Sub Urbia

Shanghai sprawl
Shanghai sprawl from JinMao Tower. 

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“Most of the building… is being done by people who don’t like cities.  They do not merely dislike the noise and the dirt and the congestion.  They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tension, its hustle and bustle.  The new redevelopment projects will physically be in the city, but in the spirit they deny it –and the values that since the beginning of civilization have always been at the heart of great cities.” 
— William Whyte, The Exploding Metropolis, 1958.  Talking about New York.


This quote was in an exhibit I saw when I was in NY at Columbia University on Robert Moses, the (in)famous developer of New York during the mid 20th century. But it could just have well been used to describe Beijing (or Chengdu, Shanghai, Kunming, Xi’an, Chongqing, Qingdao or any major Chinese city) today.


New York is an eminently walkable city, built with just enough roads and lanes to allow the flow of traffic without having avenues dominate the landscape like in Los Angeles.


And the buildings are right up against the street.  No lawns out front, no parking lots (unless you count midtown traffic), no gates around gated communities.  There’s a raw honesty of each facade, with a store on the first floor and a tower of homes up above.  New York is in your face. And therefore extremely accessible.  And vibrant.  Each building is crafted against one vision, beautiful in its own right, but like a Monet, the magic works best when you step back to take it all it.


But of course New York has scars in it, places that were developed “ugly,” in my humble and urbanite opinion.  Fifty years ago, this Robert Moses guy had a different vision of New York:  Superblocks.  As his NYT obituary put it, “The Moses vision of New York was less one of neighborhoods and brownstones than one of soaring towers, open parks, highways and beaches – not the sidewalks of New York but the American dream of the open road.” Superblocks were areas with tall buildings scattered amidst small quiet parks and parking lots, removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.  Had he hung around even longer, Moses’s New York might have become an essentially suburban place (like Houston or any of the other sprawled American cities).  You can still see these complexes of superblocks scattered around the city, like the massive Stuyvesant Town or the Park West Towers where my parents spent the first few years of their marriage.  But thankfully, in my opinion, New York continued to grow as it grows best — street-hugging building by street-hugging building, each with its own individual charm, shoved in your face.


But Chinese cities are not like New York.  Beijing and Chengdu (and most Chinese cities I’ve been too) are realizations of Robert Moses’ mistakes, and William Whyte’s fears.  They are designed not by people who understand what makes a city great, but by people who aspire to the comforts of suburbia.  Chinese cities are now built around large complexes — pre-fabricated villages really — with rows of six story tall walk up buildings with no commercial space on the first floor, and no street life on most of the narrow roads that link them.  If you want to go to the bus stop, you generally have to walk 10 minutes just to get out of your complex.


It makes me sad.  Compared to a compact and functional city, suburbs are inefficient, as they demand longer commutes, take up more space, spread out resources, and make public transportation really difficult.  Plus they are probably one reason why Americans are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, as people drive rather than walk places, and buy large quantities of packaged/frozen food (think: Costco!) rather than buying daily from a street side produce vendor.


Or maybe its my fault that I don’t appreciate suburban values.  I can’t help it.  I grew up in the middle of the greatest show on earth.

From Beijing, 



One thought on “Sub Urbia

  1. Some comments I got on this which are of interest:

    “You might want to check out Sze Tsung Leong’s work ( on changing landscapes in China. It’s pretty close to what you are talking about.”

    “OK, true, but when I lived in China in such a courtyard development, everyone travelled by bike, and they left their bikes downstairs. So transportation was very nearby.
    Also, there were very few buses and the buses were very slow, unlike biking. “

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