Chinese City Collaboration
Two hundred new cities by 2020
China has a vision to built two hundred new cities by 2020. The collaboration I was involved in was to design a second tier city in the central province of Henan, for an estimated one million people. We were employed as the European Consultants to work with a Chinese Urban institute. The expectation was that we would bring humanism and intimacy to the Chinese generic city planning. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to understand a completely different culture and devise strategies that combined the best of East and West urban design.
There were so many issues that we took for granted when we began the project designing from a distance in Ireland. The first thing that struck was the tyranny of the residential blocks all orientated in the north south direction. It seemed counter to any intimacy that would be created in a European type plan, but walking these streets were surprisingly busy at the ground level. The roads also seemed overly wide, with block dimension unsuitable for a 'walking city'.
It was only when we explored a Chinese city in reality, did we understand the logic behind the planning rules. The roads are like rivers, teeming with life in an organized chaos, there is a system, unlike India where it's just chaos. There were also many challenges collaborating with our Chinese partners, as sometimes it felt like we were competing them with neither side wanting to lose face. It's often said that joint partnerships in China are considered as one bed with two different dreams. It took a lot of negotiation to balance the expectations with what we could deliver.
The reality of the environment in which we were designing was only revealed when we landed on the bumpy road in central China. Our Visions of centralized business districts, a cultural quarter all seemed completely detached from reality, when we wandered through the backstreets experiencing the village in the city with cows, crops and real communities.
During the breaks of the meetings, I looked out the window of the existing modest government building and watched the farmers harvesting the rice. Our iridescent plans seemed completely detached from the million lives that it would impact upon. There is a huge social responsibility in designing cities, but they are very much collaborations. Systems’ thinking is required, political motivation and a focus on what the end-users experience will actually be like to live there. All to often, these planning exercise become acts of theatre with the same generic solutions being produced.