Ben Wood is a Shanghai based architect who collaborates with the world’s most innovative leaders and thinkers to design environments that support life. He designed the landmark Xintiandi district in Shanghai, a model for gentrification in China.
For the people in China that are being swept up in the greatest urbanization in the history of the modern world, where is their promise of a better life?
Walt Disney, a great American visionary said, “You cannot change people’s lives but you can change the environment you living in.” I want to talk about new ways of working together with the leaders of China and companies to create even better urban environments in the future.
When I was growing up in America I spent every daylight hour that I was not in school exploring the rural environs around our family farm. Growing up with nature and the land around us was my family’s promise of a better life. Today I live in a city of 24 million people and this childhood pursuit of happiness seems a long way off, like the secret garden in a children’s fairy tale.
More than a decade ago Shanghai adopted the slogan “Better City Better Life.” The people here have better lives than when I arrived 16 years ago. Their lives are better because smart people knew it would take a great deal more than skyscrapers and high rise apartments with indoor plumbing and air conditioning to make a better city. Sixty years after my father taught me how to drive a tractor on a farm in America my “secret garden,” my “nature,” is the tree lined streets and narrow lanes of Shanghai and the millions of social transactions that take place in them each and every day.
Forty years ago America was busy destroying many of its historic neighborhoods in the name of urban re-development. It was America’s “cultural revolution.” A prominent architectural critic for The New York Times at the time wrote: “We get the cities we deserve.” She meant by this that if we do not like the city we are living in we have only ourselves to blame. This was true in America then and it is true now here in China.
In a recent conversation with a group of government officials, urban planners, developers and architects I said: “In China people get the cities we deserve.” By “we” I mean the people in power and the real estate developers they empower and the designers they hire when land passes from the public to the private sector. What should be implicit in every one of these transactions is the promise of a better life. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Sometimes the rules and regulations that are designed to protect China’s cities from bad development often make delivering on this promise next to impossible. Having the power to make rules and having the power to imagine what makes a better life is very different.
I often take my visitors to Shanghai on one of our elevated highways on trips to show them the countryside. They are always amazed at how the cityscape of downtown transitions into a seemingly endless horizon of rows of mid-rise residential towers. They all ask why the buildings are lined up like legions of troops in rank and file. I tell them that it is because of the rules. Better life? Maybe not. On the ground these residential blocks are surrounded by landscapes all too often devoid of the rich vernacular patterns of settlement they replaced. Row after row of the exact same building type all facing the same direction does not engender the kind of social interaction that was a part of everyday life in a rural village.
Urbanization that results in this monotonous mid-rise soulless sprawl is a striking demonstration of how unintelligent smart people can be.
The real debate we should be having is why so many of our city planners consider the modern density afforded by a city of skyscrapers, block-long super malls and gated mid-to- high rise residential compounds preferable to a slightly less dense traditional plan of more fine-grained urban fabric.
We should be asking ourselves do we deserve a city of suburbs where you have to get into a car every time you want to go anywhere? A city that has days when the air is so polluted it is unsafe to leave home? A city clogged with cars that can only be driven on alternate days with even and odd numbered license plates?
No, we deserve better. We should be able to live in a city where every block is a city within a city. Where on every block people live, work and play. Where the traditional urban fabric of a human-scaled, tree-lined street is dominated by pedestrian activities, not automobiles and super high-rises. Where buildings are made of materials still in their natural state. Where the color grey comes from an overcast sky and not from a monochromatic curtain of aluminum extrusions and tinted glass panels.
One of the paradoxical advantages of traditional human-scaled urban neighborhoods is privacy. A dense collection of small public spaces like Xintiandi has lots of convenient places to stop and chat. You can be on friendly terms with dozens of people who live or work near your home. You never feel the slightest obligation to invite any of them to your home for tea.
A market economy dominated by global corporations and financial institutions is already replacing the interests of the public sector as the driving force in city building. New luxury lifestyles are being marketed like famous fashion brands to entice people to spend more. Is this the promise of a better life? Not unless you think driving a Ferrari is a true measure of one’s net worth. Over-promotion of luxury lifestyles is not a promise of a better life.
I am sure most people would rather be remembered for what they created and not for what they consumed. I know I would.