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Asia’s Sprawling, High Density Future: Exporting New Urb...

Asia’s Sprawling, High Density Future: Exporting New Urbanism to Developing Countries at The Congress for the New Urbanism’s CNU21

Dan Solomon, Mithun | Solomon Dan Solomon, CNU co-founder, author, and Principal at Mithun | Solomon, opened the session by saying that in the context of new urbanism concepts being introduced to developing countries, “We can’t exactly declare victory, but we’ve made our presence strong.” Overall, he explained the urban planning struggles in China. He

Dan Solomon

Dan Solomon, Mithun | Solomon

Dan Solomon, CNU co-founder, author, and Principal at Mithun | Solomon, opened the session by saying that in the context of new urbanism concepts being introduced to developing countries, “We can’t exactly declare victory, but we’ve made our presence strong.”

Overall, he explained the urban planning struggles in China. He described the extensive and intense need for new housing due to the overcrowding issues in the country. He said that each Chinese individual has about 2 square meters (or about 22sqft) to themselves.

Due to the market reforms of the 80s and early 90s, China and only China has had the resources to rescale and rebuild itself in a way that the world had never seen before, said Solomon. Indifference and contempt with urban history is shaping the “New China.” The cultural story of China and her people is changing rapidly out of necessity.

Solomon described what the “New China” is to him. It begins with a new housing agenda: simple, easily replicable, and incredibly quick to build. Superblocks should no longer be seen as a development option, as they create a sterile environment both inside and outside the block’s walls. A rigid code for sunlight access is required, as present solar ordinances require 2 hours of sunlight in a residence each day of the year. Southern sunlight is a particularly deep-seated desire in Chinese culture due to feng shui traditions.

He told the audience that master planned, mixed use communities are very popular in China. Usually, the entire community is all built at once. Solomon suggested creating a working middle class by creating industrial employment- not sweatshop employment. For the built environment, he recommended an interaction of scales, which is a focus in the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Charter within points 11, 13, and 15. Diagonal streets running through small blocks that all terminate at transit stops are best. Preferably, these diagonal cuts would be lined with commercial fronts and be particularly bike and pedestrian friendly.

“Micro responsibilities” like snow removal, tenant choice, and more should be just as well attended to as “macro responsibilities” like design and use mix, in order to make new urbanist master planned communities flourish in China, argued Solomon.

Huang is the person second in from the right

Leon Huang, HHDesign International
(second in from the right)

Leon Huang, Principal at HHDesign International (domestically known as Hua Hui Environmental Design) in Tianjin, China, opened his portion of the session by telling the audience that 350,000,000 people are to be urbanized in second and tertiary cities within the next 15 years in China. For perspective, that’s 1.5 to 2 million people spread within 200 cities. That’s equivalent to the entire Salt Lake City metropolitan area.

Even with the one child policy, China must still provide 18,000,000 new jobs every year for the rest of the foreseeable future.

Huang said that his presentation observed 5 emerging challenges in China, though in the end he was cut short and was only able to present the first two emerging challenges: global warming and the energy crisis and the loss of cultural heritage.

To Huang, global warming and the energy crisis go hand in hand. He believes that China needs to go toward a transit-oriented and sustainable urban form. High speed rail oriented city clusters (or TOD, transit oriented development) are his goal for China.

The critical issue, he said, is balancing the jobs and housing blend along the transit corridor. For an example of a barrier to finding this mix, Huang shared the story of a particular city he worked for in the past. The mayor of the city despised the idea of allowing for residences near the transit station because he didn’t want people on the train to see hanging laundry. Huang also explained that transit companies do not work with the city governments very well and try to influence the development plans as much as possible.

He said that he wants to see China promote the “sustainable eco-block,” a block of development that is designed to produce zero waste and to be completely energy and water self-sufficient. He suggests that excess energy produced during the day be used by schools.

Twelve superblocks, often about 500sq meters in size, are built every day in China, according to Huang. Superblocks are typically built with a FAR of 2.0. He argues that if just a quarter of new development were eco-blocks rather than superblocks, the country would save millions.

He thinks eco-blocks may be implemented anywhere in the world. However, most decision makers ask if this has been done before. They may see them as a political risk if the evidence of success is not overwhelming.

Huang believes that if the energy crisis is not solved soon, by 2030 the United States and China will go to war over the issue.

He argues that with a cultural revolution, globalization, and mass urbanization, China is losing its cultural heritage.

He wants to: preserve the collective memory of each significant place; use the power of the Internet as a means of public intervention; re-interpret traditional culture; build with modern style, but allow ivy to grow and decorate the facades; preserve existing trees; save historic greenspace; hide modern facilities underground; match colors and color schemes to historic places and buildings; borrow architectural details from surrounding historic buildings; and match or ensure a lower profile building pattern around historically significant buildings to allow history to take the spotlight.

Vinayak Bharne

Vinayak Bharne, Moule & Polyzoides

Vinayak Bharne is the Director of Design at Moule & Polyzoides, an Adjunct Instructor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, a Lecturer at the USC School of Architecture, and was the editor of, “The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms.” He has also authored numerous essays and contributed to many books.

“How do we truly engage with Asian cities? Or cities outside of the United States for that matter?” he asked.

He said that the “umbilical cord has been cut.” Asian cities are not western. Each city has its own individual character. He said, “Asian cities are so complex, it makes American urbanism look like a luxury.”

Bharne went on to ask rhetorically, “How do new urbanists believe in regulation reform?” “How can Asian cities do what America has tried to do?”

“New urbanism has revived our faith in morphology,” he said.

He noted that typically after bombings, the goal is to replace the lost infrastructure as fast as possible- not write a building code.

“Another way of defining chaos is an order we do not understand,” said Bharne.

He suggested five key points about new urbanism in Asia:

  1. Asian cities provide counterpoints to European and American positions on urban theory.
  2. Asians probe beyond the assumed expertise of the state, municipality, and trained professionals.
  3. He critiques the idea of urban form, stating that American urbanism is preoccupied with form, when really physical environments are the ultimate lens of urban success.
  4. He promotes an interrogation of various “ideal city” barometers from livability and sustainability to democracy and social equality. “We need to decide what the hell ‘ideal city’ means.”
  5. Validation of the idea that successful urban transformation can in fact be measured by other lenses beyond quantitative ones American planners typically use.

He said that it seems to him that urbanism is about negotiating our own biases (as professionals) to realities.

Bharne claimed that “every building was based on western precedent” in Huang’s presentation.

He said that Asians have a sort of American dream, and that we should give it to them. However, we need to decide in what way(s) and in what form(s).

He closed by stating that American urbanists are not in the position to discuss Asian urbanism.

How would you develop China? India? Tell us your theories in the comments below!

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

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Aascot Holt is an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University, pursuing a major in Urban and Regional Planning and a minor in Geography. She will graduate in the spring of 2013. She is from Stevenson, WA and currently lives in Spokane, WA in a bri...

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