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    Why ‘Urban Labs’ Hold the Future for Chinese Cities

    Embracing innovation is allowing designers to dream up avant-garde building solutions.

    Periods of rapid economic growth and urbanization frequently go hand in hand with innovation. Contemporary Chinese cities fulfill all the conditions for experimenting with new architectural styles and building technologies: economic prosperity, a vast and relatively cheap labor force, a growing educated middle class, and a financially strong government that legally owns all the land. If one of the buzzwords of contemporary city planners is “urban lab” — a term that casts cities as sites of innovation — then China’s vast conurbations are their guinea pigs.

    Of course, China’s new cities have also been subjected to their fair share of criticism, much of which has taken aim at the supposedly generic-looking concrete towers emerging from the country’s dust-filled construction sites. Skyscrapers are thrown together willy-nilly without spending time on or paying attention to real innovation, we are told. Yet to me, nothing could be further from the truth. Given China’s massive ongoing construction projects, experimentation is practically unavoidable.

    From new transportation systems — such as high-speed trains and bike sharing — to optimizing land use by building high-density, mixed-use complexes over metro stations, China is home to a surprising amount of avant-garde urban planning. In fact, one of the main reasons behind the country’s reputation for having “a thousand cities with a single face” is that observers — myself included — understandably judge experimental ideas on the eventual success of their execution. Yet the nature of experimentation requires us to try something new, evaluate the results, and repeat the experiment if necessary. Focusing only on the result goes against the spirit of experimentation, which should instead be celebrated. 

    China is home to its fair share of failed architectural experiments, but it has also played host to many successful ones, especially its well-regarded urban mass transit systems. Indeed, recent projects in the fields of architecture and urban planning have largely been in line with China’s 20th-century tradition of social and economic experimentation. A key question that remains unanswered, however, is whether new ideas are conceived as a means to test new possibilities, or whether they are merely the products of on-the-spot improvisation and time constraints.

    A further issue arises when we consider China’s patchy record on stimulating sustainable architecture. China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development aspires to use architecture and the construction of urban areas as tools to stimulate the economy and raise the standard of living, but this goal is a double-edged sword. Old houses across the country have been flattened and replaced by modern high-rises, eradicating the individual character of many cities. While millions of people’s quality of life has improved, it frequently comes at an environmental cost.

    Cities are primarily spaces for living. Approaching them as “labs” can lead to real innovation, but also to less desirable consequences. Numerous sustainable-living projects are a testament to the abuse of new experiments, such as northern Hebei province’s Caofeidian Eco-City — in which residents were sold a vision of a sustainable and healthy urban lifestyle but soon found such claims to be practically bogus. Many such projects flaunt their supposed ecological credentials as a means to boost real estate values without committing to environmental conservation — a tactic known as “greenwashing.”

    While foreign architects once saw China as a playground where they could try out projects that would never get the green light back home, the changing domestic market has brought about reduced construction and a shift in focus to smaller-scale projects. At the same time, Chinese clients have become critical of the state of architecture nationwide — as evidenced by Beijing’s call for “no more weird-looking buildings.” These two forces present us with an opportunity to ponder a more consistent vision for the future of China’s cities.

    The scale and speed of China’s transformation in the last two decades could not have happened without embracing innovation and change. Unlike the West’s relatively small-scale urban labs, the Chinese approach has been much more pronounced. Increasing uncertainty about climate change and the national economy calls for architects and urban planners to shift their mindsets. We need to articulate a coherent vision of how we must adjust our living environments — sooner rather than later. I truly believe China possesses the resources and experience to successfully make this transition.

    There are already signs of change. The recently released urban guidelines from China’s central government, which focus on quality of life and energy efficiency, include suggestions such as the removal of barriers around residential areas, aimed at creating more pedestrian-friendly, open cities. A more off-the-wall idea is the construction of new “sponge cities” designed to capture and recycle rainwater for urban use.

    While the above guidelines are not yet binding, they represent a radical departure from established means of building cities. This encouragingly demonstrates that China’s attitude toward experimental architecture is moving beyond on-site improvisation and toward well-thought-out solutions for future urban living. Hopefully, this spirit will manifest itself in groundbreaking designs that will transform China into a pioneering laboratory for sustainable building and urban innovation. 

    (Header image: The new CCTV Headquarters and the new People’s Daily building as seen from Beijing’s central business district, Dec. 2, 2013. VCG)