Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism by Renee Chow

Many first-time visitors to first-tier Chinese cities are surprised at the high-rise apartments, hotels and office buildings that dominate the skyline. these cities can lead one  to forget that, despite its rapid growth, China is still very much a developing country. Cities such as Shanghai and Beijing have been transformed into urban metropolises that rival (by some estimates even surpass) New York and London.

Visitors returning to such cities for the first time in a decade, or even a single year, find them transformed almost beyond recognition, and not always for the better. In the economic miracle that is China, the drive for breakneck development has led to the widespread erosion of traditional architectural and residential cultures, and transplanted the rural with the urban, creating something of a crisis for the future of urban planning.

Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).
Changing Chinese Cities: The Potentials of Field Urbanism, Renee Y. Chow (NUS Press, June 2015; University of Hawaii Press, June 2015).

On the one hand, first-tier cities have to accommodate and provide for growing populations and fulfil demand for better amenities. Until now, the government’s response has been to raze ancient hutongs in Beijing and lilong alley communities in Shanghai in favor of supersized, homogeneous, massed-produced structures that appear to fit Chinese and international notions of modernity. On the other hand, the Chinese people and those in power express pride of their ancient cultures and traditions. Although they have not had much success, there have often been significant protests against such practices. Chinese urban planners therefore grapple with the difficult decision of whether to build a modern, developed environment or retain unique, established residential cultures centred on courtyards and collective living.

 In Changing Chinese Cities, Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Berkeley, offers a different perspective on these challenges. Chow argues that it is possible—indeed preferable—for Chinese cities to modernize without superseding their traditional aspects, and calls for a more nuanced approach to urban design. Chow remarks that a lack of attention to “common architecture” has prevented urban planners from adopting this nuanced approach. Exploring the cities and surrounds of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, Chow’s collection of essays examine the relationships between ancient and modern, public and private, and inner and outer realms in China’s urban identity and progress.

Chow describes Beijing as a “city of objects”, typical of any first-tier city across the country: 

… Figures splinter everyday life in the city—the urban fabric is disconnected, illegible, disorienting, uniform, homogeneous, monotonous, self-serving, and lobotomized.

To this end, she advises a shift in urban development away from “figures and objects” towards “field urbanism”, or a more holistic view, and challenges the idea of ubiquitous high-rises being representative of progress.

This does not equate to advocacy for greater conservation of ancient courtyards and alleyways, however. Chow recognises the necessity of urban transformation to meet the needs of the cities’ dwellers.

Chow also considers the intimate connections between economic and social policies and urban planning in China. From private ownership before the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, to urban work units under Mao, to separation between land ownership and land rights under Deng Xiaoping, modern Chinese cities have undergone many fundamental changes that have undeniably affected their fabrics. Furthermore, the political (Beijing) or economic (Shanghai) roles of a city inevitably influence their urban landscapes.

Despite Chow’s use of specialist terminology, the appeal of Changing Chinese Cities is not limited to architects and urban designers alone. Historians, sociologists, and those simply looking for a different view of China’s rapid urbanisation and development, will find something in this book. The accompanying photographs and illustrations allow the reader to envision the past, present, and potential future of Chinese cities.

China ultimately figures in Changing Chinese Cities as a case study of the challenges faced by many countries, both developing and developed. Chow’s work is important in considering the cultural costs of urban development, and how these might be overcome.

This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 19 September 2015.

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