, and the building of a series of facades of new city, along first of all the second ring and then expanding to successive ring outside is also real. Within all this there still remains the old fabrics, such as hutongs. This is the new reality that is unfolding here. However when seeing the building of the new city I don’t see that people are projecting too far ahead; there seems to be an intrinsic notion that this is all temporarily. When I heard someone from Urban China Magazine talking about one of their recent issue dedicated to China 2010, it leads to the curious thought that China is only be able to predict with a limit of 2010. What is beyond 2010? Is there a future perspective to this growth, on a short time? All of this is probably very relative to the speed how the cities in China are transforming, and how the life span of new building is shrinking rapidly. Maybe you could even consider that building life span, in terms of its economic, technology and style values in no more than 25 years in the Western modern cities, but here in China, this could be reducted to no more than 10 years. My curiosity for China 2010 stems for an idea for my last project in Detroit where I wanted to write a fictional book on the future of Detroit. It would be called “Ghettopia: Detroit 2050.” For Detroit, I am looking 50 years ahead, and that maybe relative to my view of Detroit that was based on the my 50 year urban conspiracy theory I mentioned before. But In contemporary China, the speed of the urban expansion is so rapid that, equally, the projection on its future can only be for short distance ahead. For me, one of the questions that I will attempt to analyze, beyond the urban landscapes, is the current battle between political state and corporate economy. As far as it looks now—and this is a major speculation from my side—is that the corporate community will eventually replace the political state and it will be the next form of government. Of course there is always some unexpected new phenomena that my alter this course, including something called socio-political revolution.

When will that be, in 2011?

KP: In China it is apparent that the corporate output and corporate engagement in everybody’s life begins to rise higher and the state’s visibility and impact is diminishing in a large framework. On the every day street life the state still attempts to control daily life of people, but at a larger framework, I think that the communist planned capitalist economy is what dominates people’s mind and the city’s transformation and even media, for example I noticed that in one newspaper, there was a huge spread about calendars of different industrial fairs in China and it seems like there are 500 per year.

What are the other question you want to explore in the future in China?

KP: I have a real fundamental question that I would like to answer myself. What is generally happening in Asia, and specifically in China, at this moment, in my opinion, is the interplay between three dominating factors; urbanization, modernization and industrialization. That is indisputable by the facts of statistics, my interest lays in the floating population which moves from the rural area into the city. This shift in demographic balance between urban and rural in China is challenging the state; at the one hand there is the system of controlling the population between the rural and urban registration, and at the other hand the system already has become much more permeable and flexible. I believe that the floating population will produce a great challenge from bottom-up to the future legitimacy of Chinese communist party. When it comes to industrialization one can explain it through the popular identity of China as the factory of the world. Thirdly, when it comes to modernization this would be a more slower process, which is a cultural sector, whether it is a western influence or self-invention of Chinese form of modernization, probably a hybrid of both, with the idea of China adapting a modernization that is fore fronted by the West, which is different from Western style of living as opposed to modernization that the West encountered first. And in that sense, I want to challenge my own questions about that; is China really producing a new urban paradigm beyond that it is going through the same three process that other territories has been going through earlier whether in Europe or other Asian cities? Once could give the example of the Asian tigers for example, is China repeating the same scenario or is it going to produce a new urban paradigm? To me, it seems that a lot of people think it will. I also want to discredit that part because I think the current view of the China-hype by the outside, the West, is one that is overwhelmingly seduced by the scale and speed of urban transformation in China. In that way they run the risk to fail to see the real fundamental transformation of cities in China and its political cultural system that maybe producing, maybe, not sure yet, a new urban cultural and political paradigm through this process. This is what I would like to research and learn.

From the fall of 2007 you are assuming a new position at the University of California, in San Diego. I understood from our previous talks that you would work together with Teddy Cruz and would focus on the urban dynamics of Asia. Could you tell more about this, your envisaged method of working and what you will be looking for?

KP: My ambition in San Diego is not limited to China. I am the second appointment to a new program called Public Culture at the Department of Visual Arts in University California San Diego, which was created by the department’s former chair Steve Fagin. The program’s first appointee was architect and friend, Teddy Cruz. Both of us want to develop and in fact to further this notion of public culture, see if this could lead to the formation of an interdisciplinary international research institute laboratory on all the issue of current urban transformation. Both Teddy Cruz and I have no sense of, or respect for, boundaries. We have this dream that he would cover North and South—because of his network and activities in South America, and me, with my previous work and experience in Europe, would cover East to West. North and South, East and West, is our conceptual idea. It would evolve around the exploration of the relation between the East and West, the economic and political dominance of the West and what everyone thinks is the possible future domination by the East through the great heritage and population of China. Teddy Cruz would think about the relation between North and South, the economic and political domination of North over the South, and how that could be now reversed. This larger thought stems from a conference that Teddy already initiated before I arrived UCSD, called “Political Equator”. Our work and collaboration in UCSD will engage with urban researches and studies, in collaboration with other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, history, geography, economy, political science and various fields of techonologies, including new medias. Beyond this interdisciplinary crosspollination of projects, we are also interested in inter-industrial projects that can get us into political and economic spheres as well. But above all, urban phenomena and transformations will be the basis of our working area and subject of investigation, because I think that cities can explain a lot about the whole changes and opportunities in political, economical and cultural landscapes. I hope to extend urban studies so that it become political, economical and cultural studies.

Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007
Kyong Park | Beijing, April 2007

Why not formal studies, why not look at the way how buildings are organized, look like and they are organized?

KP: I am not so interested in the aesthetical advances in what each architects do, but more what it symbolizes and represents, what it produces in economical, cultural sense, how is it impact on culture.

Although when one looks at the birth of Western modern architecture, its aesthetics and organization of space once can see in the work of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe or Franks Lloyd Wright the importance of the visual, the organizational, the architecture as form and producer of new modern spaces for a new modern civilization. Should one, when talking about the modernization of the Chinese cities, not also talk and research the importance of the visual, aesthetical and organizational transformation of the city?

KP: You might be right, I feel that the reputed emergence of new urban paradigm, stemming from the extreme and rapid growth of is not conclusively evident. The person who has been most influential in urban studies of Asian cities has been Koolhaas. But his work, although I like to know it more in depth, is based on elements of controversy and difference between the East and West. Thanks to him, since he covered that portion so, we can now go onto to the next step and begin to analyze things that are more deceptive and non-descriptive, less visible and more softer inventions that are taking place under the reality and illusions of monumental transformation of contemporary Chinese cities.

How to do this?

KP: I don’t have a clear answer to this now. My work in UCSD will not start until the fall of this year. So setting up such laboratory like program could take some year. But I am looking forward to the learning curve of this experiment. Having said that, I am going back to the beginning of this conversation, where I mentioned about this importance of understanding increasing nomadic behavior of contemporary societies and their cities. I think the issues of cities now will be more determined by the notion of movement, and how this would contradict with the sedentary behavior of the human society that has dominated our civilization recently. For example, even though the meaning of Globalization has been profoundly prostituted beyond any useful identity, but the effect of it is absolutely real and quiet inescapable. The proof of its power is in the break down of the sedentary notion of nation state, at political and cultural levels, and the movement through these boundaries and territories are growing and becoming much more influential every year. This inspires me as the most realistic opportunity for change of economic, political and cultural developments everywhere, including China. it is basically elevating the notion of moving cities into larger contexts, and helps to explains my own life, which has been quiet parallel with this notion of moving cities, moving nations and moving cultures. Again, for me city is a verb, not a a noun, I will continue my nomadic life of the past five year, despite my sedentary agreement with San Diego.

I hope that my work with Teddy Cruz and University of California San Diego would begin to chip away some large urban questions, and to turn them into a series of small practical answers. I stress the word small, because I think we have a tendency to a desire large answers for large questions, I think they are very difficult. Instead, we should seek incremental accumulation of small urban answers that are tied to political, economical and cultural changes. This is my approach, and that it is why I am taking it pretty slow here in Beijing at the moment.

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Kyong Park interviewed by Bert de Muynck. Pictures by Mónica Carriço.
Beijing, China | April 7, 2007
Published in DomusCHINA #12 | July 2007

Further reading: Lost Highway Expedition; Shrinking Cities project; Urban Body; StoreFront for Art and Architecture; Get It Louder!; slowLab; Department of Visual Arts UCSD.

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