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					Making Cities Livable: The Next Challenge in China
Dennis Frenchman
Professor of the Practice of Urban Design Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Prepared for presentation at: Urban Forum: Planning the Future of Cities in China Beijing, China; October 24, 2004

[1]* Since 1987, I have spent summers in Beijing working on urban design issues and projects with graduate students from MIT and Tsinghua University. Over those 17 years I have seen tremendous changes in this great city, and other urban centers in China, as investment has poured in along with the people and the cars. We have just seen the beginning of these transformations. The urban population of China is doubling every 20 years, so that by 2050 there will be 600 million more people living in cities. To accommodate them will require building the equivalent of 50 more urban areas the size of Shanghai. These new and expanded cities will shape the economic viability and image of China in the world. Their success will depend upon: Their competitiveness for economic activity with other cities and regions in the world; How well they are managed and governed; Their fiscal stability; Their livability as 3-dimensional places that offer not only survival but also the opportunity for a more fulfilling life. ______________________________ *Note: Numbers key to PowerPoint slides

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The way that cities achieve these goals in the future will be different than in the past. [2] For much of the 20th century, the vision of a competitive, efficient city was one with standardized, separated land uses, accessed by ever-widening roads and highways, where the poor were isolated from the rich, and there was little place for local tradition and culture. We are now learning that this model, which requires vast amounts of land and resources, is inefficient, inequitable, and very costly to maintain. More importantly, it is ill suited to an information economy where uniqueness, diversity and culture are becoming more and more economically valuable. If we scan what are considered to be the progressive cities and cutting edge projects in the world today, emphasis is being placed on qualities that are opposite the 20th century ideal. [3] Cities and private developers are focusing on making places that are less standard, more messy, more integrated, with more amenities, serving a wider range of people, that facilitate (in a word) livability – the day to day quality of life in cities. Livability has emerged as a priority not because planners say it’s a good thing, but because information firms and the creative, entrepreneurial people, who work for them, have many choices where they can invest their money and time. In that global market for talent and jobs, cities that are more distinctive and offer a higher quality of experience for a greater number of people have a competitive advantage. And so, we find that cities are acting to enhance their livability by: Limiting the impact of the car; Striving for creativity in architecture and public places; Conserving and developing local cultural heritage;

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Promoting a fine grain mix of activities for diverse kinds of people; and Building on civic engagement where residents can help to shape the environment in unique ways. These experiences define challenges for cities in China as they plan for rapid urbanization in the future. Lets consider them one at a time: [4]

1.

The challenge of access – During my summers in Beijing, I often return to sites

that we have designed in the past – many, I admit, with great sadness as I witness historic streets and buildings being demolished for ever wider roads. For example, Baishiqiao Lu, outside of the Friendship Hotel was considered in the early 1990’s to be one of the world’s great streets. [5] After drastic widening, it isn’t anymore. Traffic planners will tell you that streets are for cars. They forget that streets are also the public face of a city that expresses its personality. [6] When old streets are widened, this personality is lost along with the trees and the buildings. Of course we must accommodate the car, but you can never make streets wide enough to satisfy the demand. The challenge is knowing when and where to stop. [7] New roads encourage more development around them, and ever more traffic. And even worse, highway development can suck the life and vitality out of the center of the very cities the roads were designed to serve, leading to endless sprawl that obliterates the natural landscape and is highly inefficient. Cites worldwide are now spending billions of dollars to repair the destruction wrought by urban highways built in the 1960’s, such as in Boston where the central artery (shown here) [8] is being buried, or in Seoul, Korea, where the Cheongyecheon Expressway [9] has been eliminated [10] in favor of a more livable downtown.

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Barcelona [11] – a city also experiencing tremendous growth and development – has adopted a policy of deliberately narrowing streets, and reducing the impact of the car. [12] Here is the Ramblas, another of the world’s great streets – imagine what would be lost if it were widened? So within the city, design roads of a scale and character appropriate to the kind of environment you want to have, rather than sized to meet some abstract level of service. [13] And pursue alternative transportation. 20 years ago, Curitiba in Brazil made the decision not to build highways, [14] but to develop an innovative high service transit system using low cost buses on their own rights-of-way. [15] The decision was made to concentrate development along the transit routes [16] -- keeping urban places largely free of cars. [17]

2.

The challenge of image – There is a tremendous desire now in China not only

to modernize outdated infrastructure, but also to make symbols of a new society. In an information age, much of our world is driven by visual images and symbols, and new urban icons – such as Pudong in Shanghai – are important to the identity of the city, even the nation. So, sometimes it really is worth getting rid of the old stuff to make way for something different. [18] If someone offers to build a project in your city like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—run for the bulldozers. [19] This project transformed the image and economy of a dying industrial city. The challenge is: when you seek to make a new image, be sure it is of greater value that what you already have. And just because something is different doesn’t make it worthwhile. [20] It’s amazing, for example, how many times I have heard that real estate developers must be

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allowed to clear lots, provide poor landscape and build crazy buildings, or they will go somewhere else! Well, if they insist on these things—maybe cities don’t want them. The long-term costs of a poor image can be exceedingly high. And once the unique character of a place is lost, it’s almost impossible to get it back. A better strategy for a city may be to tell developers what it wants—up front. Reputable developers will work with a city if its design vision and guidelines are clear. I have noticed that the cities that are good at telling developers what they can’t do are typically the places where developers most want to be. In articulating the future image of your city, don’t forget: [21]

3.

The challenge of tradition – The new may be exciting, but it’s not worth selling

your soul. Every city has its own culture that can be cultivated into a powerful identity. The challenge is to let the old inspire the new. When you look at the traditional streets and buildings of your community, don’t think of them as bricks and mortar. Think of them as stories – that together make up the unique character and narrative of your town. In an information economy good narratives can be valuable property so always ask: How can this project contribute to the story of my city? The story of Beijing, for example, is about the courtyard – from the humblest house [22] to the great Imperial Palace. A decade ago, the Juer Hutong project [23] illustrated a new model of higher density courtyard housing that received international acclaim. But the model has not been repeated and there are precious few other innovations in design. In fact, there are basically only two types of housing now being built in China and many other places in the world: [24] The high rise tower and the slab –

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as we see here in Shanghai today [25] and as is being envisioned for the entire city tomorrow in this model at the Shanghai planning exhibition. This is not the only model for development. [26] In the Netherlands, for example, new approaches to lower scale, high density housing are being created that reinterpret the traditions of Dutch building in places like Amsterdam. [27] These projects are startlingly new, yet they fit in with the old. They have met: [28]

4.

The challenge of diversity – When studying city planning, we always bring our

students to the ancient gardens in Suzhou. There, in my favorite garden, the Humble Administrator built using many different forms, carefully adding one at a time so that each piece related to the next and there was a harmonious whole. Like a garden, every piece of a city is equally important. This principle is the great Chinese contribution to the art of Urban Design. For this reason, I personally don’t like the practice of outlining strict conservation zones, [29] because they give the impression that everything inside the zone is special and should be restored and that everything outside doesn’t matter and may be demolished. This can lead to islands of historic resources – disconnected from each other and the life of the city by wide streets and anonymous buildings. Leading edge cities are now seeking a finer grain mix of the old and the new, [30] like the Xinteindi project in Shanghai, [31] where historic houses have been converted into human-scaled shops and restaurants, [32] and the 798 project in Beijing, where World War II factories have become homes for artists and galleries. [33] The benefit of these diverse building types and spaces is that they can support a diverse mix of income groups and activities. We are also seeing entirely new combinations of activities, such

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as in Germany, [34] where factories are being combined with museums, schools, entertainment, even housing. Volkswagen’s new assembly plant in Dresden, for example, expanded the city’s Great Garden, [35] giving recreation and culture as well as jobs to the city. Such diversity can best be achieved when planning is seen as a continuous, incremental process -- like tending a garden -- rather than a one-time effort to make sweeping changes. In truth, we just can’t predict the long-term success or failure of radical changes to the form of any city. So it’s best to be humble. [36]

5.

The challenge of engagement -- There are a lot of experts out there who will

tell you they have the answer to planning the future of cities. When you hear someone hawking a universal model of urban design: Beware — that is what got us a lot of modern projects that don’t fit any city well. It’s great to learn from other’s experience, but you can’t copy them. Each city is unique and the people who live, and work, and build there are the experts. [37] It is important to get them involved in planning the future – for two practical reasons: First, they will advocate for local culture and livability in the city helping to balance the powerful forces for globalism and uniformity. And second, the more stakeholders that are involved with development decisions, the more diverse and unique the city will become, and in an information economy, the more competitive it will be.

[38] Let me conclude by saying that there are lessons in this experience not only for planning cities, but also for investing in their future. Bank and government investments that enhance livability can yield some of the highest returns because:

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They affect people at a level they can appreciate, directly enhancing their homes, businesses, and daily life; They can redress some of the inequalities of poverty – such as poor transportation and lack of recreational opportunities; A good environment is increasingly critical to attracting leading private firms, and jobs necessary to sustain the city; thus livability can benefit both competitiveness and fiscal stability; And finally, the expenditures required are relatively small (compared to elevated highways, for example) and can leverage high returns in terms of private response and local stewardship. (Every $1 the World Bank spends on upgrading the public environment of low-income neighborhoods leverages $7 in private improvements.) This is the calculation that Enrique Penalosa made as mayor of Bogata, who determined that he could fund a city full of parks (like this one) or an advanced bus system [39] for the cost of widening a highway – using public money to improve the quality of life for the many who could not afford cars or suburban homes, rather than the few who could. Penalosa went on to insist that every infrastructure project – roads, drainage, waterlines, and power – [40] also contribute to livability by providing parks and pedestrian ways, or enhancing schools, homes, or cultural heritage along their paths. There is an interesting parallel here with other urban management issues – take public safety. In New York City, the old attitude towards fighting crime was to focus limited resources on the big picture – breaking up major crime syndicates – ignoring the small everyday crimes and nuisances. And for the people who lived in New York, it seemed like a dangerous place. The idea of Community Policing turned this strategy on its head by focusing first on stopping the humble crimes that affect people everyday.

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Now overall, the city is a lot safer. The parallel in development is something like “Community Banking” – if you focus on livability, overall, cities will be a lot wealthier. [41] In closing, let me note that many bankers – and economists – are uncomfortable with this approach. This is because they are used to dealing with the big strategic picture, looking from the top down where success can be measured by counting miles of road, or numbers of housing units, or hectares of slums cleared, rather than the bottom up – which is messy and requires looking at the quality of what is produced on the ground, who benefits and who looses, and what does it all adds up to over time. However, in the 21st century, we are learning that the small scale is part of big picture, and that to maximize the value of investments in urban development we need somehow to incorporate these considerations into the equation for decision-making about what to fund. I would like to applaud the China Development Bank and the World Bank for convening this conference, which I see as a first step in that direction. Banks can have a powerful influence on the quality of city making, simply by defining livability as an important consideration. But to operationalize these concerns will require research into ways that livability can be incorporated into standard economic development projects and how to measure success. The goal, however, should not be to produce a single model of progress – as in the 20th century. We don’t need a better zoning code or ideal vision of what a good city should be. Rather we need what I would call a “code of practice” for investment in the city -- that values differences, respects tradition, and demands participation among the stakeholders to build a unique local identity. In this way, livability will take its proper place among other priorities for the city, creating greater value in the future.

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