In less than 30 years, Taipei, Taiwan has undergone significant transformation in its cultural identity, its urban design, and its regional transportation systems. Taipei, the largest city of Taiwan, lies on the Danshui River 25 kilometers across the Taiwan Strait from China. Taipei City has approximately 2.6 million residents, and the metropolitan region has just shy of 7 million people. While Taipei is not the largest city in the world by any stretch of the imagination, the city is one of the most densely packed, due to the natural hilly topography and limited areas upon which to build city structures.
Taiwan does not always make it onto the popular list of places for people to visit—it’s a small island with a turbulent history. The island of Taiwan has been subject to many claims of ownership and possession: from the Portuguese and Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries to the Japanese and Chinese in more recent history. During World War II, Taiwan sided with the Allies (1945) and helped the US defeat Japan, cementing its status as a separate entity from Japan. Shortly after WWII, when the People’s Republic of China was formed, a Chinese civil war resulted in the severance of Taiwan from the mainland China. Taiwan’s people have ever since considered themselves separate from China. This distinction, however, is not always recognized throughout the world, so the Taiwanese are fierce advocates of their political and cultural status as distinct from China.
Part of the political and social upheaval that occurred in the latter part of 20th century Taiwan formed the basis for an astonishing success story of national economic growth as Taiwan transformed itself into a technological hub and industrial powerhouse. With this economic transformation came social and civic demands to beautify the city of Taipei. A case study in central planning and urban design, from the 1980s forward, Taipei has seen the growth of great buildings (such as Taipei 101, which was the tallest building in the world until the completion of Burj Dubai); the introduction of a light-rail network; the enactment of stringent environmental laws regarding pollution and ecological monitoring; the designation of open spaces and parks to enrich city life; and the “Hausmanization” of many streets and boulevards throughout the city to provide clarity, ease wayfinding, and make the city beautiful.
Today, wandering around Taipei is easy (everything is in English as well as Chinese), many of the streets are beautiful and clean, and the light rail seems to be expanding daily. First-time visitors will be amazed by the verdant greenery of the surrounding mountains and the intensity of the urban setting. Returners will be surprised by how much has changed in such a short time.
The sweeping changes to the urban fabric, regional transportation system, and streetscapes provide a case study in how quickly a city can transform itself—not only physically, but also politically and economically. The tale is inspirational, but also cautionary: what will be the long-term results of these changes in civic and cultural identity and place-making? How will Taipei, the city, and Taiwan the country, continue to create identities for themselves in the future? Some have remarked that Taiwan, with its natural and urban beauty, can become the Switzerland of Asia. But with all of this transformation, will its historical remnants still be treasured? One wonders if anything will be lost along the way.
Sarah Kathleen Peck, Student Affiliate ASLA, works as a landscape designer with SWA Group in Sausalito, California. She earned a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning and a Certificate in Urban Design from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
by Sarah Kathleen Peck, Student Affiliate ASLA