Fundacion Metropoli’s Book Launch in Beijing

By Alex Camprubi

Last June 3 Fundacion Metropoli launched at the Instituto Cervantes of Beijing the Chinese edition of the “Territorios Inteligentes” book.

The heritage of Territorios Inteligentes in this Chinese edition comes in the middle of an urban revolution that has not yet ended. This remarkable selection of theories, visions and built projects within our urban realm, that Alfonso Vegara and Juan Luis de las Rivas describe in this book, withhold amazing similarities with the challenges that Chinese cities and regions are facing today.

The book is a journey through 150 years of the key moments that have given shape to our contemporary surrounding, looking out the window in many cities of china, we can perceive the visionary statement of the “Ville Contemporaine” that Le Corbusier exhibited in 1922, or the “Density Diagram” that Walter Gropius, delivered in 1929 in a CIAM congress, that would have such a strong influence on actual Chinese planning regulations. By assembling this intelligence, it is delivered a contemporary retrospective that allows us to hold a reality check of our cities and enlightens possibilities of the future public realm, reminding us that the present city is the result of past thoughts and the future will be shaped by the actions of today’s society within the sophistication of a multicultural and dynamic urban world, that is in turn, supported by an increasing availability of knowledge.

China is indeed a great country. It’s overwhelming the number of publications that have described the rise of China in the past 30 years from every perspective, however, few have highlighted the international influence in the urban development. With the opening of China in 1978 and after 67 years of difficult times of an agrarian based economy, a race for development had started. To understand the present urban society in China, it is required to refer to Deng Xiao Ping, a leader of three of the four main economic reforms that would change the course of China and its global role[i]: The first one in 1978 where the household responsibility system, the foreign investment and the special economic zones were implemented; the second one in 1984 enabling a wider influence of foreign investment, an increased private sector growth and decentralization of the government; and the third one in 1997, that privatized half of the state-owned enterprises, reduced barriers, tariffs and regulations while negotiating the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control and the acceptance.

These economic shifts on the system set a base for an extraordinary urbanization process that sponsored a staggering industrial growth focused on larger settlements that facilitated urban expansion. An economic metamorphosis lead by a communist political system who opened to a market economy with clear thoughts, decided planning, and strong ability of implementation that is now identified as a new mixed economic model. In this context, there has been significant and radical demographic changes rooted on migration from rural areas to the cities and, as we mentioned, a radical process of industrialization and urbanization realized in a period of time that might not be seen again in the future.[ii] Shenzhen, for example, has had a protagonist role in the transition from a rural society to an urban society, a city that has grown from a village of fisherman of 30 thousand people in 1979 to a city of 11 million inhabitants in 2016. The flow of migration in China from 1978 to 2013 has been the biggest human migration in history, allocating an additional 558.6 million people in urban areas; 14 of which have more than 4 million inhabitants, 33 in between 2 and 4 million and 86 above 1 million. China has developed 23 cities above 1 million inhabitants in the past 10 years and is expected that between 2015 and 2030 Chinese cities will increase its urban population in 350 million inhabitants.

The great ideals set for Chinese development have followed the inspiration of Daniel Burnham, who in 1907 delivered these opening words for the Plan of Chicago: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty”.

Compared with the thousands of projects that have been already developed in China with those high expectations, China has experienced in several projects an urban utopia that has ended in built environments that failed to achieve the original expectations. This resemblance of the urban utopia, eloquently described further in these pages, has been a hard learning experience and is now a challenge to solve for this and the next generation. This is the case of Caofeidian, developed by SWECO and Tsinghua University; Yujiapu Financial District developed by SOM; “Ordos 100 Project” in Inner Mongolia curated by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, who in this project coordinated a group of 100 international architects of 27 countries[iii] or Dongtan, in Chongming Island near Shanghai, developed by the British engineering firm ARUP. Another case in Shanghai is described by the authors: “Shanghai enjoys a special administration status as a municipality established in 1927 (6,340 Km2, 24 million inhabitants in 2015, and a 60% of its territory urbanized), and has been through a series of efforts that have been continuously contradictory by promoting urban growth and implementing control of the urban development. Shanghai is a flatland that is immersed inside the complexity of the Yangtze Delta, with 19 districts, 250 towns and a constellation of 50 thousand settlements, some with just a few families grouped around an unidentified structure. The characteristic of these settlements is of spontaneous growth and the lack of identity. The local urban policy contemplates to reduce dispersion and avoid sprawl. Shanghai has had a relevant amount of public investment, including the new airport of PuDong, bridges, railways, transportation and road infrastructure, not to mention the Shanghai Expo in 2010 whose slogan was to improve the quality of life in cities. Under these processes of dynamic transformation, sudden ideas of new cities rise to settle a clear structure of the urban growth in Shanghai.”

“In 2001 Shanghai promoted the program: One city, nine towns; a program designed to harmonize a new system of cities that would organize the metropolitan system. Nine towns would then be spatially structured surrounding a “shell like” form seen from above, where the central area takes a special role to ease the governance and improve efficiency of urban services. The original idea was to empowering 9 new towns to emerge by 2015 that would encourage foreign investment and an upscale quality of life. However, as a result, there was of the lack of feasibility to transform the existing urban nodes and the project turned unsuccessful. The urban policy of promoting a dense urban development with better environmental conditions and a higher efficiency of land use is originally a philosophy of the English New Towns, however, there was an unstable relationship between institutions and a lack of ability to put the project forward.”

Isolation and decision-making without holistic planning has proven to be unwise. These few examples, although different in nature, all fell short in the analysis and study of the developments in a holistic way. Successful SmartPlaces are certainly places that can be only conceived not only by a multidisciplinary team of engineers, designers and economists, but also by an integrated array of governmental agreements, private investment and engaged communities.

On the front side, there are also successful experiences of cities in China, One of them that the authors write about: “Suzhou, in Jiangsu is a remarkable case that won the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2014, one of the most distinguished awards in the world related to the development of cities. This award was given to Suzhou because it archived overwhelming results in economic development and attracted enterprises to settle from all around the world. Former Gusu (ancient name of Suzhou) had great care to preserve its heritage, which may be seen in the restoration of their water city channels and the downtown area; The government care was extended along with a strong environmental system and a transcendental social integration that invited families to come from different provinces of China, allowing them to establish and root with ease into the local dynamic of the city. The City also developed advanced mobility systems that include a subway and railway infrastructure linked to Nanjing, Beijing, Shanghai and other relevant cities in the eastern and central regions. This Lake Tai city built as well an outstanding landscape system that created a thriving public realm that mixes with the 2500 years of history and overlaps the renovation of Pingjiang Historic District. Suzhou is considered paradise on earth with a dynamic urban life driving economic prosperity. We might think of Suzhou and Hangzhou as two cities in China that feature a balanced urban development committed to highlight cultural, environmental and social values”

“The topic of new cities keeps a fascination of diverse nature as William Whyte would mention from his idea regarding an allergy to suburbanization and his keen critique to the loss of identity in the contemporary city: “If we could peel off the antiurban utopia from the new cities movement, it would be necessary to decentralize, many of the objectives and criteria of the new cities are excellent; residential typology: combination of industry, commerce and residence; inclusive facilities, leisure places and open spaces…. It would make sense to say that new cities should be within the city or very near to them[iv]And in fact, this is what has happened in the expansion era of China.

“The most important periods of development of new cities are linked to key periods of civilization expansion. In the creation of a city emerges always a symbiosis between culture and urbanism.”

“At the end of the 20th Century, especially in Europe, the rise of new cities is an alternate response to the suburban growth that is typical of large metropolitan areas. These relevant changes, have always required a regional perspective, collective hope, leadership, commitment to develop adequate infrastructure, and creativity to achieve an urban environment seductive for work that will as well provide a relevant quality of life within the polis.” Reflecting on William Whyte’s ideas and in the experience of the European cities, the experience of Suzhou in the past 30 years has resulted in the rise of a new city in the heart of a metropolitan space that keeps evolving, and that has followed the same principles concluded for the European cities. The challenges that cities face on their urban development and public realm are similar; our global cities have adopted similar technologies on transportation, communication, education, urban infrastructure, economic systems, etc.; despite the difference of regional culture and social behavior, components of the space keep a global pattern and therefore there is a learning opportunity from existing patterns that will provide a competitive advantage on developing new patterns for cities or regions.

Obviously, during this period of urban expansion in China there has been an overwhelming infrastructure development followed by an ambitious plan of the central government that has driven economic growth: a massive investment in transportation infrastructure in the past years, that has provided 216 airports; an expansion of 20 thousand kilometers of high speed railway system for a total of 121,000 km. of Chinese railway system; the same has happened with maritime infrastructure, road infrastructure, spatial infrastructure (satellites), etc.

However, the actual government in its National New-Type Urbanization Plan ( 国家新型城镇化规划2014-2020 ) is recognizing that the infrastructure built in the country has overlooked the reality of potential developments and therefore there is a need to rethink the urban strategy by analyzing how to take better advantage of the infrastructure already built, developing plans to increase efficiency of land use, land value, natural resources and energy use. As well as creating economic opportunities for future investments that would consider environmental mitigation and protection of natural resources to ensure a sustainable development.

In 2014, Premier Li KeQiang, announced the “New Normal” planning that is the adopted nickname of the 13th Five Year Plan. A term taken from a speech of El-Erian who in 2010 was referring to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, El-Erian pointed out that the financial development before the crisis was everything but normal[v], and therefore taken by Xi Jing Ping as a political term to reorganize development and reducing the economic growth of China from double digit GDP numbers, to a planned 7.0% of GDP growth per year, which is still a feat that is being achieved by the Chinese administration now days. This 13th Five Year Plan as a social and economic development initiative is the prelude of the 5th economic reform which is starting to drive the urban economy of China into the future. In words of Green and Stern, the “New Normal” places “… a strong emphasis on: shifting the balance of growth away from heavy-industrial investment and toward domestic consumption, particularly of services; innovation, as a means of raising productivity and climbing up the global value chain; reducing inequalities, especially urban–rural and regional inequalities; and environmental sustainability, emphasizing reductions in air pollution and other forms of local environmental damage, as well as in GHG emissions.”[vi].

The National New-Type Urbanization plan that following the New Normal policy seems to have set an expectation of rebirth of Chinese cities and rural villages, a topic that Europe and America have experienced with a strong debate on the integration strategies and character of new interventions, especially in places with centuries of cultural heritage. A few examples of this debate of urban renovation are Graz in Austria, Paris in France, Philadelphia in USA and Bilbao in Spain. All of them pursue different goals and with a decisive engagement on innovative approaches that resulted in thriving urban spaces which are identified by their Iconic architecture, such as the Knusthaus Graz Art Museum of Peter Cook in Austria, the Louvre Museum Entrance of I. M. Pei, The Kimmel Center of Rafael Vignoly, or the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum by Frank Ghery. There is a common misunderstanding that the buildings are the engine of the transformation of these places, hence, while the buildings are important in nature and perform a relevant role, are actually one of the elements of the overall renovation. As a result of a serious urban research and careful holistic planning, these places have had their rebirth based on rethinking their urban infrastructure, identifying their clusters of excellence and allocating a planned economy, that in turn, have set the canvas for the rise of hundreds of successful new projects to happen within an environmental integration.

Iconic buildings become the elements of “imageability” as Kevin Lynch would have stated in his book “The Image of the City” back in 1960. Icons are also an element of city branding, useful as well in an increasingly economic competitive scene. Nevertheless, seducing investment and attracting talented professionals to the city is not the result of these urban icons; is rather the result of delivering a functional, pleasant and glamorous public realm for population to concentrate their activity, production and consumption. It is difficult to deliver this kind of planning on a fast-paced economy like the Chinese experienced in an era with double digit GDP growth; hopefully, the “New-Normal” policy will also apply to an extensive and more comprehensive way to design cities, landscapes and buildings, where it is required a broader foundation of information for decision making that will take care of details: it is in the details of urban spaces, urban structure, landscapes, infrastructure, mobility, etc., that cities become attractive; it is in the detail of the configuration of the public realm that social value rises; or the detail of the buildings where forms turn into magnetic emotions. Mies Van de Rohe’s quote of “God is in the details” reveals the absolute nature of his buildings, which generate an arousal of feelings that then become the essence of the space and a magnet that delivers the opportunity of new urban events to happen.

In China many of the iconic buildings remain isolated because they have not been understood as the result of an integrated development strategy, therefore failing to achieve its social purpose. President Xi Jing Ping declared in 2014 that weird buildings (不要搞奇奇怪怪的建筑 ) will be accepted no more. A call rooted much deeper than the formal criticism of the buildings, rather, president Xi exhorts designers and urban planners for a more conscious, responsible and sustainable urban development.

Sustainability is a central issue in Xi Jing Ping’s policies, Territorios Inteligentes reaches the origin of the sustainable paradigm and further frames the evolution of the urgent need of environmental conscience that China requires through the understanding of the most successful proposals of sustainable places in the international scene. In “The Sustainable City”,it is described the role of the United Nations and how they are encouraging governments to adopt their local sustainable Agendas; the Growth Management and Smart Growth proposals promoted by United States; the Symbiotic philosophy of Kisho Kurokawa; the guidelines of the European Urban Council: “Try it this Way”; the new 2003 Athens charter; and the experience of the ecological capital of Curitiba in Brazil.

After the UN Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the Chinese government prepared their own China Agenda 21. This effort was led by the State Science Commission and the State Planning Commission being approved in 1994 by the State Council. In 1996 the State Council held the fourth National Conference of Environmental Protection and by 1998 China had established six environmental laws, eight resources management laws, more than thirty administrative regulations, and three hundred and sixty environmental standards, and the list continues: on the legislation scene until 2015, In which China has enacted a total of 42 Environmental related laws… “In September 2015, H.E. Xi Jinping, President of China, attended the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit and joined other leaders in endorsing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, providing guidance to national development of member states and international development cooperation in the next 15 years”.[vii] China has spared no effort on promoting sustainable development. Voluntarily submitted a national review for the implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development; however, the challenge persists. The acknowledgment of the ecological impact of cities reaches farther length than its “hinterland” or area of support, and encounters a sophistication that exceeds the biological concept of “carriage capacity”. China is not only concerned about climate change, or meeting the expectations of the international community to negotiate market opportunities; China is seriously concerned on its own future of availability of energy, water and environmental resources to satisfy its needs of development.

One example of the result of new policies being applied in China is the “Sponge city” (海绵城市), which has been taken from the influence of Yu Kongjian who has insisted through his projects that sustainable landscapes are a source of resilient strategies for cities, and a component of a healthy urban development. Yu Kongjian as an active person in the national and international scene, has constantly promoted through his books and lectures to adapt our cities to the understanding of natural processes and not to “fight” against nature, but learn from the baggage of wisdom of Chinese millenary culture. Yu is a follower of the knowledge inherited by Olmstead, Ian McHarg and Stephen Irving. Three relevant figures of the Landscape Urbanism who in different periods of time have contributed to the evolution and understanding of a new urban domain that we now are able to enjoy.

The Chinese urban domain in its rural communities, are subject now of the new planning policies, which are being transformed again with a different perspective. In 2014 The National New-Type Urbanization plan considered strengthening the development of local and rural economy, therefore, reducing migration to cities with a strategic demography plan. Simultaneously, the 13th Five Year Plan released in October 2015, considers a shift of GDP from secondary industries to tertiary industries, including an important support for tourism. Finally, the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, National development and Reform Commission, and Ministry of Finance In 2016 China, released a key policy of urban-rural development named: “Feature Towns” or 特色小镇, which aims to incentive rural growth with public and private investment to highlight cultural, natural and industrial heritage, therefore promoting the rise of 1000 of these new “Feature Towns” by 2020[viii]. The aim of this project is to give the rural communities more opportunities for development, and as mentioned before, comply with the National New-Type Urbanization Plan to reduce migration to the already dense urban areas.

This specific policy is motivating thousands of projects to be developed along and across the nation, not only competing for the resources that the government is allocating to the selected “Feature Towns”, but also creating the need for designing new projects complementary to the “Feature Towns” and therefore allowing more opportunities to generate dynamic urban-rural clusters. Moreover, the government has openly announced support for Private-Public Partnership investments, which are booming the industry as this is being published. Billions of USD are being delivered to local governments to develop “Feature Town” projects that are looking forward to spark economic growth. Such an important policy, is being implemented despite the important challenges that the nature of transforming these counties face. This policy has awakened the interest of governments, investors and design companies, that are required to understand in a flash, the local urban economy and reach decision-making processes with enough information to support the proposals that will contemplate adequate financial engineering, conscious environmental engineering, accurate market research, comprehensive social understanding and design sensibility.

Territorios Inteligentes offers a glance to the foundation of potential solutions for future proposals like the policy of “Feature Towns”, taken not only from recent urban history, but also from the research experience of Fundación Metrópoli within the project “Cities” (being carried out in 20 cities around the world since 1998 in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania), which enriches a vision of future with a fresh look, strong research and almost 20 years of data, captured in site from our different global urban environments. “Feature Towns” could be seen as SmartPlaces, places that are distinguished with Components of Excellence, places that are designed by the communities; places with environmental conscience; places that are competitive; places aware of the opportunities needed to be delivered to increase cohesion and social development; places that are able to make inter-government agreements for development; places integrated to their surroundings; places that spark innovation and places connected to an urban network.

The examples found in Territorios Inteligentes will allow the reader to have reference of different regions, cities and places that have been influenced or designed by a selected list of remarkable minds who have shared with us their design practice, thoughts and theories, some of whose visionary ideas still prevail in our contemporary world after more than a century. Reading through the filter of the Chinese experience of recent urban development, it is frequent to stop for a moment and rethink of the similarities that may be found, ideas that potentially become key elements for success of future projects in China. It’s outstanding that Territorios Inteligentes has been able to gather a compendium of knowledge in the understanding of the relevant matters of our urban world in the past 150 years. It is difficult for me to distinguish in this introduction to the Chinese edition my words from those of the authors, their thoughts have already influenced my vision and understanding of SmartPlaces. The knowledge put together in this book with the proficiency of the authors Alfonso Vegara and Juan Luis de las Rivas, uses a simple and clear language to analyze the past, present and future of our modern cities, and explains the value of our landscapes, our urban realm and our cities from a human perspective, as Jaime Lerner well states in the preface to the first edition

[i] Brandt, Loren; et al. (2008), “China’s Great Transformation”, in Brandt, Loren; Rawski, G. Thomas, China’s Great Transformation, Cambridge: Cambridge university press

[ii] Ryser, Judith, Franchini, Teresa, Ross, Peter, & Camprubi, Alex. (2015). International Manual of Planning Practice. The Hague, Netherlands: ISOCARP.

[iii] Bert de Muynck and Monica Carriço, Moving Cities. . Visited 2017.08.03

[iv] Vegara, Alfonso; Rivas, Juan Luis de (2016). La Inteligencia del Territorio, Supercities. Pamplona, Spain. Fundación Metropoli.

[v] El-Erian, Mohamed A. (2010). Navigating the New Normal in Industrial Countries. Washington D.C. USA. Per Jacobsson Foundation Lecture, International Monetary Fund. . Visited August 15, 2017.

[vi] Green, Fergus;Stern, Nicholas. China’s “new normal”: structural change, better growth, and peak emissions. 2015. Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy.

[vii] Extract from UNDP Executive Summary of China’s actions on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, September 25, 2015. New York. U.S.A. (2017.01.05)

[viii] State Council of the People’s Republic of China. (2016). China to Build 1,000 distinctive towns. Visited on June 15th, 2017.