China’s Urban Revival: Lessons Learned

by Ming-Jen Hsueh, ASLA, and Dou Zhang, ASLA, PLA, LEED AP BD+C, SITES AP

Suzhou Creek, Shanghai
Suzhou Creek, Shanghai / image: Sasaki

The following article was originally published on Sasaki Associates, Inc.’s blog on June 7, 2019. Reposted with permission. The article is also available in Chinese via Sasaki’s blog.

Beginning in the late nineteenth and extending into the mid-twentieth century, many American cities found themselves embroiled on either side of a hot-button issue that had an immense impact on American life. Urban renewal strategies employed by cities all over the country endeavored to make cities more livable, yet the rebuttal was sharp: “More livable for whom?”

In China, similar urban regeneration experiments have played out rapidly as China’s development took off during the last few decades—with similar regrets and lessons learned following in kind. The greatest difference, however, is that urban renewal in China has been interwoven with its unprecedentedly swift urbanization over the past forty years. With these two complex development patterns happening simultaneously, there have been few moments along the way to hit pause and reflect on these changes until fairly recently.

What Now? Learning From Our Mistakes

In both China and the United States, once communities and city leaders reflected on the impacts of their urban renewal projects, the picture was not always rosy. On both sides of the globe, city-led and developer-fueled overhauls of urban districts received vocal criticism from impacted communities. They frequently disrupted communities with strong ties to the existing urban fabric—with immigrant, the poor, minorities, and other disadvantaged communities bearing the brunt of sacrifice and upheaval. Entire histories were razed to make way for other populations ready to write new stories in their place. Much was lost in social, cultural, historical, and ecological terms in the zealous march toward modernity.

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