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A balancing act between past and future

2009-September-3 13:49:37

The question facing all great cities in the world today is the same - how to provide a good life for citizens, meet the demands of the modern world and economy, while at the same time preserve the character and history that enhance quality of life and give a city its identity.

The answer is always the same - balance. It is a gargantuan task. The reality today is that all urban societies are facing accelerating population growth and almost impossible budget demands on public services: housing, energy, transport, education, health and employment.

The whole planet is urbanizing. The whole global village is going to town. World-wide, people are drifiting away from agricultural life and trying to squeeze on board the fast track to the future - modern city life, modern technology and the modern global economy. It's not just a spatial move, moving from place A to place B. It's moving from the past to the future. The reason is obvious. The future is a train that nobody wants to miss.

Even in a small population like Australia, rapid urbanisation is the single biggest socio-cultural-economic challenge of the future. It may seem strange that a national population of a mere 20 million, no bigger than a Chinese city like Shanghai, could face the same relative problem as China. It does. It's all a question of scale.

An adequate supply of housing, water, public hospitals, schools, public transport is only relative to the rate of increased demand.

In Australia it is happening on a much smaller scale than in China, but the equation is equally urgent. Any public transport system designed for a few thousand people is just as inadequate to serve hundreds of thousands, as one that was designed to serve a few hundred thousand which suddenly has to serve several million.

I came to live in Hangzhou because it looks uniquely different to any other Chinese city I've seen. I remember my first glimpse from a bus. Love at first sight. I wondered what lay behind the old white walled, black tiled roof houses along Zhong Shan Nan Lu near Gu Lou. I thought the people who lived in them were lucky to be living in real "Old China".

I saw He Fang Street and my love grew. Here was the China of my dreams. Not the skyscrapers of Pudong. Not even the corridors of power in Beijing. This was a city with a heart.

I visited Xi Hu, walked around the sculpture-lined Lake, felt I'd stumbled into a time warp of Chinese history, a living Song dynasty scroll painting with poetry and culture around every corner.

I settled in Tai Miao, an old area near Gu Lou, saw Wu Shan by night, the great golden lantern on Wushan called Cheng Huang Ge, the old Liu Bu bridge and Fengshan Meng water gate near my local park, and realized why so many artists and writers lived in Hangzhou. I began writing a book. I didn't need fiction. The reality around me was inspiring enough.

Like all love affairs, I gradually saw more clearly. Tai Miao where I live is not a wealthy area, although rich in history. A lot of my neighbours are the new urban demographic from the countryside, the ming gong migrant workers in poor housing with kids failing at school.

In their houses I finally got to see what I only fantasized about in that first glimpse from the bus, behind the old white walled, tiled roof houses. Inside, reality looked harshly different.

There is nothing romantic about not having a bathroom or toilet indoors. Or broken pipes that leak and freeze in winter.

But I also saw the community spirit of areas like mine, where migrant workers and their kids are looked after by neighbours who care.

When I walked up the old stairway up Wu Gong Shan beside Gu Lou this week, the romantic in me was sad to see the old stone houses being demolished to make landscaped public gardens.

But the growing realist in me knows how happy the people who lived in those houses must be to move to modern houses with toilets and bathrooms. Slums may look picturesque on postcards, from a distance, but not to live in.

Karl Marx got his inspiration for Das Kapital from reading a description of slum housing in England written in 1848 by a young social worker named Frederick Engels. That simple written account of public housing in London and Manchester changed the world.

Hangzhou is a model of how urban redevelopment can be balanced to meet the demands of society on one hand, and cultural lifesthle and history on the other.

China's Vice-Minister of Culture Zhou Heping announced at the Tenth National People's Congress that China would continue to cherish its tangible and intangible culture and stop it being destroyed or exported to foreign museums.

I see how that cherishing is happening every day as I come home from work through Wu Shan Square, where the public garden is being built so more people can enjoy the history and beauty of Hangzhou's old heart.

Cycling through old Daqing Lane I see the heritage notices now on historic buildings dating them to the Qing dynasty. My local park at Tai Miao iso full of well-documented Song dynasty history.

I commend the City government for the services it provides - the excellent transport system, the road modernization program and the vision to make Hangzhou an international centre through the World Leisure Expo, which will bring the world to its doorstep.

But I also have unbounded admiration for its preservation of its historic landmarks. Hangzhou's Antiquities and Culture Departments are models for the rest of China. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have a city to dedicate my book to.

By Kate Collins from Australia

Source: City Express

Editor: Liu Fang


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