400 New Towns: a Fetish for Newness

In anticipation of the book, “The Chinese Dream”, Neville Mars gives us a taste of the inspiration behind the project and the cry for new scope in designing cities

Neville Mars – Dynamic City Foundation

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Shock and awe
In 2001 China’s State Minister of Civil Affairs, Doje Cering, formulated the ambition to build 400 new cities by the year 2020. A grandiose scheme that would accommodate the flood of rural migrants and elevate China to the level of a model industrialized nation.

From the first moment I read this statement in a small article on the Internet, the image of a continent built from scratch took hold of me. The obscene ambition to attempt the design of an area the scale of the European Union in less than two decades simultaneously shocked and mesmerized me. Now the project is finished and we are testing our ideas within the reality of the market, these two incompatible sensations of admiration and concern have only grown stronger. Progress is made at a tantalizing speed, but without an integrated vision or masterplan it often means two steps forward, one step back. Many solutions augment China’s problems. At the heart of this schizophrenic assessment: the new city.

At a time when in the West urban planning has become a painstaking and slow process, the Chinese boom demands us to rethink the city

The 400 festish
This book started with a simple fetish, at the time of the Iraq invasion in 2003. My fetish was for newness. Obviously this is not an unusual fetish; I assume most of the articles published in here are in some way a product of the same fetish. For better or for worse the world is shaped by people with this affliction, and architects seem to be hit particularly hard. A sinister urge to design everything in sight (to create newness) drives the profession. Urban design may be dead; the dream to shape man’s greatest invention from scratch has lingered on and has found new impetus with China’s leap towards modernity.

MUD* (Market- driven Unintentional Development)
In reality, for all but a few of China’s cities, renovation means innovation. Unlike, the Modernist’ dreamscapes like Brasilia, the contemporary Chinese cities are the result of much more lucid forces and are loosely assembled, more than designed.

This could explain why many of them are more successful. They adhere, at least for the time being, to the desires of a specific niche in the market. Manicured residential containers and meticulously themed retail cluster themselves around the highways. The aggregate cityscape expands producing unintentional forms. China proves the city is ambivalent like light itself; neither planned nor organic. The 400 Chinese cities, to be built by 2020, will be the result of such an ambivalent process. Simultaneously emerging from top-down and bottom-up forces. This defines the ‘China Speed’ and shapes the landscape into a hybrid of mega-blocks and finely dispersed semi-urbanized regions.

At a time when in the West urban planning has become a painstaking and slow process, the Chinese boom demands us to rethink the city. However, the absurdity of building four hundred new cities in twenty years is not quite as stark as the aspiration to attempt their design. New typologies and models are needed, but the urbanization process itself remains locked into place by outdated and counter- effective policies. The glitzy Chinese cities look and feel like new but operate on archaic urban systems.

The first megalopolis
Meanwhile entirely unique and unseen conditions are emerging. Hundreds of millions of new urbanites are flooding to the existing cities, but much of this migration is temporary. Policies installed to cool the hyperexpansion of urban centers create sprawling fringe developments with rolling populations. Counter- intuitively, the true impact of these migrants’ urbanizing potential is actually felt at village-level. Remittances of urban capital facilitate the brickification of the rural environment.

The pre-existing distribution of villages across China’s north-eastern bulk – an area the size of Germany – was already at levels of density comparable with American suburbia. As each village starts to expand outwards, an almost contiguous tissue of development forms: an extensive splatter pattern of semi-urbanized inhabitations. A trend that has bulged to create a single enormous megalopolis stretching from Beijing to Shanghai; a continuous suburban city, with a population of 475 million distributed at an average density of a mid-sized American city (1000 people per km2).

Neither planned nor organic: the 400 Chinese cities, to be built by 2020, will be the result of such an ambivalent process

Looking at these numbers in China it becomes clear that to accommodate the projected 450 million rural to urban migrants by the year 2020, in theory no new cities are needed. Growth can be restricted to the existing urban centers. But while idealized projections can claim to solve the urban problem, the reality on the ground necessitates an integrated and practical approach. New cities and satellites are unavoidable in the current political context. We have no choice but to try to conceive a sustainable urban format for the new (satellite) city.

Freshly legitimized, this book aims to inspire the designers to address the new reality of disintegrating developmental patterns. We have made analyses of the Chinese market forces and fashioned prototypes that will produce healthy, attractive, and spatially efficient new tissue around the existing urban centers and mega-cities.

They provide uncompromising and often self-critical alternatives aimed to inspire a new course of urbanization. As such “The Chinese Dream” has become an investigation into architecture’s own long-standing dream: the design of the city.