Masterplanning the future

Updated: 2012-11-09 10:01

By Austin Williams (China Daily)

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Feats of urbanization are a marvel, but some planning lessons need to be learned

American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, who drafted the first comprehensive city plan a century ago, has summed up the necessary ambition in the art of city-making: "Make no little plans," he said. "They have no magic to stir men's blood."

As a Western architect, there are four things that strike me the most in China: the breakneck speed of the construction industry; the immense scale of urban development; the underlying confidence to make big plans; and the ambition to build new cities. It is the last of these that sets China apart and makes it such an exciting place to live. Where else can you watch a modern city grow and change before your very eyes?

To attempt such a huge project of social transformation, elevating millions out of poverty through a process of urban expansion is notable precisely because of its absence in much of the Western hemisphere. Indeed, the sad decline of urban scale master planning in the UK and the US, where no significant urban settlement has been built in the last two generations, simply makes China more interesting by default.

A visit to the Urban Planning Museum in Shanghai literally sums it all up. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a vast model of central Shanghai, which maps out the existing, and more importantly, the planned developments for the next 20 years. Here the model is "the future".

However, in the UK, for example, Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced plans to recreate the past: a blueprint of urban villages derived from the Victorian era.

Undoubtedly, China's overarching ambition to build the future comes with caveats. Construction standards are sometimes low, workmanship is sometimes poor. There is pollution, and the architecture sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. But simply to attempt such a huge range of master planning projects is impressive, and laudable. China is compressing 75 years of Victorian urbanization into just 15.

Indeed, planning for super-urbanized areas, such as the Chongqing-Chengdu or Wuhan-Changsha zonal developments is equivalent to the master planning for countries like Belgium. Nothing like this has ever been undertaken before, and a wealth of expertise is needed to ensure that problems are minimized.

China is now on target to create an urbanized population (statistically consistent with a developed economy) within the next decade or so. A recent report from Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development suggests that China has far more towns "that would be administratively defined as cities", but it is generally accepted that with 50 percent of its population living in urban areas, it has a long way to go to match the 70-80 percent of most Western countries.

Therefore, China has a lot to learn - and a lot to gain - from the West, where there is a wealth of master planning skills and theories to draw on. To its credit, China has welcomed the experience and judgment of Western urbanists and architects - many of whom may not have built cities (or anything) before, but who should at least have studied the form, construction and flows of cities and who can conceptualize master planning as a socially engaged, human-centered process rather than a technical exercise.

Until a generation of home-grown, non-technocratic designers is produced by Chinese universities - one thing that is central to our educational efforts at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University - it may be easier to import creative, critical thinkers from far afield. Their knowledge and their ability to apply abstract ideas to socio-urban issues is a valuable resource.

However, China is also in danger of importing some of the worst ideas from the West, too. Nowadays, the US and Europe are burdened with a cautious approach to development, growth and progress. This is often represented in calls for restraint, limits, risk-aversion, precaution, low growth and minimal consumption.

Sustainability, for example - which views the future with trepidation rather than anticipation - is a defining feature of this modern malaise. Sustainability is designed to rein in so-called human hubris: it insists that we "do not do things today that may cause harm to future generations". But once humanity conceives of itself as potentially harmful rather than potentially liberating, then the notion of human intervention in the natural world (a euphemism for architecture) takes on a negative connotation. Sustainability is one of the most commonly used tags to achieve various purposes.

"Sustainable growth" is not the same as "growth"; it is stunted growth. "Sustainable" development is not the same as "real" development; it is arrested development. We should be aware that restraint, limits and the aversion to experimentation and risk-taking will act as impediments to master plan the future.

Austin Williams is lecturer in architecture and urban design at the Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. Contact the writer at

(China Daily 11/09/2012 page7)