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The cost of urbanization is a city's history and culture

By lexalee ( Updated: 2014-06-24 15:34

When Americans say “house”, they mean a freestanding building on its own lot. In China, “house” usually means an apartment in a high rise, since there's not enough land for separate houses - at least not in cities.

People in China live stacked on top of each other, and the high rise buildings in cities aren't pretty. Most Chinese cities just look crowded, grimy, and remarkably similar, whether you're walking at street level or you're living many floors above.

City planning in emerging markets is mostly about business development. If housing demand outstrips supply, developers just build high rises in the shortest possible time and try to sell them at the highest possible prices.

The United States went through its own period of urbanization earlier in its history and, for a while, many cities had thriving downtowns which served as financial and commercial centers. But, with more cars, highways, and a growing population, more people moved out of crowded cities into suburbs and commuted to work in their cars.

This migration led to the demise of many historic downtown areas. I've seen many sad abandoned buildings, crumbling but still beautiful, in different cities in the US. In more progressive areas where people value historic and cultural preservation, some buildings have been restored and revitalized, but others were torn down or remain empty hulks.

Before I first visited China in 2007, I had read about historic neighborhoods in Beijing being torn down to build hotels for the Olympics. I witnessed this everywhere in the city after my arrival. In fact, the lovely old hotel where I was staying was located next door to a construction site of a new hotel.

Every morning I awoke to the sound of jackhammers. My hotel was scheduled to close for renovation - and I worried about its fate. During my visit, my uncle arranged a tour of several cities. I stayed in various hotels and saw many more. The big ones looked so similar, I wondered if they were all designed by people using the same basic blueprint. Steel and lots of glass. The light switches and toiletries were all the same. The sheets were all white.

My cousins complained that restaurants and businesses that had been in operation for years were being torn down, so there would be nothing left when you went there - and no one to tell you what had happened.

The point is - if the government mandates urbanization at the expense of the historical and cultural aspects of a city, every place ends up looking the same, with nothing special to distinguish itself. More and more high rises. Big malls, many of them empty. Who needs that? This is occurring wholescale in China, as the central government continues the urbanization process.

New Orleans, where I live, has an incredible variety of vivid architectural styles that reflect its remarkable history of European colonialism, grand Southern plantations, slave quarters, and almost every style of American building you can think of, old and modern, existing side by side. One author called it a city of “elegance and decadence”, where people value the old and like it to look old. Imperfections are part of what make this city memorable.

Still, some historic neighborhoods are gone forever. There once was a Chinatown near the French Quarter, the heart of the city. Its residents, most of whom worked on the sugar cane plantations, scattered to other places for better jobs. There is only one building of Chinatown that remains, and some old graves in one cemetery. So sad.

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