How to build cities with character

By Mu Qian (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-02 09:45
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China has an opportunity to lead the world in city planning owing to its huge urbanization potential, said Lutz Engelke, CEO of the Triad Berlin, which designed the Urban Planet, one of the main theme pavilions of the Shanghai 2010 Expo.

Engelke made his point in Shanghai while attending the third Chinese-European Cultural Dialogue, an annual event held alternatively in China and Europe.

The Expo's theme, "Better City, Better Life", was the inspiration for two of the main topics at this year's event: "cities and cultural diversity" and "culture and ecological civilization".

More than 100 experts from China and Europe participated in the conference.

"This year Shanghai is a focus of global attention and has attracted tens of millions of visitors because of the Expo, where 190 countries showcased the most innovative aspects of their cultures," said Finn Andersen, secretary-general of the Danish Cultural Institute and head of the delegation of European Union National Institutes for Culture.

"The Expo demonstrated how these themes can be communicated to mass audiences in China and the world, and is a magnificent backdrop for our dialogue."

Engelke visited China for the first time five years ago. Since then he has visited China many times and has witnessed the fast urbanization of China firsthand.

"I didn't know that in such a short time so many buildings could be built in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai and so many people would move there. That would have been impossible in Europe," he said.

At the same time, he pointed out that as a number of cities in China are growing so rapidly, many of them appear to be pretty much the same because of the lack of cultural awareness in city planning.

"Culture can give cities character, because in culture there are narratives and icons which are very important for identity," he said. "It's very important to find out in which context a city is going to be built, especially the cultural and natural context."

Engelke's point was echoed by Liu Tuo, director of the Architectural Art Research Institute of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, who argued that urban construction in China has been too fast to allow people to think about the future look of their cities.

"Our impression of Shanghai still remains the buildings on the Bund and the shikumen ("stone gate") houses, while Shanghai's buildings from the past several decades have not formed any distinct style that can represent the city."

One of the consensuses reached by participants at the conference was that city planning should not only consist of infrastructure planning but also the definition of cultural content.

In this respect, some European experts contended that the European Capital of Culture program is a good example of promoting city planning from a cultural perspective. They suggested a similar platform be built in China to promote the cultural aspects of Chinese cities as well as providing a platform for cultural exchange between China and Europe.

Charles Landry, an established UK urban adviser whose book The Creative City has been released in Chinese by the Tsinghua University Press, believed that Chinese and European cities are facing many similar challenges, like low-carbon living, migrant groups, and an aging population. But he argued that Chinese cities should try to understand culture from a broader perspective.

"The definition of culture is a little narrow in China. Art is culture, but it is not the totality of culture," he said. "One of the big challenges for China is how to behave more environmentally, and that's a cultural question."

According to the Annual Report on Urban Development of China No 3, released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in July, China had an urban population of 620 million by the end of 2009, which was 46.6 percent of the nation's total population. Urban residents are expected to comprise about 52 percent of the Chinese population by 2015, and 65 percent by 2030.

Engelke pointed out that city planners in Europe and China can learn a lot from each other.

"We can learn about flexibility from China's city planning, about how Chinese cities are able to learn to adapt to new situations, and China can learn from Europe about sustainability and innovational techniques," he said.