High time to rethink 'cultural flagships' and put people back into urban planning

Klaus R. Kunzmann
To promote modern Chinese not Western cultural development in cities, city planners have to embed broader local cultural strategies into their approach.
Klaus R. Kunzmann

Klaus R. Kunzmann

EDITOR’S note:

This article is adapted from the author’s original version — “A Personal (European) Glance on Urban Development Policies in China” — published in the journal of Urban Planning International ( 6th issue, 2017). The author discusses a number of challenges Chinese urban planners face and the possibility for a better future. The article has been condensed due to space limitations.

CENTURIES ago, buildings were not designed by architects: they were built by carpenters and masons who passed their knowledge of local building materials and their professional skills down through the generations. These builders were aware of the importance of the local climate: They knew the lifestyles of users and the requirements of businesses.

All over rural China, buildings in small towns and villages reflect this craftsmanship and skill. These skills are still here, although they are not called on when developing modern high-rise buildings in mega-cities. Except for a few smaller urban areas that benefit from a local scenic, historical or cultural identity, many Chinese cities look alike. They are locations of more or less attractive high-rise buildings with broad transport corridors in between.

Equally, the passion of some Chinese mayors for flagship architecture built by renowned international names is not an appropriate way to bring a new identity to cities. Such projects may be good for a marketing brochure, but they can also be found in any global city. Suburbanized landscapes of larger European cities, such as Paris, Berlin or Milan, are equally not charming or spectacular.

Identity-building needs time, not 10 or 20 years. And identity needs people. Otherwise it is just a decorative cover, a wrapped puppet, a fancy dress over a soulless mannequin. City-building happens over generations and with people.

Power of cars

The car is given a key role in developing jobs and prosperity. Consequently, although maybe unintentionally, the automobile is guiding and dominating urban development in many parts of China. The dream of each Chinese household to own and drive a car is nurturing the development of the automobile industry. Enormous road networks are planned, ring roads built, streets widened, walkways and bicycle lanes narrowed, parking structures erected and villages demolished to accommodate crossings and flyovers.

However, there is hope. The incredible success of smart bike-sharing in some cities will hopefully cause creative architects and planners, and even developers, to rethink their outdated planning approaches and design new urban villages within large cities, where bicycles and pedestrians dominate again over cars as was the case in China 50 years ago when workplaces and housing were mixed.


Many parts of China are witnessing a renewed interest in rural villages as an ideal life space. 

Western or Chinese?

China is well known for its architecture, its scenic villages, calligraphy, sculptures and other treasures of fine and performing arts. China has an extremely rich culture. Nonetheless, some local governments often complain about the lack of modern local cultural infrastructure and facilities for citizens. By asking international star architects to build “cultural flagships” some cities hope to receive media attention and visitors. They soon realize, however, that the “flagships” rather reflect Western than Chinese culture.

To promote modern Chinese not Western cultural development in cities, city planners have to embed broader local cultural strategies into their approach. Developing a vibrant cultural life in modern cities requires more than building “cultural flagships.” It requires longer-term local cultural and educational policies that raise the creativity and cultural interests of younger generations beyond the digital consumption of images and music.

In many large Chinese cities, old industrial precincts have been refurbished into cultural centers or creative parks. Some have been turned into popular consumption and entertainment spaces, others into high tech parks for creative start-ups. A few have evolved as cradles of creative milieus in city quarters, spreading their creativity into adjacent neighborhoods.

Creative milieus are not tourist and entertainment spaces. They are urban environments where creative people develop cultural, social and economic innovations. They are laboratories of creative action and they add new dimensions to cities. It is economically not productive to reduce the function of creative quarters to the consumption values of local visitors and regional tourists.

Better future

All the above observations do not reflect the many positive achievements that I have seen emerging in China over the years. I like to mention a few of them:

The design quality of architecture in China is amazing. Not the architecture that is imported from big names in the West, but the architecture that Chinese create all over the country. I am convinced that in the not-too-distant future, Chinese architects will be asked to realize projects in Europe.

The fact that Chinese universities and publishers are publishing journals on planning in English (China City Planning Review) or in two languages (Urban Design) is an impressive achievement, although regrettably only a few Western planners are aware of such a rich source of information on Chinese planning challenges and achievements.

Fuelled by bike-sharing initiatives, the recent renaissance of using bicycles in Chinese cities is impressive. Sooner or later it will lead to a revision of mainstream urban planning approaches, where slow mobility and the provision of public space will get more citizen support, as well as the creation of new urban villages, where citizens can enjoy a new quality of urban life. In recent years a growing number of planners have shown an interest in rural villages and small towns as the traditional life spaces of Chinese people. This interest will contribute to reconsidering accelerated urban development. The interest in the European slow city movement has already encouraged a few counties to initiate similar projects.

More and more Chinese planners are travelling to other countries to learn from achievements and failures. Many planning schools in China cooperate with planning schools in Europe, invite staff from Europe and ask them to share their skills and outlook with young Chinese students. I am still exploring what European planners can learn from China to overcome the one-way knowledge transfer. This could well be the aim of an unusual master degree program at a Chinese university.

The author is Jean Monnet Professor of Spatial Planning in Europe, Technische Universität Dortmund, and Honorary Professor, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.

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