Finding China

On Tuesday, after being in Suzhou for one full week, I accidentally found China.
It began with an early-morning jog. I shot this image from the 15th floor of my apartment building in the middle of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Looking west towards the Moon Bay development, you can see a not-yet open office tower, gleaming in the morning sun.
But two things have bothered me ever since I arrived here. First, where are all the people on the streets? Second: why the fancy landscaping? As a Californian, I marvel at a place which has enough water. It has barely rained at all in Berkeley in four years; but here on Monday I was caught outside in a torrential downpour. Combined with the local climate, my guess is that one could grow practically anything here–such as crops.
And yet the planning ideology of SIP is to devote this precious land to decorative office-park landscaping. Even an undeveloped parcel (pictured above) is mowed and maintained basically as a lawn, with the small exception of a pond. Based on what my students found in our study of Mountain View in the spring of 2015, I (we generally) think there are three reasonable uses for urban ground-space:
1. Food crop production. Especially vegetables.
2. Useable openspace for humans to play in.
3. Native shrub/scrub environment for local native species–especially pollinators–to live in.

Decorative landscaping is not on this list. What we found in Mountain View was that Google, LinkdenIn, and the Mountain View city planners all agreed that the office-park pattern of the North Bayshore neighborhood was a mistake. It was a nice idea–in 1975–but now they want real urbanism rather than an office park. The tech employees have voted with their feet, seeking out the most urbane environments in San Francisco as their preferred residence.
So: lots on my mind as I jogged southward to see some of the new housing that is being developed in SIP. My own building was opened in 2013. All the new development to the south is still under construction. I greatly admire China’s willingness to develop massive amounts of urban housing.
Even here at the southern edge of the developed part of SIP, the landscaped roadways go in immediately. I noticed that here, there was a bit more traffic than in the area near my apartment.
And where SIP ends, it ends abruptly. Here is the bleeding edge of new urban development.
But when I looked across this temporarily dammed canal, I saw that new urban development (on the left) was not replacing farmland or wilderness. This is a fundamental lesson about urbanization in East, South, and Central Asia: new urban expansion is only possible by either:
A. building up within existing developed areas, or
B. erasing/destroying existing urban areas and replacing them with new urban development.
As I learned in Afghanistan, there is no such thing as ‘blank’ or ‘undeveloped’ space. All useable land is already claimed, so any ‘brand new plan’ means taking space away from existing people and uses.
Directly across the canal, the land uses and building types were dramatically different.
So I walked over to the next intersection and continued further south. In the foreground in the picture above, there is a seam in the asphalt and the end of a curb: beyond that is un-redeveloped urban China.
And it looks like many places I have seen in Afghanistan, India, and Thailand. Ironically, here at the edge of this older district, most of the shops sell construction-supply materials. It seems like they are making a living off of supplying the materials for their own erasure and displacement.
Here I should amend the title of this blog: what I found, after a week living in the 21st-century ideal of urban China, is the 20th-century version of urban China. I don’t want to sentimentalize it: this ‘old school’ urban China contains some pretty scrappy environments. But it feels like a real-world, working urban district.
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SIP has expanded southward on either side of this settlement, so in the background you can see the new housing-towers in the gaps between all the nearby buildings.
I also don’t want to infer that this is ‘historic’ China. This area may have been developed in the 1980s or 1990s. But at least it makes sense to me: there are people. There is traffic.
As my colleagues pointed out, the office-park formula of SIP means that there are only a few neighborhood business centers. Over the vast majority of SIP, street-side retail is not allowed. Hence no street life and no people. I am not going to argue that this street should win a beauty contest. But it is working as a street; it feels like a place were one could live a life.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of setting where I was hoping to find housing before I arrived in China. However the whole urban landscape in the foreground is scheduled to be replaced by the urban landscape already visible in the background of this photo.
Canal-side 20th-century Suzhou.
Again, this picture looks a little too scenic. Let me temper it by noting that the two fellows in the boat are manually dredging the canal bit to clean out the garbage. I noticed that the canals here have practically no odor, even though the water is green and opaque. At this point I don’t know enough to judge whether this is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ urban hydrology.
But as an urban landscape, it is pretty scenic and distinctive. My fear is that young Chinese may dismiss this a ‘backward’ or ‘undeveloped.’ I am going to be digging into this question about ideologies of modernity in my research.
At last, here I found the kind of urban land-use that makes sense to me: where buildings are not covering the ground, there are vegetable gardens. This scale of agriculture might not make sense for grains that can be farmed on massive fields, it does make sense for vegetable crops. Even in dense urban spaces, we need space between buildings; and in dense urban spaces, labor-intensive agriculture makes sense because the laborer lives right there, next to their garden. And they can enjoy that garden as their own green-space, even as they are getting use out of it.
2 kilometers north, I am back on the grounds of my apartment complex. In a country with 1.5 billion people, this lush urban space is being used for nothing except the expression of an ideology, as far as I can tell.
At the end of the day I went out to the Moon Bay development shown in the first photo. It is beautiful: a gleaming expression of modernity, a powerful declaration that China is a modern, developed country–a peer with the United States and any country in Europe. Part of my purpose here is to educate a new generation of Chinese planners to further the implementation of that vision.
But in California we have come to doubt some of the ways that modern urban landscapes use resources like water and open space. China’s own recent urban past may hold lessons in how to do this better, more sustainably. As I was biking back to my apartment, I saw this one space, this one exception where someone is gardening just outside of the construction-perimeter fence of a new development in central SIP. On the left you can see XueTang Street, with its willow-trees and empty ground-space landscaping. Not only could nutritious vegetables be grown in the many hectares of roadside landscaping in SIP, but it might make the space more interesting; it might make us think more about a sustainable urban future.


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