India’s Evolution vs. China’s Revolution

Shanghai Skyline. Image Flickr User CC Gaëtan Bruneteau

This article, by Austin Williams, originally appeared in The Asian Age as “, : Talk of the Town.” Williams is the co-author of Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs and director of the Future Cities Project. He teaches architecture and urban studies at XJTL University in Suzhou, China. Email him at futurecitiesproject@gmail.com

As an architect living in Suzhou, just outside Shanghai, I have become blasé about the skyline being transformed before my very eyes. The classic view of Shanghai’s towering waterfront may not represent great architecture, but it’s impressive all the same… and constantly improving. In most cities across China it is the same story: high-speed construction activity, modernisation, transformation and skyscrapers everywhere. There is a palpable sense of opportunity pending — what the émigrés to America must have felt when arriving in New York 100 years ago.

While many Western commentators point to the failures (the accidents, the pollution and the corruption) with an unremitting Schadenfreude, China marches on. Where else can you watch a modern city grow and change in real time? Where else, indeed?

Read more of Austin Williams’ account of the different kinds of urban development happening in China and India, after the break…

Street in Kolkata. Image © Flickr User CC syder.ross

I hadn’t been to Kolkata for 30 years. Then, it had been a crumbling, anarchic, messy, congested, dusty, frantic confusion of people, cars and animals. I was looking forward to seeing how a country with similar economic growth rates to China had fared in its architectural aspirations.

Tellingly, almost nothing had changed. The main city still combined a lack of basic infrastructure and a shaky superstructure. Its sense of urban cohesion seemed to reflect a desperation to hold things together rather than any real conscious urban strategy. However, instead of central-urban regeneration, the real changes were happening on the fringes, the satellite cities and the new town developments. This is repeated throughout India: from Gurgaon to Navi Mumbai to Lavasa, Pune. 

In short, urbanism in China is clean, sanitised and exciting; India’s is grimy, raw… and exciting. Undoubtedly, China’s “ruthless” ambition to build the future comes with caveats, but so do India’s bureaucratic, fragmented ambitions. In both places, construction standards are low, workmanship is poor (and so are the working conditions), air quality is bad and the architecture leaves a lot to be desired. But that is the price of progress and simply to attempt such a huge range of urban transformations — from within urban centres or outside the existing urban fringe — is admirable. “Make no small plans,” said New York’s no-nonsense city planner Daniel Burnham. We all know that mistakes will be made, but India and China prove that that is no excuse for not trying. 

Many people point out that whereas China has the power to remove populations, impose its Central mandate and eat up small towns to create new cities, India seems to prefer to leave existing town centres alone, avoid confrontation and shift the development elsewhere. Obviously, India is not averse to kicking people off the land because, actually, if you are going to develop major urban projects, some people are going to be upset, while hopefully many more people will reap the benefits. As a consequence, some commentators have likened these urban differences to the political polarisation between India as the world’s biggest democracy and China, the world’s biggest autocracy. Citing India’s urban chaos and the Chinese Communist Party’s success at becoming the world’s biggest economy, support for non-democratic urbanism, autocratic mayoral powers — or “benign dictatorship” — is growing. This is troubling for anyone interested in preserving the civilisational gains of democratic discourse, and represents a purely pragmatic response to urbanisation. It also misses the point. 

Dubai. Image via ArchDaily pinterest, courtesy of airpano.com

Cities are different. For example, in Daniel Brook’s new book, The History of Future Cities, he argues that Mumbai (like Shanghai and Dubai) was founded on the promise to build the future. They were designed as world cities. Not so for Delhi, for instance, which has maintained itself as a historical remnant: a city of the Raj, seat of governmental urbanism. Secondly, China has compressed 50 years of urban development into 20, while India has dragged 20 years of development over 50. India’s evolution versus China’s “revolution” means that there are issues of land use, property values and urban identity to reconcile in India as opposed to the Chinese model, which is a completely different social construct. China’s tabula rasa attitude to urban development is due, in part, to the fact that it’s true: politically and socially they believe that they have a clean slate. 

Actually, even though China is allegedly building 20 cities a year for 20 years, it, like India, is not urban enough. The World Bank estimates the urban population in India to be around 31 per cent, which is smaller than Africa. China is just 50 per cent urban. However, the United Nations considers a modern society to be one with around 70-75 per cent of its population urbanised, so it seems that both China and India still have a long way to go. But what’s more important than statistics is that both in China and India there is at least a visionary desire to achieve improvements in the urban condition. A visit to Shanghai’s urban planning museum, for example, contains a vast model of the city which maps out the existing, but more importantly, the planned developments over the next 20 years. Similarly, the opening lines of Delhi’s Master Plan 2011-21 state that the intent is to “make Delhi a global metropolis and a world-class city” in 10 years. 

In these two developing nations, the model is “the future”, so they should be forgiven much. In Britain, by contrast, the Prime Minister has just announced his plans for “urban villages” modelled on Victorian-style architecture drawn up by Ebenezer Howard in the 19th century. No city has been built in the UK since the end of Empire. So whatever mess China and India make in getting there, at least they have an eye on the future. The West is happy merely to recreate the past.

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "India’s Evolution vs. China’s Revolution" 04 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=337276>
  • Jesse Leone

    “The West is happy merely to recreate the past.” Snaps*

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  • Alok Sharma

    To be honest, I didn’t understand what the article was all about. The title suggest an India vs China debate, but content suggest otherwise. Sometimes it compares data from 2 countries, then goes on to put them on one side of comparison to the west.
    To sum up, an article which will not offer you any insight..

  • AleB

    this sounds quite a naive simplification of reality, but I do understand that it is coming from someone who still has faith in progress and in people’s ability to control it (despite the very opposite evidences flowering both in eastern and western societies)

  • Mickey Mao

    -“Make no small plans,” said New York’s no-nonsense city planner Daniel Burnham.-

    New York’s city planner? The Burnham quote references his Plan for Chicago, where he was raised, apprenticed, and practiced architecture.

  • Andrew Schiffer

    Burnham, definitely Chicago, not New York

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  • chris

    “However, the United Nations considers a modern society to be one with around 70-75 per cent of its population urbanised, so it seems that both China and India still have a long way to go.”

    I’m not sure where this is written anywhere in any UN documents, you simply neglected to consider the scale of population in these two countries. I don’t even think China has 50% urbanized population because that would mean near 700 million people which is greater than the whole population of US and Russia combined.

  • rahul datta

    Things are slow in India because India has always been creative and has never copied others…just wait and watch…

  • Austin Williams

    Apologies, Burnham – ‘Plan for Chicago’, I know, Slip of the pen (I was writing something originally about Robert Moses and I omitted to change it in the edit (my cardinal error, not the magazine editor’s).
    As for urban scale is concerned, UNDP issue data on classifications of ‘urban areas’ as well as scale of urbanisation. Similarly, it is OK to doubt the data from China, but it is now 50 per cent urban as far as many commentators and researchers (not just the Chinese stat) are concerned.
    As far as my ‘faith in progress’, yes, I’m thankful NOT to have a miserablist or misanthropic view of progress or development, as many do these days, but I believe in humanity’s ability to make the world a better place. It is tragic that so few do… especially so few in the West (hence the East-West comparison underlying the article).