In the last decade, China’s fast-paced urbanization and construction boom has made a visible impact on its urban and rural landscapes. Cities have overtaken agricultural lands and greenfields. A monotony of residential slabs and a steady competition for uniquely shaped, ever-soaring towers perpetually remake skylines in every city.
Map of China’s interstate expressway system (blue indicates completed sections, and red indicates those under construction). Source: newgeography
Less visible, but just as dramatic, is the country’s highway expansion. In 2011, China’s intercity motorway system surpassed that of the United States to become the longest in the world. Remarkably, most of this 53,000-mile network has been built in the last 10 years. And it is ahead of schedule — the Chinese government has already met its goal for 2020. By comparison, the 57,000-mile U.S. highway system was largely built over the course of 30 years.
This rapid highway roll-out has enabled the expansion of cities and powered economic growth. It has also brought development to remote areas and increased the mobility of the country’s migrant workers. Of course, road infrastructure always comes with environmental degradation, increased traffic and pollution.
Construction of an interstate expressway over villages in Yunnan Province, China (above and below). Source: Skyscrapercity
On a recent trip through Yunnan, it was not uncommon to see entire mountainsides blasted away just to create a narrow perch for a new four-lane road. The vision of an endless thread of highway splitting the landscape no longer belongs just to the U.S. or Gernany. The Chinese versions take the uncompromisingly straight axis of high-speed travel to laser-like extremes. Topography is conquered by bride-to-tunnel-to-bridge sequences. A highway coming out of the mountains to cross agricultural plains floats on towering columns for miles, gradually descending to the villages on the valley floor.
Steven Holl’s Vanke Center is sold as a “horizontal skyscraper as long as the Empire State Building is tall.” The mixed-use building, which includes a hotel, service apartments, and offices, removes the ubiquitous commercial podium and allows vegetated landscape to occupy the entire site. Most of the building seems to float on glass and steel piers. As public space, the open ground provides direct connections from the city to the adjacent lake. To achieve this largely open ground, Holl uses a long-span structural system more common in bridges. The result is an unusual but impressive architectural space that unfolds in dramatic ways. Holl realizes ideas that had been simmering in his sketchbook for years, but that were always too impractical to build. This project can also be read as a revival of 1950s and 1960s modernism.
Shenzhen, until now, was the city of imitation. Tourist go to buy fake Gucci bags and Polo shirts or visit theme parks like Windows of the World and Splendid China, where the main attractions are miniature imitations of other global tourist centers. But Shenzhen is also a city that never stops reinventing itself. As a “City of Design,” it is making convincing moves toward becoming a center of creativity and cultural sophistication, following in the footsteps of cities like Barcelona, Berlin, and Rotterdam. We hope this phase proves lasting.
Ho Chi Minh City has a soundtrack: on any corner, one is surrounded by the throbbing din of hundreds of sputtering engines and chatting horns. As rivers of motorbikes sweep down every road, their echoing sounds have become the pulse of the city.
Noise pollution is not the only nuisance caused by motorbikes. They cause more injurious accidents, their two-stroke engines and unfiltered exhaust contribute more to air pollution, and their numbers and ability to fill any gap in the road contribute to constant, hectic congestion. Crossing the street is famously difficult in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). (The best advice to tourists is to “just go” and trust that traffic will adjust around you.) Sidewalks are often blocked by parked motorbikes, and drivers more than occasionally use the sidewalks as a traffic lanes. Pedestrians are smart to look both ways before leaving a doorway.
In 2005, HCMC had a total of three million registered motorbikes, or about 412 vehicles per 1000 people (Duc, Le Anh). As its populations continues to grow — an expected 10m by 2020 — so will the tides of scooters.
Since the late 1980’s, HCMC has gone through a process of rapid urbanization due to industrialization, economic liberalization and foreign investment. The city is booming, but there has been a comparative lack of investment in infrastructure, especially public transportation and alternative traffic networks. The bus systems are fractured (no single lines extend across the city), unreliable, and slow due to traffic congestion. Consequently, motorbikes have become the vehicle of choice: a cheap, fast, flexible, door-to-door option.
Motorbikes are essential for HCMC’s residents. They transport families, animals, and sometimes unimaginable cargo. However, the most interesting urban phenomenon is that the bikes have become a form of social space. At night, parks and open spaces fill with teens and young adults on their scooters. Friends gather in lines and circles, each atop their seats, smoking and eating the city’s famous street food. Some are even fully reclined on the long, padded seats. As new friends join the group, the wheeled seating easily adjusts. The two-person capability of the bike seat is also an ideal perch for young lovers to get (very) close. It is imaginable that a local Saigonese can have a night out without ever getting off his or her perch.
As HCMC follows a trajectory towards becoming a global city, politicians, planners, and policy makers will need to solve the urgent transportation issues. However, the use of motorbikes has become so embedded in Vietnam’s culture that it will take more than transportation improvements and policies to address this problem.
In a recent post, I included some pictures of Shenzhen in 1980 (similar to the one above), just a few years after the establishment of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Thirty years later, these images of a car-free fishing village have been erased by a towering metropolis.
During a recent visit to Zhuhai, I found an area where a similar anachronistic scene still exists. On the western edge of the city, across the river from Macao, a former fishing and trading village now sits quietly behind construction walls — a ghost-town swept up by development. Large tracts of the settlement have already been razed. Intact blocks have been colonized by tropical house plants. Other streets bustle, only with demolition workers.
Nonetheless, there is also a sign of resistance. Someone has their laundry out to dry. An old woman peers at us from a dark window. Sprinkled along streets of mostly bricked-in homes, some inhabitants refuse to leave. It is unclear what the future of this site will be.
Many villages in southern China, swallowed by urban sprawl, develop organically as villages in the city (VICs). VICs are vital to migrant laborers in need of cheap housing, but are often unimaginably dense and without proper infrastructure. But as lessons are learned by urban planners, urban villages like those in Zhuhai are being more carefully integrated into the city plan. Unfortunately, this is often done to the benefit of developers more than the villagers or migrants.
In 2008, the onset of the financial crash, I traveled to several cities around the world documenting the impacts of speculation in the urban landscape. Although the real estate bubble in the US began to collapse in 2006, the construction boom was still peaking elsewhere. Along with the boom, developers were selling lifestyles: green, golf, luxury, exclusive–a recognizably western model.
After eight years of delays, traffic jams, noise and dust the last section of Madrid Rio — a combined infrastructure and public space project — was finally opened to the public on April 15. In the 1970’s Madrid was cut off from the (already forgotten) Manzanares river by the construction of the M30 ring motorway. Although this separation of city and waterfront was a common phenomenon in many cities around the world in the mid-20th century, Madrid’s “waterfront” went through the middle of the city, not at the edge; Madrid lost not only its river — it was cut in two. Neighborhoods once just over the river were instantly relegated to the periphery.
Buenos Aires is considered to be the best planned city in Latin America. Modeled after Haussmann’s Paris, the city is composed of large boulevards and monuments enclosed by roundabouts. The building structures were homogeneous and were occupied by a large and powerful middle class.
In the last three decades this urban configuration has changed dramatically. This was due to drastic changes that began in the 1970’s, when the nationaist-populist model was dismantled and replaced by a model of exclusion–an outcome of the implementation of economical and political neoliberal practices. This period was marked by two economic crises, each followed by a boom, making polarization and fragmentation more visible and reconfiguring the city and its society.
Carlos Menem became the president of Argentina in 1989 in a moment of hyperinflation. He implemented structural reforms strengthening the neoliberal tendencies. These changes improved Argentina’s image among international investors and led to an economic boom.
Buenos Aires suburbanized during this boom. Luxury suburbs like Nordelta sprouted along the new highway systems that connected the wealthier population of commuters to the city center. A new, gated, green lifestyle was promoted with amenities such as school, sports facilities and shopping malls. With the boom came the desire to transform Buenos Aires into a global city. In the heart of the city, Puerto Madero, became the postcard symbol for this tranformation, renewing the blighted dock area for a new skyline for the city.
Puerto Madero symbol of the “new global city”
A small elite profited from the privatization of Buenos Aires. The middle class–which had constituted about 70% of the population–disintegrated and polarized, punished by a new crisis of hyperinflation, which climaxed in December 2001, during the biggest financial crisis in the country in recent years. The peso depreciated as much as 400% against the dollar. Banks were closed to prevent people from withdrawing their savings, which plummeted in value.
Some time after this incident, farmers made fortunes with soaring international soy-bean prices. Mistrusting the banks, they preferred to invest their surplus cash in real estate, judging it a safer haven. Another construction boom followed.
Due to higher gasoline prices, however, the new constructions were closer to the center of the city. A new typology, called the “country-club tower” (torre country), also seen in China, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, was introduced by the developers. It razed entire city blocks in old traditional neighborhoods to construct high-rise apartments with country-club amenities, like swimming pools, tennis court, gardens and playgrounds–all surrounded by gates. These offered the same services of the suburbs of the previous boom but in center of the city.
Among other things, the walls around these country-club towers have meant the “death of the street” as an urban landscape. These country-club towers are spreading around the city but are mostly concentrated in Palermo, a neighborhood that use to be of large middle-class houses and active street life. Now, as a marketing strategy these sectors are called Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Nuevo Palermo.
Additionally, in a classic case of polarization, property prices have skyrocketed in these neighborhoods while the slums (called Villa Miserias) which had grown during the first construction boom, have kept increasing in size and height.