Time to stop building cities without souls

By Xiong Lei (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-05-08 07:16

At his first sight of Las Vegas, a Chinese student of community participation in urban development remarked, "I feel as if I am back in Beijing's second ring road!"

Indeed, the shadow of the American casino capital looms large over Beijing and many other Chinese cities, which vie with one another in copying the model of Las Vegas to become a mixture of something of everything.

With a messy combination of bits from New York City, Paris, Italy, Egypt and others, Las Vegas could satisfy a fancy of the wonderland.

Yet the city in the wild desert is a nightmare for urban planners, as it has developed with little planning. Even though Las Vegas hosted the centennial convention of the American Planning Association (APA) in late April, many American planners dismiss it as a good example of urban development.

"It was simply built up willfully by those who had the money," says Wang Yan, a member of APA and director of urban design with HOK, a Chicago-based global architectural firm that specializes in planning and design.

Wang and many of his APA colleagues warn against taking Las Vegas as a typical example of American cities.

To their regret, however, Las Vegas becomes a role model for too many Chinese cities in their drive for urban development. Like Las Vegas, these cities with entirely different cultural and socioeconomic contexts are sprawling ever wider with ever more and taller high-rises, until they become jungles of cement.

In copying the Las Vegas style of pursuing things seemingly novel and fascinating, these Chinese cities are lost in similar urban landscapes and become identical "cloned sisters and brothers", as Shan Jixiang, director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, puts it.

As Shan told an audience at the APA centennial convention in Las Vegas, a city's soul does not lie in clusters of eccentric and weird buildings copied from here and there. Blind imitation of foreign architectural styles is by no means modernization.

But it is deplorable that nowadays we can only find our cities' unique identities in old pictures, memoirs and dreams, while one after another historical street is razed to level ground.

If Las Vegas showcases or symbolizes upstart capitalism, I wonder what it is showing when it is moved to China, especially as its cheap copies are casting away the real characters, if not souls, of our cities.

What is really perplexing is that many decision-makers are blind to our own treasures when they boldly decide to demolish the cultural heritages to give way to novel things .

For instance, the old road between Baishiqiao, or the White Stone Bridge, and Zhongguancun in northwestern Beijing used to be parted with shaded vehicle and non-vehicle lanes, and was cited by Allan Jacobs, a renowned American urban designer, as one of the great streets in the world.

But soon after it came into Jacobs' book, Great Streets, in 1993, the beautiful road was bulldozed to be reduced to a barren thoroughfare, which has neither its old charm nor a character.

Instead of accomplishing the goal of facilitating a smooth traffic with additional width, the new thoroughfare is often congested and reduced to another parking lot of the city.

Statistics show that every year 13 to 15 million people flow from rural areas into cities in China and that our urbanization rate is picking up, from 13.6 percent in 1980 to 47 percent in 2007. The rapid growth in urbanization has posed a great challenge to decision-makers of various cities as to how to avoid being identical with one another and retain their own identities.

"The humankind may need one Las Vegas," as Shan Jixiang said at the APA convention. "But we definitely cannot build every city into a Las Vegas."

Perhaps the decision-makers and designers of Chinese cities should come to such a consensus. They should learn from the culture and traditions of their own cities before they set out to borrow others' experiences. If they fail to develop a taste for the treasures under their eyes, it is doubtful that they can pick out something valuable elsewhere.

Every city has its own character and soul. A city livable and lively for its people has to play these up rather than have them strangled in the dreadful Las Vegas web.

The author is media consultant with the Global Environmental Institute

(China Daily 05/08/2008 page8)

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