There’s a connection to be made between urban planning and the state of Chinese society. A couple of quotes recently drew my attention to how the design of cities is a deep reflection of social values.
Take the comments of Ai Weiwei, the anti-establishment Chinese artist, in an op-ed after being illegally detained without charge for weeks. His subject is not government oppression, freedom, or rights, but the city of Beijing:
“You don’t see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.”
Compare that with the thoughts of Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book written in 1961 against the ascendant planning theory of the time that has become the intellectual foundation of a lot of modern urban planning:
“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
Both Jacobs and Ai hint at a reciprocal relationship between life in a city and social values, even if from different angles. Ai sees what he feels is a failure of Chinese society reflected in his home city. Jacobs fears the constricting effects of bad city planning on social vitality.
The planning theory Jacobs was speaking against was the “Radiant City” and “Garden City” planning popular in America in the 1950s that emphasized large-scale super blocks of single use development boxed in by massive roads and large swaths of greenspace. The point of her book was to say that this prescription ignored the basic function of cities, replacing the messy reality of diversity with clean, oversimplified idealism. About Le Corbusier, the father of Radiant City planning:
“His city was like a wonderful mechanical toy. Furthermore, his conception, as an architectural work, had a dazzling clarity, simplicity and harmony. It was so orderly, so visible, so easy to understand. It said everything in a flash, like a good advertisement.”
For Jacobs this blind whitewashing was indicative of a deeper attitude that she called “authoritarian” and “paternalistic”:
“As in all utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.”
It’s not hard to see this attitude in China’s “harmonious society” and the government’s staunch dedication to centralized planning, so maybe it’s no wonder that China’s cities look almost exactly like the plans Jacobs decried. Beijing, with it’s 5 ring roads, walled-off office parks, old dying mega-malls knocked down to make way for new glitzy soon to be old mega-malls, endless rows of residential high rises, and ubiquitous green spaces stranded in the middle of highways, is an almost eerie example.
But Jacob’s book didn’t just point out the shortcomings of 50s planning, it tried to point out how cities could facilitate social and economic interaction. In her view, it’s all about diversity. Diversity is the source of city vitality. This means small streets so there is plenty of space for businesses and people to interact, and a healthy variety of commerce and residence so the streets are constantly populated by people with different schedules and goals.
Interestingly, Ai Weiwei, 50 years later, comes to a similar conclusion about what makes a successful city, but without all the detailed talk about streets and mixed uses:
“To properly design Beijing, you’d have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it’s incomplete.”