"We need a new generation of cities in China" - Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu
As the tide of urbanization sweeps across most of the developing areas in China, the building frenzy has become a Chinese phenomenon. Some people are making money from it, some people are getting power from it, and some people are worrying about it. Recently, a new set of policies and reports have been published by the Chinese central government, and the whole society seems to be boosted by the new talk of a Chinese Dream. But, what is really happening inside China? Can it absorb this enormous growth? And, will urbanization continue in a proper way?
As the chief planner of the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Siegfried Zhiqiang Wu has been deeply involved for years in many of China’s main urbanization projects. It was almost midnight when we met Professor Wu in Shanghai, and although Wu had just gotten off a night flight from Beijing, his passion, frankness and intelligence remained undoubtedly impressive. In the following edited talk with interviewer Juan Yan, Professor Wu discusses China's dramatic urbanization, its architectural culture and the future of smart cities.
YAN: As part of one of the earliest groups of architects and urban planners that studied abroad, what did you learn from Europe?
WU: More precisely, I was one of the first groups of scholars going abroad after the Chinese economic reform (1978). I was quite young, and I felt that urban planning, or let's say urbanism, was a dynamic subject, rather than in a static state. It was the result of efforts to cope with the main problems in cities, which definitely kept changing. The European cities have been through various issues like social sanitation, war, shortage of urban green area, demand for social housing after wars, etc. As the needs of cities are changing, we can see how the practical and theoretical attempts of architects and planners develop step by step.
YAN: Did what you see in Europe make you worried about the coming future of an urbanized China?
WU: Let me put it like this: we, the first group, went to Europe in a much earlier time, and therefore benefited from knowing what might happen when China pulled the trigger of urbanization, and what we might need in the future. In my view, the ecological and sustainability problems are what I was prepared to face, ten years before they drew the attention of the majority in China. That is why when most people were pursuing quantity of urbanization, my group and I were dedicated to preparing a sustainable city, and developing thinking on sustainable design. Back in China, I buzzed around a lot in 2002 to promote the ideas of sustainable cities, ecological cities, and green architecture, derived from what I witnessed in Europe.
One More Communist Revolution or Not
YAN: You have been a key figure and even a rule maker in China's urbanization, but you have also been through the whole urban expansion period as an ordinary citizen. Is the problem of social housing a major issue?
WU: Indeed. When people come to cities, they should have places to live in. In the past in China, all the buildings were taken as the possession of the government, and there were hardly any building projects in cities, when most of the existing buildings were in really bad condition. For instance in my hometown, Shanghai, at the very beginning of the Chinese economic reform, every citizen of Shanghai had only 4 square meters of living area. An ordinary Chinese family, parents with one child, would live in an area of 12 square meters, where people lost their basic dignity as humans. Then, when I was still a young teacher in Tongji University, I lived in the same conditions with most of my colleagues: two couples stayed in one room with a sheet hanging in the middle for our pathetic privacy. Sometimes, the weather drenched the ceiling in water, and there was only one shared toilet for the whole building.
The huge population of China and the spontaneous movements to urban areas has made the housing problem a long-lasting issue for my country. It is normal for us to build, just like what happened in Europe after the two world wars. The initiator for modernism was the needs of the post-war citizens. Even before that, the industrialization in Europe brought many new towns into being, like what happened to the Siemens towns in Germany.
YAN: But, do the basic social need of living and the blooming real estate of China really match?
WU: If we agree on the point that China has to build and expand cities due to the basic social situation, then we can talk about the core issue: what kind of cities have we created? Do the cities we created meet the needs of common people? Are the cities friendly to the huge number of newcomers from the countryside? Do the cities benefit the citizens who couldn’t afford the living expenses before? For me, the focal point is what kind of urbanity we create, rather than whether we should build or not.
After the Chinese economic reform, all the building projects have to be carried out by companies, and individuals or social groups are not allowed to build their own places, resulting in the market economy ruling all of the building projects. It means only money talks in the Chinese real estate fields, instead of the two groups of common people: newcomers from the countryside and lower class citizens with a desire to improve their living conditions. Decent residences become luxuries, while common people cannot afford what they need. This is the crucial reason for the current conflict heating up in China.
The next worry is about how the residences can be allocated to the greater group of common people. Do we need a communist revolution one more time? Collect all the housing properties by the force of the government, and re-allocate them to the common people one by one, like what the communist party did 50 years ago? Are we really on the edge to do this kind of radical thing again? Sorry, I do not know. But generally, we have to improve the connection of supply and demand.
One Expo, One Era
YAN: Was it a display of ambition from Chinese urban creators that the Shanghai Expo used the term “city” as the motto?
WU: No, definitely not. We knew quite clearly there was no intention to show this kind of ambition. What we wanted to create was a wide and interactive platform to welcome the whole world to come, to tell their stories about sustainability, to share their experience, to express their opinions. For the Expo 2010, I asked every country to bring its most eco-friendly architecture, to present its most urgent worry for future cities, and to talk about how to achieve a better future with us in Shanghai.
So as the chief planner of Expo 2010, I really appreciated that the whole world brought their thoughts and sustainable technologies. During the Expo period, I chaired 7 rounds of training courses for mayors from different parts of China. There were 50 to 60 mayors attending the courses every time. I brought them to the site of the Expo, and explained to them how a nation could march towards sustainability. Our Expo is the biggest attempt to transform and redevelop the old factory area in Shanghai. A total of 3 million square meters of old buildings and abandoned factories were successfully transformed into pavilions, operation centres, restaurants, and other facilities. This launched a huge change in the concept of development in China. Also, all the mayors took this sustainable thought with them when they went back to their cities. They treat old buildings as symbols of their local culture again, and much high-quality architecture has been developed from, let's say, the relics of urbanization. Furthermore, we have reduced a large amount of construction waste by doing this.
YAN: In the Expo ‘70 in Osaka both China and Japan, two countries deeply bound together for a long time, tried to unveil the future of cities. Compared to Kenzo Tange, you have been put into a similar position in China, except with much more power of execution. Has a new era come to China, or will it?
WU: The Expo ended four years ago, and I think we have already entered a new period of urbanization. The Shanghai Expo was a milestone and turning point. Gradually, we are changing from pursuing speed and quantity of construction to achieving a friendlier and greener city. I am sure people will write about it as a historical turning point when they look back to this event in 100 years.
When the Expo happened, the percentage of China's urban population had just reached 50%, a symbolic number, which represented a prior concept of development, speed, luxury and waste of resources. We were making up the time we had lost during China’s modernization process. It was successful, but not sustainable. Now, things have changed. After the Expo, urbanization keeps going along a more rational path in regards to policies, products and planning. Every project should follow the ecological value and the needs of the common people.
YAN: So, the new age is really being revealed gradually.
WU: Yes, I believe in 5 to 10 years, the concepts of sustainability and eco-friendly value from the Expo will have spread and become deeply rooted in the mind of government officers, investors, and the whole society. Now we are organising the architects and designers, who hold the advanced concepts and technologies, to come back to work with us on eight new city experiments in different areas. China should show more than just events and expositions.
Evolution to Smart Cities
YAN: The topic of smart cities has been the core of your research for years, how is it going now? What is your expectation?
WU: This is a long-lasting way of thinking derived from the 8000-year-old civilization of human kind. Actually nowadays, our cities and our architecture are stupid, rather than intelligent. We should rethink our living environment.
With the opportunity of the Expo, I have done a lot of research. There are many stupid things happening in cities. For instance, many parents send their children to some nice, faraway places to study, because the distant schools have better teachers compared to the ones next to their homes. However, maybe the best teacher from that school actually lives in the same building as them. They are neighbours.
That is a problem about community communication, where we do not know if the people our children need most are just next to us.
What does it mean? It means the education, public health, and other kinds of needs from the urban citizens can be met without having to travel long distance in the future. We may find lots of extra space, and we may come to realize that the building we are looking for is just next to us. The pivotal obstacle for us is that we do not have enough proper information. Today, there are two things that put this future within our reach: firstly, information technology has opened a new world for us with unprecedented accessibility to information and possibilities, and we can even simulate the outcomes of our proposals. These new technologies and networks are the key point to making our cities smarter. Secondly, today my group and I clearly know that the happiness of citizens does not depend on the quantity of materials we invest. On the contrary, too many extra materials would result in chaotic urban life. For instance, if the hour we spend on the way to work is no longer necessary due to urbanization's new approach, we will not need so many cars and such crowded public transportation. We will have one more hour to stay with our families, which will bring unlimited happiness.
So, a new kind of urban life is being incubated, thanks to changes in our understanding of what new urban life is, how urban space holds this life, and how we can use new technologies to achieve it.
YAN: Will it be a complex of new technologies?
WU: I prefer not to say it is a product of technologies, or just some series of data. Smart cities are a kind of process, providing the opportunity to free the concept of the urban from a concrete built environment to an organic system, with the abilities to judge, perceive, learn and react.
This interview was carried out in the name of the MEC (Metropolitan Experiments Circle). We are an open group of young architects, urban designers, and landscape architects, with intriguing thoughts on urban context, conditions and development.
Yifan ZHANG: Architect, based in Milan (Italy), with study and work experiences in China, Italy, Germany and Austria.
Juan YAN: Urban designer, based in Shanghai (China), with study and work experiences in China and Germany.
Weixuan WEI: Landscape architect, based in Shanghai (China), with study and work experiences in China and the United States.