In order to understand the development of the Chinese city we need to put the current situation in the perspective of half a century of urban change. In this period a clear exchange between the city and the countryside happened. Out of this encounter, supported by a new Chinese reality, a new type of urbanism has emerged. Shaped by real-estate developers, floating migrants, a growing middle-class, a political awareness and reflection on the state of the cities in China, this new city is a city of the moving type: located and relocated at the edge, the fringe, zones were the rural and urban meet, merge, blur and dissolve. Instead of reading them as some form of suburbia, off-springs of sprawls, we can understand this reality from a historical perspective as an this urban-rural merger. In order to understand, research read and project a future in these areas one needs to approach them at the one hand from the urban perspective and the other hand from the rural. As such these zones are, stirred by an inevitable, massive, at once chaotic and orderly, urban growth, as the incubator of what can be coined as ‘the Chinese city’.
China underwent during the past decades the planning and creation of a new type of urban expansion, culture, logic and form of development which still driven by exploring this urban rural relationships, interaction, exchange; today it is been called in situ urbanization. Friedmann gives insight:
‘Perhaps the most dramatic (and surprising) story of China’s transformation during the past twenty-five years has been how significant portions of the country’s rural areas have become “urban” in the many meanings of this elusive term. Yu Zhu has referred to this process as in situ urbanization.’ ((Friedmann, John. China’s Urban Transition. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2005, p.35.))
The outcome of this process which combines in situ urbanization with a multi-centric approach is the creation of architectural structures and districts almost happening ‘overnight’, resulting in unplanned, informal and not seldom illegal forms of urbanism. In their recent report on The State of the World Population (2007), The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) put this peri-urban phenomenon in the global context:
‘Since peri-urban areas are generally beyond or between legal and administrative boundaries of central cities, the capacity of government authorities to regulate occupation is particularly weak. As a result, the process of urbanization can be, to a great extent, unplanned, informal and illegal, with frequent struggles over land use.’ ((State of World Population 2007. Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth (UNFPA), p.49.))
The Chinese City
It could be argued that ‘the Chinese city’ is a generic term. I prefer to use the term ‘the Chinese city’ with the same caution and questions as Professor Laurence JC Ma uses it in his text The State of the Field of Urban China:
‘I have used the term “the Chinese city” from time to time. Strictly speaking, this is a perverse term because it carries the implication that the cities in China share certain common characteristics or that they constitute a single cohesive socioeconomic, spatial, or political entity while in fact cities differ significantly in history, size, function, and form. (…) These typologies of cities compel us to identify the most salient and dominant feature of a group of cities existing in a particular regional space in a specific period of time, an exercise that would also force us to look at the entire spectrum of characteristics of the cities in question. This exercise also forces us to maintain broad spatial and temporal visions which will help us better understand the essence of the cities under scrutiny.’ ((Laurence JC Ma, “The State of the Field of Urban China: A Critical Multidisciplinary overview of the Literature,” China Information 20 (November 2006).))