China defines “big city disease”

In announcing plans for Shanghai, China also defined “big city disease”:

China’s financial hub of Shanghai will limit its population to 25 million people by 2035 as part of a quest to manage “big city disease”, the cabinet has said…

State media has defined “big city disease” as arising when a megacity becomes plagued with environmental pollution, traffic congestion and a shortage of public services, including education and medical care.

Many of China’s biggest cities also face surging house prices, stirring fears of a property bubble.

This leads to two thoughts:

  1. If China, a country devoted to urbanization, thinks this is the population limit for big cities, does this mean other industrialized countries will follow suit?
  2. It would be interesting to hear urban experts weigh on regarding how big they think major cities can get. Twenty-five million people is quite a few but can some of the issues Chinese officials raise be ameliorated by good planning or technological advances?

Perhaps one of the key features of major global cities of the future will be a limited population size in order to have a certain quality of life. In contrast, major cities that are not as important may grow to unheard of sizes with all sorts of symptoms of “big city disease.”

China introduces plan to eliminate gated communities

Gated communities may be popular in the United States and many other countries but China is looking to open them up:

Along with its ambitions to finally put an end to “weird” architecture, China is also hoping to ban gated communities. In the same directive that called for stricter building standards, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has also recommended that future residential enclaves be opened to the public. Existing gated communities would also gradually have their once-private streets integrated into the public road network. Not only would the move ease traffic congestion, the government argues, but it would also make better use of land.

But that particular part of the plan has drawn criticism from legal experts and fierce opposition from the public. Lawyers say such a mandate infringes on residents’ property rights, which according to China’s property laws, are “inviolable.” According to the South China Morning Post, the cost of roads and other shared spaces inside gated communities are factored into the price of residents’ homes, so they are essentially considered private property. China’s Supreme Court recently told the Hong Kong newspaper that they will be “paying close attention” to the directive.

Is this a microcosm of a larger debate between a more free market economic system versus more government control? The question of whether developers can build and residents, particularly those who feel they have joined the middle or upper class, can move into gated communities seems tied to a number of bigger issues.

I’m reminded that one tool of power available to governments is to dictate use of land and regulate architecture. Americans tend to prioritize property rights but the United States has a variety of land and architecture regulations, particularly zoning at a local level as well as historic preservation districts. Less frequent is the use of eminent domain, though it has been used regularly in the past for urban renewal which was often about taking land and profiting from new development. See the recent case in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has discussed seizing the old post office building to make money for the city.

So how far should governments go regarding regulating land and architecture? A completely free market system would lead to some negative outcomes but too much implies tyranny.

Solving flooding in China with “sponge cities”

Chinese officials are providing funds for “sponge cities” to reduce the effects of flooding:

“A sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach,” says Yu, who is helping to coordinate the national project.

Traditionally, Chinese cities handled water well, Yu notes. “But in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods.”…

Reverse-engineering a city to make it more spongey requires a mental rather than physical shift, he argues. “It’s a whole new philosophy of dealing with water. It is about how we plan and design our cities in an ecological way. Not about piecemeal, manmade engineering projects. So we need to avoid this kind of trap.”

Sponge-city design could also run up against China’s centralized planning system.

It sounds like this is a major work in progress. As has been found in American cities, such as Chicago, trying to solve flooding issues after the city is a certain size is quite difficult. Are cities really willing to move residents or commercial structures to better deal with water issues? Is it only possible to make changes after a major flood convinces people? The optimal way to do this would be before the development happens as planners and others can set aside space or promote greener options.

Hard to counter China’s aging, even with change in one-child policy

The change in China’s one-child policy may not have much effect on its demographics:

“The population in China is going to continue to age,” said Kristin Bietsch, a research associate at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. “Even though they’re hoping to increase their fertility, they’re still going to have a substantial population aging — and this is going to happen even with the increase in fertility.”…Adrian Raftery, a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle, agreed: “The (United Nations) has already been projecting a small and slow increase in China’s fertility rates over the coming decades, and this news makes this even more likely to happen,” he said. “The increase is not likely to be large, though.”…

Like much of Europe, China’s population is aging rapidly — India’s population, now at 1.3 billion, is expected to surpass China’s within seven years, according to the United Nations…

But many demographers argue the birthrate would have fallen anyway as China’s economy developed and education levels rose. They foresee a looming crisis because the policy reduced the young labor pool that must support the large baby boom generation as it retires.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. See more about demographic transition here: as countries develop and have more wealth, residents have fewer children. Even as the one-child policy disappears, there may not be a rush to have two children.
  2. Governments have the ability to set policies such as these but one problem with influential policies is that they also need good timing. If the goal was to reduce the proportion of older residents, this change came late and it will now take more time to counteract the unintended consequences of the initial policy.
  3. I haven’t seen much about the real reasons China reversed this policy. Presumably, it has to do with aging – a modern society needs a broad base of young workers both for economic growth as well as to pay into the system to take care of older residents. Yet, this article brings up the population of India – might the shift also have to do with the population growth of India? Are there other reasons as well?

The “intensification of nervous stimulation” in documentaries of the cities of China and Taiwan

Two new documentaries suggest the rapid urbanization of Chinese and Taiwanese cities may not be orderly:

Armed with newly available digital video equipment, independent documentarians have given Chinese filmmaking a genuine vanguard. “Disorder” is among the most disjunctive and disturbing of recent exposés. The movie’s first image shows a broken water main gushing like Old Faithful in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. The second shot frames a pedestrian beneath a car, the apparent victim of a traffic accident. Later he is seen — still lying in the street — bargaining for a payoff with the driver who struck him…

For 58 minutes, “Disorder” bombards the viewer with interwoven bulletins, presented without comment. Many are grotesque human-interest stories: Shops peddle illegal bear paws; escaped pigs roam the highway; a cockroach emerges from a bowl of noodles. One man brandishes what looks like a live crocodile, another washes himself in a polluted tributary of the Pearl River. Other sequences are more violent recordings of arguments and breakdowns. Civilians brawl with the police, and the movie ends with a remarkable sequence of cops beating a man nearly to death…

Most scenes are a single shot, without causal links to what precedes or may follow. Chronology is obscure; so is motivation. “Stray Dogs” won the grand jury prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and given its radical near-absence of narrative, the movie has been a polarizing work. Some critics, including Stephen Holden, who reviewed “Stray Dogs” in The New York Times when it opened here last September, see it as akin to a gallery film installation. Others have noted that Mr. Tsai’s emphasis on activities shown in real time is suggestive of performance art…

Like other films by Mr. Tsai, it has a postapocalyptic feel. Torrential rain is virtually constant, and Taipei feels depopulated — a place where events, mostly concerning food and shelter, may be staged in situ. The aesthetic tension between Mr. Tsai’s beautifully lit and framed compositions and the desolation of his characters’ lives is disconcerting. They do not live in the metropolis so much as haunt its ruins.

The reviewer links the films to the thoughts of Georg Simmel in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel argued the individual would be overwhelmed in the modern city since there are too many things going on. To fight back, the individual would need to adopt a blase attitude. Perhaps, then, we can see these documentaries as attempts to gain some distance from the chaos of the urbanizing megacity. At the same time, modern film seems particularly well-suited to hinting at Simmel’s predictions given the prominence and frequent use of rapid cuts or non-traditional narratives (i.e., non-linear).

Of course, documentaries don’t have to be made this way. Indeed, it would be interesting to contrast these two with films that show the mundane and sequential features of modern life in a big city: going places, working low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, shopping or searching for necessities, child care, sleeping. Alas, these might not lend themselves as well to screens that want pretty rapid takes on what life looks like.

Making a concrete McMansion with a 3D printer

A Chinese firm can put together a McMansion with a 3D printer:

WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co., a Chinese architectural materials company with more than 70 patents to its name, has now come up with a way to construct a 12,000 square-foot home – a kind of McMansion – out of 3D printed blocks.

A special technique has resulted in a concrete building that, while requiring paint to be attractive, still manages to be perfectly functional.

The printer that created these buildings is 105 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 21 feet tall, larger than most rooms, but it works on basically the same principles as one of MakerBot’s printers. It uses a nozzle to pump a mix of concrete, sand and fiberglass (which are recycled; the company’s name seems to translate to ‘Surplus’) onto a flat substrate, slowly accumulating into a tough material that can be buffed to create a smoother edge and/or overlaid with various traditional-looking decorative elements. A zigzag design inside the pieces helps reinforce them, similar to corrugated cardboard.

It takes about a day to print all the components. The prefab blocks are then trucked to the construction site, where it takes just five days to put them all together. The final height of the building is 20 feet by 4,000 feet wide, and the total cost to build it was just $161,000. This method saves between 30 and 60 percent of construction waste, cuts down on time by 50-70 percent, and cuts labor costs from 50-80 percent.

While the cost seems attractive, I can only imagine what McMansion critics would say if some of these started showing up in American neighborhoods. Want mass produced? Want concrete as your primary material? Of course, this all may get refined over time but there is some work to do before this would meet single-family home standards in the United States.

McMansions “bloom” in China

One fact about McMansions and one assertion: they are in China and they are “growing.”

In the Dianshan Lake region, less than 40 miles west of central Shanghai, the appetite for speculative real estate has driven developers into China’s most fertile land, the Yangtze Delta. Only about half of the luxury villas like those on the following pages, which can be as big as 6,300 square feet and sell for as much as $1.5 million, are occupied — mostly as second homes. The rest sit empty, as the housing sector staggers under a surplus. The photographer George Steinmetz, who visited the area last fall, describes the transition as converting “rice farms to high-end McMansions.” As that process plays out, the country’s domestic rice consumption is set to soon outpace rice production.

This highlights two small trends in reporting on McMansions:

1. People like to note the spread of McMansions around the world. I’ve seen articles talking about McMansions in China, Russia, and different parts of Europe, Africa, and Latin America. It is a unique American export that requires a supporting infrastructure of a wealthy upper middle-class, roads, power, and sewers, and space for large single-family homes. Outside of the United States, McMansions are most common in Australia and still limited elsewhere.

2. The idea of McMansions “growing” or “blooming” fits in with ideas about suburban sprawl as well as the land McMansions often replace. Critics of McMansions lament the loss of open land or fields, particularly when replaced by energy inefficient homes. At the same time, blooming might suggests McMansions are like flowers while some would prefer the comparison be made to weeds.