They’ve Seen the Future, and Some of it Works

Reports from the Field by • 11/10

Event: How Do We Design Successful Cities? Challenges and Solutions
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.27.09
Speakers: David Burney, FAIA — Commissioner, NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC); Richard Plunz — Professor of Architecture & Director, Urban Design Program, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, & Director, Urban Design Lab, The Earth Institute
Introductions & Responses: Michael Plottel, AIA — Project Executive, DDC; Anna Torriani, AIA — Partner, Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani
Organizers: AIANY Public Architecture Committee

This discussion of possible urban futures began with Director of the Urban Design Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation Richard Plunz’s recent fact-finding trip to China with Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia’s Earth Institute. Plunz, admitting his own lack of preconceived knowledge about China, described what he found there as “fascinating and terrifying.” To these observations NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) Commissioner David Burney, FAIA, expressed a degree of skepticism about the implications of the evening’s official title — a literal discussion of how to design successful cities, he noted, presumes that anyone actually can — and some points for comparison based largely on the experiences of New York and London. In the West’s premiere cities, the economic base, built environment, and cultural accommodations that add up to forms of successful urbanism have evolved over centuries. Plunz and Burney both suggested that China’s effort to do something similar, but larger and faster, is unpredictable, risky, and impossible to ignore.

Plunz got the impression that “the Chinese are very proud of their problems,” but also that they are serious about confronting them. China’s urbanization strikes him as not only unprecedented in scale and speed — Shenzhen, for example, grew from a town of 35,000 to a city of 9 million in three decades, and the nation now has over 100 cities of a million or more — but somewhat unformed. “In many ways,” he said, “Chinese urbanization is relatively primitive in the sense that the cities are really examples of the first phase of something.” No one within or outside China has a clear idea how to establish a reasonable quality of life for such a population, from basic questions of food production, and distribution (despite a projected 23% drop in arable land by 2049) to the preservation of cultural identity. Identifying five major representative challenges for Chinese urbanism, Plunz terms them urban implosion (the problem of rapid growth), urban equilibrium (the urban-rural disjunction), urban fabric (the problem of preservation), cultural transformation (the problem of consumption), and education for innovation (the problem of advancement).

“Building a consumer economy with 1.3 billion consumers,” Plunz says, puts China in a position no nation has ever been in, even the 20th-century U.S. as it approached its high-consumption phase. China is polluting its cities alarmingly, but it is also producing 80% of the world’s solar panels, hedging its bets in the transportation sector by producing mass transit as well as autos, and taking constructive steps in advanced technologies such as superconductors and biomass-based fuels. The intelligence of China’s leadership impressed him, and their methods of governance struck him as offering certain adaptive advantages despite the obvious objections from a democratic perspective. In any assessments made across the borders of culture, chronology, and scale, Plunz recommends circumspection: “It’s not the same game for them that existed for us over the last 50 years.”

Burney shares Plunz’s sense that continuity between prior experience and the hyper-urbanized future may have its limits, noting that even the successes of figures like Christopher Wren and Baron Haussmann have left us with no bulletproof guidelines for how to produce an ideal city. Still, certain examples do offer grounds for optimism. An almost obsessively planned district like Battery Park City and a virtually unplanned one like London’s Canary Wharf can end up closer in form than one might expect, he noted. There are certain qualities that planning and design can enhance, as the UK’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has broadly sketched in its document World Class Places. Here, multiple city agencies have embedded similar principles into rezoning, steering growth toward transit-rich sites, health programs opening schoolyards as public playgrounds, and greening efforts expanding access to parks and plazas. “There seems to be some sort of consensus growing about how we define successful urban space,” Burney summarized; “I think there’s less consensus as to how we get there.”

Note: Bill Millard sat down with Burney to discuss his ideas further. To listen to the Podcast, click here.

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