Back to the future, China Dream, China's Emerging Middle Class, Confucian, Culture & Style, Fossil Fuels, Harmony, Human-sized cities, Living, Mega-city, People's Republic, Qi, Respect, retail innovation, Social Fabric, Tan De Bing, The Rural Diaspora, tri-generational living, Urban Carbon Emissions, Urban Flow, well-being
NOTE This piece was written in May 2012 as part of an exploration on what might constitute the China Dream on a mega-city scale
Its a nice thought – that just by divine chance, Wang Shu, Tim Burton, The Candy Brothers and the People’s Republic all just happened to bump into each other in a coffee shop, got to talking about mega cities and started to think “what if?
It would be perfect: Wang Shu for balance and exceptional sustainable living design: Tim Burton for sheer Magic, Joy and Wonder: The Candy Brothers for monumental ambition and chutzpah: and the People’s Republic because beyond Social Harmony, in the end the mega city concept is still about people: the best of people and their infinite well being, for generation after generation: not just in the now.
In 21st Taoist terms, people and their energy are the ebb and flow of urban dynamic living – the Qi of the mega-city.
Which means the mega-city in its infinite wisdom must be designed and conceptualized around human-sized principles as well as eco and sustainable ones, constructed in such a way as to knit back together the strands of the fabric of society to create more than simple cohesion and structural support. To atomise and empty the rural constituencies requires making quite deep ruptures and rips in the cultural psyche. These need to be either healed or resealed depending on whether you see this as an emotional or rational task first and foremost
This is about Tan de Bing versus Harmony, Balance & Respect.
With 1 Billion Chinese people expected in urban mega-cities by 2025, how one maintains Harmony Balance & Respect in a way that is both enjoyable and sustainable will become increasingly critical to the national and global well being.
Fossil fuel consumption increasing by 3-6 Billion life years per year with a ten-fold increase in solid waste this becomes a matter of human logistics on an extraordinary scale.
But perhaps just starting by thinking of what it means to be human in a mega-city is a good place to start.
Scale is something that seems to be driven by the most interested party and developers tend to favour scale of ambition over scale of inhabitant too often – particularly demonstrated in the burgeoning mega-cities of the Middle Eastern Sovereign States.
So let’s start perhaps from the small wonder of a human being – and those inextricably linked to that human being, family, friends, community, and those that serve them both professionally and domestically, and the services that surround them, the environments they exist within, and how everything from educational philosophy and medical wellbeing to civic planning needs to be calibrated in the daily flow of urban infrastructure. Obvious yes, but especially critical given the broader societal cultural, industrial and commercial shifts and undercurrents rippling through the nation and how it is perceived both internally and externally.
There are cities where a human scale still survives and becomes the defining aspect of those cities, whether by simple history and divine chronology – the existence of smaller more human-sized historic building scattered amongst the high rises.
The City Of London for example, like many European cities enjoy this aspect of modern urban living.
In a recent New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos, Li Huang the guide showing a group of mainland Chinese travellers ‘Europe’ pointed out the ‘open-ness of the city’ to them while standing on the banks of the Seine. “In Shanghai unless you’re standing right next to the Huangpu River you can’t get any sense of the river because there are too many tall buildings” adding that Europeans “preserve anything old and valuable.”
Even in the US the streets of some US cities like San Francisco and Boston old tradition and historic residences, churches, parks, thoroughfares and in Boston’s case the very halls of the Founding Fathers continue to set human dimensions on the aspirations of the high rise living that surround them.
Also, cities like London have seen the rise in the social and cultural importance of what were the old villages that once circled it. Highgate & Hampstead, Notting Hill & Kensington, Clapham, Dulwich, Blackheath are islands of human-sized buildings, spaces and thoroughfares critical in maintaining the balance between a city’s architecturally progressive and its inexorably human self especially given that they are now fixed firmly inside the UK city’s own version of Tan De Bing – its urban into suburban sprawl.
One could argue that mandating that 30 percent of buildings in any given area of a new mega-city can be no taller than three stories and have as much open space around them as they take up in square meterage would be a good start. Or that perhaps they should be planned with some human sized historic or non commercial building (whether it be a single barn, a temple or a whole village) at its centre, kept as a living spiritual compass for the rest of the city.
Continuing in the 21st Century Confucian theme perhaps a pond-ripple concept might also help keep things human.
If there were a central building: small, low rise (tasked with an active social role beyond being just thematic or symbolic – a community centre and well being clinic perhaps) with open space around it and the development of housing and retail spaces rippling away from its centre, only climbing to the higher and larger scales of buildng at the outer edges, until they overlap other ripples of development.
The ability to see through things: spaces, areas and buildings to what is beyond is to my mind critical in the health of a city.
Not everything must be wide open but enough to make openness and transparency a signature of better living.
Removing civic opacity to me must be both physical as well as spiritual and political.
The Cities of the future could place this very important ‘Balance’ characteristic at its conceptual core – as a form of ‘letting go’ – of removing the visual and physical barriers that are historically used to close and control communities, spaces, people, lives processes and systems.
Protection in regards to the state institutions has shifted from the more intimate communal protective vigilance of long ago to the more paternal protectionist big brother model – perhaps the mega-cities of the future can start with the one small step on the greater journey to rebalancing this trend.
LUNGS & ARTERIES
Enabling people to feel masters of the environment through scale is one aspect of a healthier urban environment.
The other is open and communal spaces in general, though I would stress a preference for planning that weaves green organic and flourishing habitat into the fabric of the infrastructure planning and not just as spaces set aside for leisure time enjoyment; for example as ways of humanizing commuter routes.
This is more than just a lung concept – these would be truly arterial in that they are oxygenating the traveller along otherwise urban landscapes. As opposed to arterial being a plain descriptor of the role, quality and flow of the traffic in motion along them.
To ‘line’ every road, rail and bike route with flourishing flora of ay sort – to turn them into a landscaped or farmed artery would make for ‘breathing spaces’ in otherwise quite congested high stress channels of flow through the city.
These arteries can also provide areas for the human hand to be seen at work. The still hands of the old might be usefully engaged in planting these arteries, creating shifts and washes of different colours and textures, small strips of pride – the tools and seedlings provided by a hands off civic centre.
If one were to create a grid one could assign the East West facing strips as allotments and urban farm strips, the organic and intimately tended criss-crossing the urban metropolitan landscape. One could even for example create a simple trading relationship between the owners/leases of these and small retail grocery interests around the city to develop a 1 Mile Produce Promise for the people buying the produce.
One Person One Life
The ‘one human’ concept – of people being the same person inside work as they are outside instead of having to become schizophrenic – is helped enormously when you ‘open cast’ their working community alongside the everyday domestic and public flow of life.
Physically knitting the fabrics of the business/commercial retail, domestic elderly and young communities of one city together like this is critical to health and communal well- being.
A true constituency of extant human beings sharing space and fuelling hope and small wonders on an everyday basis.
(NOTE: there is also an inbuilt innovation trigger in this style of interwoven and proximal living as it has a far greater likelihood of driving direct and indirect general idea sharing and creative collisions, making it far more likely for like and eclectic minded individuals t find each other).
This openly interconnected physical formula of: flow x people x experience x action ÷ space drives heightened degrees of mutual respect; of the others right to existence and enjoyment and equally, might also substantially reduce isolation of particular groups which ascendant modernizing societies have a tendency to leave behind in their whirlwind of achievement and pursuit of even greater individual success, e.g. the elderly and young mothers.
Creating working spaces where people travel along or up and down through domestic, retail or public spaces from office to office or from one corner of a business floor to another creates a far healthier attitude and less ‘ shutting away of the worker bees’ – a system proven to ultimately fail by creating social and communal division and isolation with net negative impacts on mental health and potential alcoholism and other domestic issues demonstrated inside people’s lives away from the public eye.
There are also financial possibilities to be considered here in regards to investors in development of these cities: I use the particular example of the Pension Fund standing at ¥1.9Trillion with a track record of low yield investments, lack of transparency in regards to management, low or empty regional pension pots and little impetus to change.
If we were to stitch the elderly back into the infrastructure of the mega-cities, not just by building more residential care homes but by investing their pensions in the very infrastructure of the cities that serve them, this may point to a more accountable and directly applicable financial deployment model of the pension funds that currently enjoy some arcane management at best.
If we were able to combine the financial interests and burdens of the polar ends of society by stitching them into the structure and flow of these new eco mega-cities perhaps it also reapplies a 21st Century version of Confucian harmony.
This is not just some retrograde cod philosophical posturing: a sop to the old wisdoms. We know for a fact from some of the most mature Liberal Democratic Capitalist countries that no good comes of isolating your elderly into the margins.
The soft wisdoms and life learning that comes with them equally disappears with them. The disappearance of these balancing perspectives and small wisdoms break down family cohesion, dumbing down the Emotional Intellect of the family and communities they exist within in by removing the direct effect of their life skills and experience: a removal of balance from the natural social order of things.
Deploying the power of old people back into society as some form of spiritual triage would also remove the tendency for young people to increasingly spend too much time reinventing the wheel in regards to life skills – taking time to discover some life experience that they might have otherwise picked up through sheer social osmosis ultimately takes the young person’s mind away from greater and newer discoveries perhaps.
And finally, old people sitting and watching the world go by being placed in close proximity to the crèches of their grandchildren not only brings the pleasure of young people to bear around them by reinstates the communities kind eyes and watchful carer class
Stitching Well-Being Into Everyday
City living isolates most people ‘away from’ the kinds of small incidental processes of health and well-being that would otherwise do them and their productivity enormous good.
‘Small and often’ in regards to visiting and exploring best-health and well-being practice ultimately pays the individual and the society they live in great dividends – they feel secure and supported, part of a substantial social contract of care, and equally in turn feel less distracted by abstract concerns and better focused on the matters in hand – extant beings working and being in a productive thriving life and society.
So, as an extension of the One Life One Person strategy it would make sense to begin building medical and well-being galleries populated by ‘walk in clinics into this open-cast approach to living working leisure spaces – equally it promotes and builds into the every day psyche a convenience strategy of well-being – critical in a city where people become isolated in their workday from the smallest medical or well being services or considerations.
The Devil’s in the Retail detail.
That every new eco mega city will have a burgeoning and vibrant retail economy goes without saying. It will be a cornerstone of the ebb and flow of life, existence and people’s broad concept of their prosperity.
The fact and detail of how the retail experience: and the brands and the businesses that design and deliver them stitch themselves into the urban society both physically and spiritually will be where the innovation and the harmonious concept development should come.
Most of the traditional retailers and manufacturers are constructed for an American style of manufacture, distribution, format and consumption. In the modern China this model has become simply untenable.
Not only are the American models require a staggering use of fossil, material and human resource to maintain themselves, they are also based upon on a Sub-urban mart and mall model that will not necessarily fit the design sensibility and spatial economy of the new mega cities – they also create cluster and volume formats in which the consumer is guided through a vast arena of offers and multiple purchase deals suited more to the vast double fridge households of the Midwest than the spiritually and physically ergonomic concept of Chinese living.
How retailers adapt to what the Chinese model of consumption will become, as opposed to just pointing at the version of it that currently exists – a cod-American gated villa ranch and lodge style of living that still holds up the SUV double fridge ‘I am therefore I consume’ model as a demonstration of personal meaning – this will be the defining factor in which brands and businesses win.
How the scale retail players deconstruct themselves into these mega-cities – delivering surprise and a more human sized and manageable set of offerings – offers an interesting challenge. Can they still create aircraft hangar sized triple floor temples to their wares and life style signature? Or will they need to sub divide their offerings into boutiques of need, day part and purchase scale scattered throughout the urban landscape? Or will they need to deploy a little of both?
Potentially, bringing in some of these retail and manufacturer partner players at a planning stage while they are still subservient to the greater good, and tasked with stitching themselves sustainably into the future habitat as opposed to helicoptering in and simply ‘planting monoliths to their brand dream where they fancy may be the smartest beginning to that journey
Back to The Future
There has been much talk of a return to the cultural roots of the Chinese – a return to the culture and environment that have shaped this phenomenal culture over the millennia. In returning to this space, and in reconnecting with their roots, there is in essence a trigger for the 21st Century ascendency of new Confucian or Taoist ideals at work across and throughout society.
Pure urbanity is imbalanced in its perspectives and its energies. It must have the organic rural expanse of ‘Other’ to be truly balanced and powerful.
Though some might see this as a cynical cultural play to make every one more personally responsible for their lives and to take them away from the state-orchestrated feel good dependency of old, there is a lot to be said for how we might build this into the vision of the new Chinese eco-mega-city.
If one applies the filter of ‘Perceptions of Prosperity’ over the question of how we reconcile cultural tourism and the rise of the eco megacity, we should simply look at how the most mature western liberal democracies view ‘having it all’.
It would reveal that one of the final steps to the peak of prosperous living and being is the one that takes you into ‘a rural retreat’ – having a place in the country – a cottage, house, farm or barn.
It is seen as the ultimate pressure valve for the modern sophisticated urban player – an escape to something purer and simpler; connected back to the land and the hands that formed it.
For many it is vicarious – many do not actually engage in the ‘hands-on crafts and tending of their property and the land that surrounds it’ even though it has been proven that undertaking these pursuits leads to a greater sense of fulfillment and superior mental health. They’re simply buying ‘the idea’ of it.
But to actually rebuild the bridge back to the rural culture of China could be of enormous social value in regards to a rediscovered and sustained sense of self – though some large negative perceptions and behaviours might need to be accounted for and changed first of all.
To some experts this idea of a return to ‘doing things with one’s hands ‘ – artisan and manual labour; craft works and hobbying’ sits at the peak of the Struggling, Surviving, Thriving, Being pyramid – as a supreme demonstration of ‘Being’, as opposed to near the bottom just above ‘Surviving’.
Given the recent emergent journey up and away from poorer rural roots of many of the new emerging Chinese middle classes, this would probably seem nonsensical or counter-intuitive – just going backwards.
But as has been born out in the western liberal democracies with quite sophisticated social models and concepts of prosperity and success, if one replaces the material striving and existence framework with one predicated on a ‘pursuit of sustainable well- being, balance and harmony’, a new world is revealed. It becomes part of the rupture repair strategy.
In many mature societies, especially those that have moved the furthest away from their original rural agricultural roots post the industrial revolution, it has been proven that hobbies, jobs and professions where ones manual actions are directly linked to having an effect in the physical world – an structural creation or improvement, a communal good, the creation of or maintenance of a personal chattel or machine, an improvement to the immediate landscape or environment – offer exceptional health giving properties and are a source of improved mental well-being and ultimately have a positive effect on people’s perceived sense of personal happiness.
In fact even in the more structured undertaking of civic politics and citizenship, the ability to act on something, directly attributing cause and effect to the person undertaking the action has been proven as a direct producer of ‘happiness’ – as born out in the Swiss cantons that rated highest in one of the global Happiness surveys – their ‘happiness’ rating seemingly attributed to each civic individual’s ability to vote in such a way as to have direct and tangible effect on the quality and progress of their own life and that of the community around them.
So, though I am NOT suggesting that every one need return to their roots and start taking up pot turning and weaving, I do feel that building a supporting environment or infrastructure into the city plan that allows people to ‘reconnect’ with the primal humanities contained in this ‘belonging’ in nature and environment is a good thing – and to that end a halo of eco lodges around as city as an inextricable part of the enjoyment of that city would make supreme sense.
If this outlying landscape was populated by eco-lodges that created an urban escape – one of many different shades – developed as an integral part of a sustainable more balanced living strategy – an inextricable aspect of the urban ebb and flow, maintained by the city as a part of the infrastructure, that would truly be cohesive planning at work. To create a ring fence of rural Eco lodges that any and every inhabitant of those cities could go and use, to escape and reconnect with the old rural cultures just for even a short while would be an amazing embrace of what we know know to be a silent truth about pursuit of happiness – and it would be far closer to the burgeoning 21sts Century Confucian ideal of Social harmony that the central party espouses.
One could also build into the city infrastructure a collection of what could best be referred to as ‘Barn Raisings’ (as a reference to the scene in the movie ‘Witness’ where the Amish community are shown ‘coming together’ to build a barn for a farmer as an exercise of community, brotherhood and social benevolence) – opportunities for communities to come together to put together, arrange, enjoy, expand, build or create something of direct value and enjoyment or utility to them – they could be used as social cohesion projects – one in every neighbourhood – large, communal ways of introducing and stitching together people who may have been drawn together from distant and disparate places
Big Ideas & Small Wonders
One particular thing that we have witnessed as a fall out from the recessions that have struck the western democracies recently is the transient and fluid nature of commercial real estate on the high street as well as in industrial areas.
I focus on the high streets though as they have the most social and communal traction and impact on the broader sense of well-being and as to whether a community is thriving or not.
Many high streets now have many shops that have been without a fixed proprietor for some years – the shops changing hands or being passed on either as a matter of short lettings or as what have become know here as pop up shops.
Over the last 6-8 years these have gone from being very vogue and ‘fashionable’ – a bit edgy and anarchic – to being quite regular spaces of energy and fresh drama on otherwise quite stagnant high streets.
So what if we chose to fix these dynamic moving feasts of retail joy into the new infrastructure of the new eco megacity?
What if we set aside a street of small shops and spaces, ready to trade, with fluid transactional soft and hardware built into each that each resident trader can be registered to use for the period of time that they are there.
What is we created a space populated by a wondrous fluid shifting sand of different small scale boutique cottage industries – of designers, tradespeople, artisans, local hobbyists, in fact anyone with a small volume of materials or products or wares that they wish to exhibit and sell. All you would have to do is register and take your slot. The simple fundamental idea of creating small islands and markets of maker crafts culture and innovations scattered through out the city that are open to any citizen who wishes to try their arm at being entrepreneurial would be a wonderful human sized way of breaking the homogenized tendencies of large urban living centres and creating a new quiet revolution in innovative thinking – but in such a way that it is the civic society that is enabling its own to act upon their skills talents and whims in a way that is productive and positive for everyone from the neighbourhood to the city as a whole.
The life-changing role of social networks and digital enablement in humanizing cities of an ever-grander scale is critical and absolute. Every eco mega-city must be enabled for people to connect immediately and anywhere. This lies beyond putting up cafes and hot spots and creating the odd social network movement.
This is about the degree to which people can live out their digital lives enabled by the metropolis in which they live – as opposed to relying on the brands and businesses that populate that city to do it for them.
It is also to do with creating the platforms on which they can have their say and act directly on municipal and civic issues, questions and challenges that affect their daily lives.
Social Networks that create, stimulate and elevate a ‘listening’ and ‘acting upon’ culture are critical to engaged and communal environments flourishing and becoming self- sustaining.
That there should be an Open Innovation platform for every city yet to be planned and constructed; an open innovation platform focused on attracting, engaging innovative minds with potential solutions on everything from hi and clean tech and industrial innovation both radical and incremental to social programmes, care initiatives, and community ventures is critical given the scale and the different need states that need to be designed for.
The Open Innovation platform would be not only to harvest the best of local and national thinking and doing but also to create a high profile platform upon which to invite and build relationships with the private sector, where they might tender and where tranches of action and responsibility for the investment and involvement of the private sector in the infrastructure of the new city are presented in an open and transparent manner.
The possibilities that digital sharing living thinking and doing might bring to every aspect of a megacity’s potential both social and structural are only just beginning to be explored and embraced. Watch this space.
Take A Different Path. & Look Up
One last thought in this top note is about things I have noticed over many years, while spending a lot of time in various cities.
One of the ways in which to create social cohesion and engagement is to compel people to perhaps step out of the rigid conformity of their routine – how they journey through the city in which they live and work.
People fix themselves into commutes that are particular and for the most part forensic demonstrations of getting from A to B.
Most urban inhabitants have developed a hypersensitive modus that they apply to every journey..
This tends to lead eventually to a heads-down approach to city living much in the vein of the old New Yorker adage of Look Down Keep Moving.
Although this extreme developed from the time where the streets of New York were a lot less friendly than their post zero-tolerance selves and avoiding people’s gaze just in case was always a good thing, there is a universal truth in that people existing under the auspices of urban pressure cooker living do tend eventually to just put their heads down and get on.
But this creates a downward spiritual pressure on the individual – as they move into ever greater and more reductive processes and spaces of being and action. It creates an urban claustrophobia that is hard to shake and ultimately joyless.
I would contend that one of the greatest challenges to the social health of any eco megacity will be the city’s ability to mitigate or almost eradicate this urban trait – by using their rare opportunity to create as many ways as possible to stop it developing in the first place.
One suggestion if that we develop a travel and transport infrastructure that allows people to ‘take a different path’ to the same destination – getting some different perspectives and taking in different surroundings on the way.
Developing an arterial system that combines pedestrian, bus, tram, monorail, cycle, scooter and car ways in such a way as to allow commuters even at their most time critical to take a different route would create breathing space in the urban ebb and flow – a far greater sense of balance and an opening out of personal perspectives.
I also believe that in creating the opportunity to gently raise people or enabling people to raise themselves out of a sometimes crushing routine helps them to connect and engage with people they might not otherwise have meet or with experiences they might not otherwise ever enjoy – and that is about the earlier point of making transparency and openness an integral ‘living’ part of the city.
If one wants to see this demonstrated first hand get street level in a city where the normal infrastructure of travel is ruptured, stunted, closed, redirected or unsettled by either weather, a national or local event or industrial action.
Initially it is just a city full of exasperated individuals everywhere – anxiety and annoyance are rife. This is simply the immediate emotional reaction to enforced change, the frustration of having no choice in the matter of having to change your routine.
But once the rupture has set in, after a few days, the choice issue dissipates, and you start to see an underlying ‘lift’ in people, small moments or camaraderie, and people beginning to enjoy different aspects and attributes of a city they otherwise would never see.
Imagine if we could build that choice – and the citizens ability to do that – into the everyday travel infrastructure of a city – the ability to ‘take a different path’ and ‘look up’. That would be truly amazing.
And perhaps in all of these things we could see an eco megacity built upon ore than exceptional carbon modeling, energy use, waste management, sustainable building materials, utility lifecycle planning and infrastructure efficiencies.
We would have a very singular and particular one built to house the new vision of Chinese prosperity – inclusive, interwoven, built around an exceptional ebb and flow of human energy, new dreams built upon old wisdoms, upon urban and rural integration, generations reconnected for everything China is yet to be and yet to do.
NOTE: China Dream is an initiative designed to reshape a more enduring and resilient concept of prosperity. Developed by Peggy Liu founder of JUCCCE, an NGO, the China Dream is committed to changing the path of Chinese consumption and living for good.
Photo: Little People Project by Slinkachu