Chinese Urban Planning & the Utopian City

I started looking into the pictures of the cities below this past week and I knew I wanted to talk about them. But take a look at them yourself first, just to see if you get the same feeling I do without knowing the context first:

All of the above pictures are taken in Chinese cities that are built by the state. China is rapidly urbanizing as more and more people move from rural provinces into cities to get a share of China’s growing wealth. Evidently, though, it’s not urbanizing rapidly enough. Speculative building on the part of the state has created the fascinating and unique phenomenon of “ghost cities”.

In the American west, ghost cities came about when developments sprung up around mines or whistle stops, then died when the minerals and trains dried up. In China, the same thing is happening on a huge scale in reverse. The communist Chinese government is building enormous cities in the hopes that they will one day be occupied by businesses and Chinese citizens. I didn’t include any satellite shots, but if you look up the locations on Google, you will find that they are “logically” laid out in neat zones. It’s like somebody kicked a genie’s lamp and with their wish asked for a big, clean, perfect city, with no traffic plenty of space for everyone to live whatever life they wanted. When the smoke clears, they find that their genie has given them exactly what they asked for, but it’s not what they had in mind. Ample thoroughfares with nobody to drive them, eerily vacant yet immaculately kept malls, and idyllic but suspiciously empty homes. I really want to walk one of these cities to see how real the feeling of emptiness is. You can find more photos of one of these cities here, and a thoughtful write-up of the phenomenon here.

I put skeptical quotes around ‘logically’ up there because the idea that one person or group of people can accurately plan the development of an entire city is ludicrous. Tell that to these people, though:

Planet Money 415: Can a poor country start over?

History (recent and otherwise) is littered with examples of big thinkers planning Utopian cities, only to have their ideas crumble when implemented. I realize that just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I also realize that something that seems too good to be true probably is. It’s a fun thought experiment to sit down in front of a drafting board and draw out how the perfect anything would look: car, library, city, you name it. I love seeing concept art for video games and movies in the special features, because I love the depth of a fully realized universe, even though we only see a portion of it. But you can never think of everything, especially at a city level. Cities and their buildings need to be able not only to grow, but also adapt and be pared back. To try another metaphor here, building these Utopia is like the well-meaning scientist stepping back from his creation and realizing his terrible mistakes.

Photos used under the Creative Commons License, on Flickr,
from the following photostreams:

Zhou Mingjia
Remko Tanis
Bert van Dijk

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