What can we learn from China?

The main question for today’s urban researchers, planners, architects and decision makers is to understand how cities grow and how they move from one stage of development to another. The course of the twentieth century was to a certain, and controversial, degree determined by the growth of both the European and American cities. Supported, and not seldom retro-actively explained, by architectural and urban theories, pressured by capitalist, consumerist and political demands, cities in these continents reached in a couple of generations a certain form of completeness. Their next challenge is how to socio-economically fine-tune the existing urban patterns and how to transform the city into an eco-friendly, healthy, creative and sustainable living environment.

At the end of the twentieth century “our” notion of the city was questioned through the confrontation with a new form of urban and architectural development: one characterized by speed and a leapfrog style of development, thereby benefiting from possibilities and opportunities offered by a globalizing world and, seemingly out of nowhere and without precedent, fueled by an incredible demand for building cities. China is a territory were a new understanding of how cities are being created is put to test. China poses a challenge in the way we deal with and manage our cities and, for better and worse, shows urban growth in action. Unfortunately this challenge has not been taken very seriously, neither inside nor outside the country, and lead to an uninspiring and elusive debate on urban growth; mostly the Chinese city is viewed as a mash-up of Western urban models and Chinese characteristics.

View from railroad | Beijing-Harbin, 2006
View from railroad | Beijing-Harbin, 2006

It would be a sign of deliberate ignorance to neglect some of the parallels, or dominant relations, between China’s urban growth and the West, either European or American. Similarities with the patterns of growth in the West, which lead to the internal sorting out of functions into specialized districts, can also be found in the East. Professor Xiangming Chen pointed in Giant Cities and the Urban Hierarchy in China (1988) out that we should be careful when aspiring to understand or compare the growth and development of Chinese cities from a Western perspective:

‘There is no isomorphism between the Chinese definitions and concepts and those for Western metropolises because urban growth patterns and municipal administrative systems differ greatly in the two parts of the world.’ ((Xiangming Chen, “Giant Cities and the Urban Hierarchy” in China, in The Metropolis Era, Volume 1. A World of Giant Cities, Sage Publications, London, England, 1988, p.228.))

View from railroad | Beijing-Harbin, 2006
View from railroad | Beijing-Harbin, 2006

Twenty years later China, nor the West, have made any serious advancement in conceptualizing, researching, analyzing, and coming up with a new vocabulary that can bridge, translate or interpret these separate definitions and concepts. In 2006 Professor Laurence JC Ma followed up on Xiangming Chen’s analysis, stating the following:

‘There is a need for urban China scholars to be more concerned with the development of theories based on China’s own urban conditions and experience that are more capable of explaining the problems facing Chinese cities than the existing urban theories that have been derived mainly from Western urban experiences. It is unacceptable simply to use Chinese cities as a testing ground to test the validity of Western theories because they are often of limited use, even when they are “domesticated” for cross-national applications in developing countries.’ ((Laurence JC Ma, “The State of the Field of Urban China: A Critical Multidisciplinary. Overview of the Literature,” China Information 20 (November 2006).))

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