Peter Calthorpe on China’s “new urban agenda”

Auto-based sprawl development, following Le Corbusier’s model of the “Towers in the Park.” Photo by John Patrick Robichaud, Wikimedia Commons

Cities have evolved for thousands of years, and they have a historic wisdom that we are collectively relearning. It’s a big change for China, though, because it’s been using an outmoded planning paradigm developed in the ’30s by the modernists—“Towers in the Park.” That paradigm failed us in many Western cities, and it is failing them now. – Peter Calthorpe

The architect, urbanist, and member of the UN panel selected to review the implementation of the New Urban Agenda, describes the dramatic changes in China’s urban development policies, foreshadowing some of the policies outlined in the UN’s New Urban Agenda  document. He is speaking to Dina ElBoghdady, a former reporter for the Washington Post, writing in Urban Land magazine.  An excerpt:

Q: What does the typical Chinese city look like today, and how did it evolve?

Before the 20th century, the traditional Chinese city was a fine-grained fabric of courtyard housing and small streets. But through the 1950s and 1960s, just after the Revolution, the Le Corbusier modernist tradition took hold and gave rise to the “superblock.” Initially, the superblock was a mixed-use community, about a quarter mile [0.4 km] on each side, with factories, housing, shops, and schools. As the factories grew larger, they became segregated from their communities, and housing became segregated from employment areas. Superblocks soon had isolated uses.

Q: How did these isolated uses affect the quality of city life?

As this new pattern of development accelerated and wealth accelerated, cars came to dominate the ever-larger streets, making them less pedestrian-friendly. People would have to walk a quarter mile to get to intersections, and once they got there, they’d have to cross eight or ten lanes of traffic. Mortality rates for pedestrians and bikers shot up. The less hospitable the streets became, the more people wanted to retreat from the street and live in gated communities, which brings us to where they are today…

Q: How have you helped shape the discussion on sustainable urban growth in China?

About six years ago, the Energy Foundation [a grant-making organization with a big presence in Beijing that focuses on climate change issues] asked us and other designers such as Jan Gehl to do pilot projects to demonstrate that there’s a better way than superblocks and highways for China’s cities. We’ve now worked in seven cities on plans for a population of 4 million, and we’ve done two large-scale regional plans that frame development for another 13 million people. Most of the work was for areas that were designated for growth. We laid out the blocks and streets, detailed the street sections, and zoned all the land for mixed use and TOD. And in each case it worked.

Q: Are these plans a reality yet?

They’re in the midst of being built. These were untested ideas for China. A lot of people six years ago said, “You’ll never undo the superblock. It’s an important part of the culture of modern China.” But being able to work with cities and developers, we found there are ways to create a transition, and the government saw that it was feasible and desirable. In addition to deadly air pollution and congestion, there’s the climate change factor. They are scientific realists over there, and they understand that livable cities will reduce carbon emissions and that renewable energy will be a big business that provides lots of jobs.

Q: Were you expecting the government to release new standards, let alone ones that are so in sync with your thinking?

I didn’t expect it, to tell you the truth. This is really a sweeping vision for how to change the direction of urban development in China. I thought they’d move along with piecemeal standards, some for roads, [some] for regulatory plans, and so on. I did not expect this grand, almost philosophical statement. I’ve been surprised at how quickly the government moved, and I’d like to believe that our work helped influence their thinking. Many of their standards correspond to the ones we’ve been advocating and testing. But most of the influence is from within—there have been many hands on this.

Q: Was there a tipping point for the Chinese government?

I think they realize that the cities have reached a crisis point. First, there’s the air quality. The cities are dangerously smoggy. Second, the traffic congestion threatens to compromise the economy as it becomes more difficult to move people and goods and services around. Third, China is committed to reducing carbon emissions. When you solve for livability—moving away from cars and toward transit and biking, integrating jobs and housing closer to one another, having mixed-use communities where a person’s trips and services are nearby—you reduce carbon emissions. Significantly, China imports most of its oil. The more auto-dependent they are, the more they are dependent on foreign oil, so that’s another motivator.

Q: Are these standards mandatory, and how long will it be until the effects are seen?

There are measurable elements that will become mandatory. For example, it quantifies the street density [and] the distance to transit, and requires that 40 percent of all trips in a city are made by transit. This really controls how investments are made in major infrastructure—roads versus transit. The effects are already being seen in the sense that planning departments and designers are adopting these ideas.

Q: Will the standards be applied to all Chinese cities?

They will. In China, they often write different standards for different-scale cities, and they scale the cities to three sizes. It’s a good way to do it because Beijing, for instance, is very different than a small third-tier emerging city. The high-level government group that released these standards is saying, “Here are the principles and direction we want to set.” Their departments of transportation and housing and urban development and other regulators are all going to have to do updates to their standards as a result of this.

Q: Many of these standards are in place in other countries. Why do you view them as a dramatic change in China?

The new standards do read like a list of ecological best practices that have developed around the globe. Cities have evolved for thousands of years, and they have a historic wisdom that we are collectively relearning. It’s a big change for China, though, because it’s been using an outmoded planning paradigm developed in the ’30s by the modernists—“Towers in the Park.” That paradigm failed us in many Western cities and it is failing them now. The problem is the scale of city building in China is so large that a failure will impact not only the viability of their cities, it could decimate the global economy and ecology.

Q: The government is calling for architecture that preserves Chinese culture—an apparent about-face from the radical designs seen in cities like Beijing. What brought about this change in mentality?

They’ve come to realize that they’ve been destroying their identity and cultural continuity as well as the environment. In a way, we did the same thing in the U.S. when urban renewal gutted our cities in the ’50s and ’60s. We didn’t have historic preservation laws. Piece by piece, great historic buildings came down. In China, the superstar architecture world was wreaking havoc with buildings that looked like they were flown in from outer space. Now, the government is saying [to] focus more on durability, function, and energy efficiency. To modern architects it is controversial, ambiguous, and challenging—to find an architecture that relates to place and climate rather than image.

Q: Do you consider yourself an antimodernist?

I am for modern architecture, but I want it to be historically, culturally, and environmentally connected to its place. The construction quality and materials in China are such that buildings barely last 30 years. The government is now basically saying, “Let’s make buildings that stand the test of time.”

Full interview:


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