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Unlike U.S., China Embraces Density and Enormity

Mar 4, 2011

The following is the first of an occasional series of thoughts on "super density" and the future of cities.

China plans to create a city of 42 million people (!) by linking six major cities by rail, power lines, communications and the like. When complete, the new mega-city will comprise 16,000 square miles, compared to the 900 square miles of urbanized Los Angeles County, which many people already consider an unmanageably large city. The Chinese government plans to spend the equivalent of $190 billion in the next six years to accomplish this extremely ambitious task

Among the official purposes of this massive conurbation, surprisingly, is what could be called non-redundancy of services: People who seek specialized health care, for example, would be able to do so within a much larger network. Labor economics also seems a strong reason for the investment in this region, because employers seeking highly skilled workers for tech and high-tech industries will be able to draw from an immensely enlarged labor pool.   

As a student of urbanism, I find this idea both appalling and oddly exciting. Appalling, because the idea of a city of 42 million people terrifies me with visions of unrelenting high-rise construction, lack of open space and environmental wreckage.

At the same time, I admire I almost said in awe of China's willingness and ability both to actually plan for its economic future. It's called "industrial policy," which is a familiar concept in Asia, but almost unknown in the United States. In China, industry professes to benefit from things like public transit (which get their employees to work) and high-density housing (which allows them to leave cheaply). In the US, the primary things that industry wants (and regularly wins) from government are tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulation. Please compare the Chinese plans for infrastructure and transit development with the hostile reception greeting the President's proposal for high-speed rail to inter-connect major US cities. (The hostility, of course, is prompted by the spectre of spending (wash your mouth out!) at a time of high federal deficits, despite the arguable benefits to business. Austerity measures have been greeted enthusiastically in Greece, Great Britain and Ireland, so we thought we'd try it here, too.)    

But if superdensity and hyper-infrastructure looks good from 30,000 feet, our first reaction to the idea of a megacity naturally be: How would I feel living in such an environment?  Beyond moving goods and bodies around with increasing efficiency, what will it feel like to live in a non-stop, high-density with no relief in the form of wide open spaces or accessible rural areas? Then I feel somewhat less excited.

(In fairness, I need to find out what kind of open space planning and habitat conservation efforts the Chinese plan to undertake in this exercise. Recent city-building efforts in that great nation, however, do not inspire confidence that the authorities have any larger vision of urban form, let alone the good life, other than smoothing the path for real estate development.) 

In one sense, urban America already lives in loosely comparable conditions: The Northeast has long been a continuous carpet of inner cities and suburbs (old timers may remember the 1960s term "megapolis"). The West Coast, for that matter, could almost be described as a continuous urban fabric stretching from San Diego to Seattle. Insofar as we have open space, it is because we have inherited them from idealistic planners of a century ago or more, such as the Olmsteads and the City Beautiful movement.

Is there a model for large-scale, very high density living we can imagine ourselves living in voluntarily, even happily? Personally, I think much of the answer lies with the availability of public and semi-public open space. Otherwise, we are simply warehousing people as if they were abstract economic units to be moved around with a giant croupier.

Even if the Chinese are intent on building this "city" in six short years, we are at the beginning of an ongoing discussion. I would greatly appreciate hearing from readers, planners, and other journalists, etc. on the topic of superdensity. If you want to recommend essential reading, please send links.    

--Morris Newman