城市改建:一场城市生与死的考验 – Urban redevelopment: A city’s life and death – English

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Southern Review Reporter Zhang Tianpan

According to reports, Kaifeng in Henan intends to transform its old city centre into a tourism area of almost 20 square km, reproducing the Northern Song city of “Bianjing”. To implement this product, about 100,000 people will move from the old city in the next four years. This project would cost 100 billion yuan in demolition costs only, when the revenue of Kaifeng city is lower than 50 billion, so this project is known as “a gamble”. Later, the Kaifend government announced they did not want to reproduce Bianjing, but help renovate the old city slums and achieve architectural style unity. The sources of funding will be a combination of national government subsidies, corporate investment and bank loans. Kaifeng City Secretary Qin Jinli sent three posts on Weibo, making his attitude to this project very clear: ”Reporters do not accurately represent our project, this is something Kaifeng really needs to do”, “We have the ambition to reach for the moon and stars” We certainly want to build an international tourism city with cultural characteristics, ‘with old aspect and modern feeling”, ” In the transformation of old Kaifeng and new developments, what is lacking isn’t money, but good planning and market opportunities.”

This is not actually news: in China, every city is having the same dream of overnight riches and fame – cityscape gambling is a common sight – for instance, in the whole country, as many as 655 cities are planning to “go to the world”, and among the 200 or so prefecture level cities, 183 are planning to develop into an “international metropolis”. Every city seems to do everyting in order for their cultural capital to grow and expand, and won’t even hesitate before virtual reconstruction. But in fact, behind the gamble and playing of the cultural card, comes a logic of political and economic promotion; and for each city that attempts to rebuild its own culture and civilisation, there is little clear understanding and stance. For that reason, every time a city rebuilds itself, it faces a test of life and death.

No cultural logic in the city’s cultural development

In the 1980 International Urban Design Conference, Jane Jacobs who wrote “The life and death of American Cities” pointed out that: “Large scale development will only increase the heartbeat of the architects, the heartbeat of the politicians and developers, but the masses will always be sacrificed.” Although her research topic is American big cities, it is also a warning to contemporary Chinese cities. But ‘the ambition to reach for the moon and stars’, undoubtedly reflects this surge in the heartbeat. Behind these aspirational emotions and rhetoric comes the reality of ‘authoritarian’ urban planning. A beauty pageant controlled by a minority, toasted by commercial capital, becomes a carnival for those in control of the city, while ordinary people are drifting further and further way. This is also galaxies away from real cultural protection. And this obeys to a typically political logic.

Faced by the huge cost of demolition and construction, Kaifeng has already been using a combination of national subsidies, corporate investments and bank loans, and the Kaifeng party secretary also claimed that “what is missing is not money, what is missing is good planning, what is missing is market opportunities”. This means that the entire project will be a commercial operation under government protection. From this we can see that the transformation of Kaifeng’s old city and the new developments will have no relationship with culture protection or increasing the city’s livability. For now at least, these two areas do not fall under the scope of reflection. But this is a general illness in Chinese urban development.

If a project is constructed as a market opportunity, business intervenes, which inevitably leads to the question of distributing the benefits, and if companies and businessmen follow the business logic and pursue economic interests, this, no doubt, is justifiable. Although there is no lack of companies with a good sense of social responsibility, caring for the public is, after all, not the duty of business. Therefore, business cannot be the protector and creator of a city’s culture, it cannot bear this kind of historical and public responsibility. They have to find out how to maximize benefits from their own projects. And in order to maximize benefits, they often just copy existing models from other cities, nothing more than monotonous commercial streets, amusement parks, dwelling compounds, etc. The old city and its cultural heritage is only a background to use, for instance, a recent report from Chan Realty Limited in Suzhou, Jiangsu, advertises ‘live in the cultural land of the Humble Administrator’s Garden’, hyping up the reputation of the garden for real estate speculation. But if these cultural remains lose value or become a burden, demolition will be hard to avoid. In January this year, in Beijing East city, ‘Liang Lin’s former residence’ in Bei Zongbu Hutong was destroyed for commercial development of land; and the Yu Qian Temple in Beijing’s culturally signfiicant West Biaobei Hutong, no longer exists – it’s been replaced by the trees at the bottom of a high-rise building. “维修性拆除”或“保护性拆除”实质上都是在榨取了文化价值之后的破坏与遗弃. This is the true face of commercial logic.

As some commentators have pointed out, 城市规划宏观指导层面上体现长官意志、微观技术层面上的简单工程化和规划编制的市场化倾向,更深层次上还是缺乏对城市本身价值的发现 和塑造,there is no cultural logic to cultural preservation, and there is no way for the city to reflect its inherent values and humane care. The obvious focus of cultural logic should be to reveal the nature and complexity of culture, and principles guiding it should be non-utilitarianism, diversity, beauty, spirituality, and protection. The destruction of old building to erect new ones everywhere obeys a political and commercial logic, and intentionally or unintentionally neglects the cultural logic, and cuts off a city from its own tradition, transforming it into a truly shapeless pseudo-culture – and even more, it neglects to take care of the people.

Excess of pseudo culture in the wave of urban construction

After I don’t know how much demolition, most cities have completely lost connection with their own tradition. But stimulated by the tourism economy, many cities have started to look back, and dig up their own cultural heritage, and even if there’s nothing left, then why not make something up, from the ‘old Yelang’ in Xinhuang country in Hunan, to the three full ‘old town of Ximen’ in Shandong and Anhui, the construction of the ‘Golden Lotus tourism zone’, and how ‘Cixi Yu old house’ was declared a cultural relic, etc. etc. Endless numbers of cases have repeatedely revealed how Chinese city managers are wrestling with the development of a pseudo-culture, and this lets us understand how much excess there has been in the pseudo-culture that sings the praise of economic development through culture.

The reason for this and other similar cases is ‘pseudo-culture’, which has two main features. The first is to falsely take on the name of culture, while promoting non culture; the other is to make up a ‘culture’ out of thin air. Basically, in some places, these two characteristics constitute the basis of mainstream culture. This kind of culture is not talking about real cultural protection and cultural awareness, but it fakes the ancient, copies and pastes, and from start to finish, it is full of the utilitarian flavour of a political and economic logic, and so can only be a pseudo-culture. And as this pseudo-culture prevails, similar constructions spring up everywhere, and if we’re looking for specific cases, we can just consider the many fights that have erupted over the last few years over different historical towns, and this will be cleared.Kaifeng has brought back to life the Northern Song city of ‘Bing Jiang’, but after repairing the ruins, it is hard for this city to reproduce the flavour of life that we can feel in the painting ‘by the river’. ‘Classical outside, fashionable inside’ is the essence of alienation for modern city dwellers, and the pleasure of modern business.

As more and more cities begin developing this kind of constructions, the excesses of the pseudo-culture phenomenon are gradually revealed, everywhere is new “heritage”, but closer observation reveals all of it is made of fake, philistine buildings. Once the excess of pseudo-culture break out, who knows how consequences will unfold. But one case invites us to have some concern: the “Chinese food culture city’ in Jigong Shan, Shenzehn, was once listed as a major construction project, and one of the ‘top ten tourism projects’ on the Shenzhen development plan, covering an area of 2.38 square kilometers. Government had planned to commercialise in 2008 and open in 2009. However, planning and building construction will spread over ten years, investment has exceeded 800 million renminbi, the harvest is plenty, but the visitors are rare.

Of course, this phenomenon has not attracted enough attention and has not been reported on enough. Every time a city announces a large construction plan with great fanfare, there is always a lot of doubts and commentaries, but the shameful thing is, even public opinion would not have sufficient power to stand in the way of such a dynamic movement of capital.Kaifeng is no exception. Under the local authorities slogan of ‘this is how it needs to be’ and ‘we will put forward our strategy of Kaifeng first and bringing back the old’, who can stop it?

What kind of culture and civilisation does a city need?

No matter if it’s an international metropolis or an international cultural attraction, in the final analysis, a city is a place where people live, and so, in other words, no matter how the city wants to position itself, the ultimate goal should be to develop a humane, livable city – or everything else is meaningless.

Among the current Chinese phenomenon of urban construction frenzy, as many cities strive to become an international metropolis or an international cultural attraction, the “dead city” phenomenon started: urban development started to fracture history and culture, and fragment the residents. Cities are constantly expanding, but their shortcomings are also constantly being exposed. As the famous writing Long Yingtai said: ‘when you look at a cities, many have brilliant skyscraper skylines, but if after a brief summer thunderstorm the city is flooding, and you need to lift your trousers to cross the street, you know that, well, the underground pipe system is not good. But most of the mayors like to start with the brilliant visible work above the ground.’ For instance, the recent heavy rains on Beijing, although people have identified this as a natural disaster, they still caused the death of thirty people, and countless amounts of damage to property, and they were enough for the big city to lose face overnight. So, these many Chinese cities who want to become an ‘international metropolis’, how many times will they become an international joke in the face of a heavy rain?

In “Flesh and Stone: bodies and cities in Western Civilisation”, the sociologist Richard Sonnet is trying to tell us that culture may have had an important influence on the creation and use of urban spaces, but contemporary conceptions of the city have led to a lack of culture and numbing of people’s minds; modern urban architectural space has “disciplined” people’s flesh, making them feel a sense of dull, numb, solitary survival. Sonnett thinks that big modern buildings have lost aesthetic value; metropolitan environments are all becoming dull and monotonous, and creating apathy among the people. He stresses that the modern design patterns are smooth, quick and comfortable, but at the same time as they make life more convenient, they also exclude the human body from participation and residence in the public space. Public space no longer exists, individualism has replaced public consciousness, people’s capacity to feel things is increasingly weaker, speed and convenience are obtained at the price of numbing compassion and collective spirit. Only by returning to the body, only by returning to feeling, can we really recover the bodies and cultures that have been suppressed by modern urban civilisation, and relations between people in the public space. In plain words, in it the wish for the city to maintain a ‘people-oriented’ philosophy, and become genuinely livable, and from this basis, people will start understanding each other, and a public spirit arise. In the context of highly competitive cities, efforts to create a human touch will lead to increased civic participation, and when people actively participate in public activities, the city has a civil society that sustains itself.

In fact, people have more desire for this kind of urban development than for whatever type of achievement is covered under the name international metropolis, international tourism city of culture. People typically don’t care about these grand narratives, but they hope that their own communities will have good spaces to organise activities, and a good environment, and all sorts of other details closely related to their own selves. A city does not need to be a concrete jungle, people should not feel a sense of exhaustion there, or feel lost, but they should have a sense of civic belonging. They should not be like migrating birds, visitors from foreign lands, or exils, continually flee from one city to another, in order to seek a temporary feeling of stability and belonging. A good city offers us a meaningful space to inhabit on earth, the beauty of enjoying city life is to lazily warm ourselves in the sun of winter, and enjoy the cool breeze in the summer, in the criss-crossing streets, experience the stories of the local people, and in a quiet, spacious public park, experience the freedom of public space.

I still remember what the famous Finnish urban planner and architect 伊利尔 used to say: “Show me your city, and I will tell you what are the pursuits of its inhabitants.” And so now, our cities, what is it they are pursuing?

Source: Southern Review; front cover source: Southern Metropolitan Daily 2012-08-19


Source: 1510, 22 August 2012

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French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org