Taking responsibility for Trump

Many Republicans have tried to disassociate themselves from the election of Donald Trump. This is consistent with a Republican pattern of seeking to avoid taking responsibility, perhaps best encapsulated in Mitt Romney’s book title No Apologies. Trump has promoted an atmosphere of racism and intolerance that the Republican party finds embarrassing. This may have also led to inaccurate projections of the electoral outcome. I teach survey design. We know there is a problem forecasting votes when one of the positions is so morally objectionable that respondents are embarrassed to publicly admit their actual voting preference.

Now Trump’s election is setting a new tone in many parts of the US, including swastika graffiti (“Make America White Again!”) and harassment of women wearing hijab. In public, the Republican party establishment wants to avoid any responsibility for this change of tone—I think partly out of habit; they have not taken responsibility for endorsing torture at Guantanamo or at rendition black sites—but partly because it might damage future electability of Republican candidates.

However there is strong evidence that Trump actually does represent Republican values. Since 1964, the Republican party has opposed civil rights, which is strange since the party was founded in the 1850s with an Abolitionist platform. This peculiar shift happened between 1948 and 1964. It began with Democrat Harry Truman’s adoption of a civil-rights platform, and culminated with Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats shifting to the Republican party.

Jeet Heer of the New Republic identified this historic linkage to Trump supporters back in February 2016. While the RNC tried to disavow Trump as a candidate, Heer notes:

Polling in South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary on Saturday, reveals the single most salient difference between Trump’s supporters and those of his rivals: They are much more likely to endorse white ethnic nationalism and to express nostalgia for traditional Southern racism. In light of this polling, Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity.

My impression was that the Southern Strategy was initiated by Richard Nixon. However, Heer traces the SS back to the National Review, which was founded in 1955 to oppose an expansion of civil rights for blacks. Truman desegregated the US military in 1948, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 caused great anxiety among Southern Democrats. Strom Thurmond was still a member of the Democratic Party in 1956 when he read his Southern Manifesto into the Congressional Record, formally opposing the Brown decision and desegregation as a whole. Conversely, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s efforts to make the Brown decision unanimous represent the shift of Californians from the racist-socialist Workingman’s Party of the 1870s and Japanese internment in the 1940s towards a much stronger support for equal rights.

But how did the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—become attractive for Strom Thurmond and other avowedly racist politicians and voters? Heer explains that—like the TEA Party movement—the Southern Strategy was a rebellion within the Republican party itself. William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 “in opposition to the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, who was seen as being soft on communism and all too willing to compromise with liberals.” For Buckley this was personal because he was the child of plantation-owners. But he also believed that a Republican Party opposed to equal rights could gain political success in Southern States.

Buckley was correct. When Lyndon Johnson backed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Dixiecrats shifted to the Republican party and brought their voters with them. The 1964 Republican National Convention nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, and won in the Deep South. Though Goldwater lost in the general election to Johnson, the results showed the Republican National Committee that they could gain electoral success in the South for this first time since the Party’s founding, by appealing to Southern voters who were opposed to equal rights. I must point out that not all Southern whites oppose equal rights. I was born in North Carolina.

The University of Michigan Law School traces the success of the Southern Strategy forward to the “Reagan Revolution” in 1984. Reagan also set a tone of racial intolerance and opposition to equal rights; in fact his election in 1980 signaled the end of any hope for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have established equal rights for women. Reagan vilified poor black women as ‘welfare queens’ and set a hostile racist tone in the United States that I vividly remember.

However, historians Lassiter, Cruse, and Crespino argue that this interpretation may give too much credit to the National Review’s and the RNC’s Southern Strategy as a whole, because it is a top-down explanation of the white shift towards a Republican party that supported segregation. They argue instead that there was a bottom-up “suburban strategy” of white voters across the United States who wanted to defend the new segregation they were creating through “white flight” to suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. The demographic analysis of Massey and Denton (1993) supports this: residential segregation has been continuously increasing across the United States since 1910, largely through white suburbanization. The NYU film Trouble in Levittown (1957) shows vigorous racist opposition to an attempt by a black middle-class veteran to move into that Pennsylvania suburb. I witnessed segregationist attitudes and practices in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s. I agree that the shift occurred across the US, and even in the south it was closely associated with suburbanization (Kruse 2005). What this indicates, however, is that both the Republican leadership and the voting base of the Republican party have embraced racist policies since the 1950s; and this shift became official in 1964.

Republicans’ public disavowal of the racist, sexist, and religiously intolerant statements of Trump and his supporters carries no weight in my opinion. The past 60 years of electoral politics indicate that Trump truly does represent Republican attitudes and values for the past two generations. This is ironic considering the Republican values of 1854-1955, when the Republican party promoted equal rights and liberties. To recover that legacy, Republicans need to act vigorously and overtly to oppose this recent tide of Trump-affiliated hatred. The first step will be to take responsibility for racist attitudes within the party for the last 60 years. The next step will be to do whatever is possible to redeem that shameful legacy. It is possible. Note that the Democratic Party has to publicly admit that Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and FDR put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation and the embrace of Barack Obama as president were important steps toward redeeming the legacy of the Democratic Party. I look forward to Republicans taking responsibility by actively promoting justice, fair and equal treatment, and opposition to racism and religious intolerance. Action means passing laws; enforcing justice; admitting error. It also means having the courage to apologize. Only through acts of political courage do Americans recognize ourselves as a great nation.


Aistrup, Joseph A. (1996). The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South. University Press of Kentucky.

Heer, Jeet. (18 February 2016). How the Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible: In states like South Carolina, the mogul reaps the benefits of the GOP’s longstanding appeal to racism. The New Republic.

Kevin Michael Kruse (2005). White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press.

Lassiter, Matthew D. (2006). The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Princeton University Press.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press.

Zelizer, Julian E. (4 March 2012). Governing America: The Revival of Political History. Princeton University Press.

Reflections on the US Election from Afar

“California is – and must always be – a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages and aspirations – regardless of how you look, where you live, what language you speak, or who you love.”
Joint Statement from California Legislative Leaders on Result of Presidential Election, November 9, 2016

In 2008, Barack Obama urged his supporters to mobilize for change. He cautioned that he was only one person, and that—thankfully—the US political system was designed so that no single person could define or redefine national policy. I think we Americans have not yet heeded that message. In very important ways, we actually have been changing the US for the better: now you can marry the person you love. Police murders of unarmed black men actually make the news, and most Americans seem to think police brutality is wrong. Women’s rights and transgender rights are at least being discussed again. America is a better country for all this progress.

Even so, reforms to financial regulation and campaign financing have been blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress since 2009. And the conservative-led Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 has given corporations even more power to protect themselves against regulations and enforcements that would stabilize our financial system. The Affordable Care Act was a half-measure compromise; basic healthcare is still not a right for all Americans. And the restoration of economic opportunity for most Americans will require some profound policy changes. So a lot of progress still needs to be made.

A lot can be done at the local and state level. The recent movement to increase minimum wages in coastal cities is one example. Cities may also need to become part-owners of their own housing stock, as in Britain and the Netherlands, to make housing affordable for workers committed to remaining in their communities. Perhaps state-level capital-gains taxes can be used to fund equal-level education in every school district. A statewide healthcare system could reduce both risk and paperwork for small businesses and their employees. Many working-class people in the US still believe that conservative policies will actually help them. Rather than dispute that paradoxical faith, it will be better to show how effective these socialist policies can be.

I understand a lot of the anger and dismay at the outcome of the election. But as Obama advised, I hope that we can turn that emotion into mobilization for the policy changes we want. Will Trump be our president? Well, yes. But we give any president far too much power if we assume that they will define all of government and all the policies that shape our lives. We should not have done that with Obama; we left him with too little momentum to implement serious healthcare and financial reform.

To resist the phobic mindset of Trump supporters, we need to develop persuasive stories and narratives that make radical reform appealing. Phobia means both hatred and fear. It is an accurate characterization of Trump politics. And the opposite of phobia is love and compassion. That is a huge advantage for creating a compelling way of describing our policy values! Here is one way we might tell our story: ‘In a democracy, we are the government. And we use the government to care for each other, especially in times of sickness and unexpected disaster. We tax ourselves to invest in the education of our children, the protection of our rights, and sustainable wealth earned through work.’

This year I think Republicans were looking forward to being the ‘party-of-opposition’ for another four years. ‘Just saying no’ to legislation is much easier than actually developing new policies. This has been an appealing position for Republicans ever since Reagan declared that ‘government is the problem’ in his 1981 inaugural address. Clinton would have had a miserable four years in office. All of her experience would have made little difference in domestic policy since the Republican Congress was going to continue its policy of refusing to act.

Now Republicans have to lead. They face the unpleasant prospect of being held responsible for their actions. With control of the presidency and both houses in Congress, whatever happens from 2017 to 2021 will be attributed to the Republican party and the conservative movement as a whole. The wealthy white conservatives in Washington are exceedingly unlikely to implement policies that actually help the working-class whites who elected them. Tax cuts only help if you make enough money to pay tax; it does not help unemployed people at all. Without major job growth, tax cuts will only mean even fewer services in poor communities. We need a compelling narrative for socially positive reforms to be well-established as the conservative myth unravels.

More thoughts on space colonization

Eleven years ago on this blog, I posted the idea of the gravitat. The concept was first envisioned by Herman Potočnik, a.k.a. Hermann Noordung (1928), and popularized by Werner von Braun in 1952. Here I discuss some refinements and wider uses of the gravitat. Using this system, humans could live under Earth-normal gravity conditions on the surface of the other solid planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. A gravitat on Asteroide B-612 (thank you, St-Exupery). Any decent-sized rock would shield the habitat from at least half the meteors and much of the radiation of deep space.

Figure 1. A gravitat on Asteroide B-612 (thank you, St-Exupery). Any decent-sized rock would shield the habitat from at least half the meteors and much of the radiation of deep space.

Part of the reason I bring up this issue again is that I have been reading James S.A. Corey’s book series called The Expanse. I really like the books and TV show as opera; and the authors also take technology very seriously. But they do not seem aware of the idea of inducing gravity while living on the surface of other planets, and I am not sure if anyone else has proposed it!

Rationale for the gravitat

Since the 1960s, NASA has studied human physiology under conditions of microgravity, and the results are not encouraging. Not only do muscles atrophy, but astronauts also lose about 1% bone density per month in microgravity. So: microgravity may remain useful for scientific experiments and industrial production, but humans shouldn’t spend too much time living in micro-g. On the other hand, it would be very helpful to have humans making the complex decisions in places that are light-seconds and light-minutes from Earth. Even the signal-distance to Luna is enough to cause potential problems with remotely-operated machinery there.

Until we know otherwise, I propose that a standard gravitat should produce centripetal acceleration equivalent of 1 Earth-gravity (1.0 g, or 9.81m/s/s). Why? Because we have evolved under 1g, and numerous biological systems from our musculature to our bones to our lymphatic system are adapted to the 1g environment. There are other biological stressors in space (radiation, confined living conditions) so it would be wise to eliminate at least this one stress-factor.

Unfortunately the result is a structure with a lot of mass. Gilruth (1969) argued for 2 RPM as the maximum revolutions/minute of a centrifugal habitat to avoid causing vertigo. However Globus and Hall (2015) recently reviewed the literature, and 4 RPM seems generally feasible, although newly-arriving people might need a few hours to adapt. Theodore Hall (2000) created a “spin calc” program which yields the following results:

For a centripetal acceleration of 9.81m/s/s, with an angular velocity of 4 RPM,

The radius is 56 meters; diameter = 112m. That means a relatively big structure.

Right away, this suggests some empirical research that needs to be done adjacent to the International Space Station:

(1) What is the highest angular velocity that humans can comfortably tolerate? If a structure can spin faster, the radius (and thus the overall mass) of the structure can be reduced proportionally while still producing 1g of force. For a ring, the savings in mass vary geometrically with radius, so the gains would be significant.

(2) What is the lowest centripetal acceleration (spin-gravity) that can maintain long-term health? I suspect that permanent gravitats will always need to produce something close to 1.0 g, but for a multi-month interplanetary voyage, much lower forces could still maintain far better health than traveling in microgravity.

Two basic configurations: Mast-and-Yardarm, Mast-and-Ring

The lowest-mass gravitat would be a two-capsule Mast-and-Yardarm (MnY) design (see Figure 2). I chose these terms carefully to describe the multiple roles and historical corollaries for each component. Normally the central mast would not spin. Solar arrays, engines, observation equipment, communication equipment, and docking equipment would all be attached to this central mast. So the mast needs to be relatively strong, and it needs to be able to maintain a fixed orientation.

The yardarm is designed to rotate around the mast. A low-mass yardarm structure can hold the capsules in position mostly through tension while it is spinning; but that would also require fore-and-aft stays to prevent the yardarm from resonating or oscillating. Similar rigging was used on square-sail ships, for the same reason of structural efficiency. Therefore I use the same terms: stays and rigging. Figure 2 is a modified image of an existing ship’s communication mast; it gives a rough impression of the MnY configuration.

A mast-and-yardarm gravitat configuration

Figure 2. A mast-and-yardarm gravitat configuration.

Permanent stations on other planets, moons, and asteroids, or in orbit or at Lagrange points, could all be the much more massive Mast-and-Wheel (MnW) structure. When positioned on a planet, the mast would become the “maypole” around which the wheel would turn. All the other (known) solid bodies in the solar system have a lower surface-gravity than Earth; so the purpose of a surface-mounted gravitat would be to supplement natural gravity with centripetal force, to maintain 1g for long-term health. Surface-mounted gravitats would spin more slowly in proportion to the amount of supplementary centripetal force required to get 1g. Also, the direction of force would no longer be strictly radial, so the decks within pressurized capsules would need to gimbal so that they remain force-level within the combination of planetary and centripetal force. However, I still suggest the same standard design so that standard components can be built and debugged most efficiently.

The wheel-structure of a gravitat would look most like the London Eye or Singapore Flyer, which are both designed with tension-cables rather than rigid Ferris-Wheel spokes. Figure 3 is a mashup of an image of the Singapore Flyer with the solar arrays of the ISS, to give an impression of what it would look like. Gravitats are going to need very large solar arrays, not just because of the power-demand of such a large structure, but also because most of them will be positioned farther away from the sun than the Earth itself.

Figure 3. A full gravitat.

Figure 3. A full gravitat.

Capsules as triple-bagged trusses

Hard-shelled pressure vessels are not an efficient combination of function and mass for space exploration and occupation. NASA and Bigelow Aerospace have the right idea experimenting with inflatable structures. From my life-experience, I make a further recommendation: triple-bag the human-occupied areas (see Figure 4). I think a triple-bag structure will yield the best compromise of low mass, radiation-shielding, and minimal risk of catastrophic decompression due to meteorite-impact.

My guess is that each layer could be pressurized with the following gases:

(A) Innermost inhabited space: N2/O2 atmosphere at 0.6 bar pressure;

(B) Intermediate pressurized layer: N2 gas at 0.2 bar pressure;

(C) Outermost pressurized layer: argon gas at perhaps 0.05 bar.

Each layer would have some insulation on the outer face, and whatever is the lightest way to block the most harmful radiation.

Within the innermost bag, the inhabited deck would be supported by an open truss.

Thus, there would be no “hard pressure vessel” in this design, except perhaps the junction-airlocks that link each capsule to the next capsule along the ring.

Also, this means inhabited capsules would have no windows. Maybe in the junction-airlocks. But then the junction-airlocks would admit more radiation; at some point the residents would need to decide their own trade-off of radiation-exposure for a direct view outside.

Figure 4. Schematic section of one of the pressurized capsules of a gravitat.

Figure 4. Schematic section of one of the pressurized capsules of a gravitat. Note: this sketch represents one segment in a much larger (225m) structure, based on my prior impression that the maximum comfortable rotation rate would be 2 RPM.

Remotes for most EVA maintenance work

Since there is a fair amount of hard radiation in space (and on the surface of most bodies in our solar system), extravehicular activities (EVAs) should be minimized. Remote robots should be used as much as possible for maintenance, repair, scientific research, and commercial production.

Two other reasons to minimize EVAs on planets, moons, and other bodies: to avoid biologically contaminating them, and to avoid having their dust contaminate us. For the next few decades at least, we should try to avoid spreading bacteria to our neighboring planets and moons until we can verify ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that there are no indigenous microbes on those planets and moons. It is pretty likely that some of the “extremophile” microbes on Earth could survive on Mars. If we allow that contamination, we may never know if life emerged there independently.

Conversely, dust is a problem for us. On Earth, our rich complex of biota locks down most forms of dust in soil and water. But the other planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system have superfine dust that would cause serious long-term lung damage for humans. When the Apollo astronauts climbed back into the LEM with their suits on, they tracked in a lot of hazardous dust. This will be a problem for EVAs on the surface of every other solid body in our solar system.

Super-fine dust is also a problem for the moving parts within machinery, and I assume NASA has been spending time designing for that.

Re-visiting the rationale for human space exploration

Should humans be in space at all? I think that question can only be answered in a moral framework. As an urban planner, one of my core concerns is social justice; and the argument against the Apollo program was that we should not be spending tax dollars sending people to the moon when people in our own country are suffering from poverty. In the 1960s and 1970s, space-exploration looked profligate; and I think it only really gained Congressional funding because it was a thinly-veiled weapons demonstration against the USSR Today, we use satellite imagery for weather-predictions and disaster-coordination, so the argument against satellite-launches has abated, since rich and poor benefit from this technology. And there are other U.S. budget-items which are indeed more profligate—like the unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq for $2 trillion. To put the human spaceflight program in perspective, Elon Musk recently said, ‘I think we should spend at least as much on space exploration as Americans spend on lipstick every year.’

There are two reasons why I think we should push much more human space exploration. First of all, I think we will make discoveries that will grow our economy. Not merely technologies like velcro and mylar, but the sort of widespread kick to a whole economy when a population feels inspired. When we use a really big space-based telescope to get high-resolution images of the planets orbiting nearby stars, I think the effect on our culture and economy will be very positive.

The second reason I advocate space-exploration is the lessons in environmental humility we will encounter. A long-term life-support system is hard to design, hard to maintain. I believe NASA-AMES should promote the difficulty of long-term, closed-loop life-support systems. The Initiatives-List of Ames shows that NASA has already linked the idea of offworld life-support systems with Earth-based sustainability research. Their Sustainability Base building is an application of NASA tech to what Architects call ‘green building systems’. During the next high-profile mission, such as to Mars, NASA could tie the problem of long-term life-support explicitly to thinking about the emergent complexity of natural ecosystems. In this way, long-journey human spaceflight could shift our collective attention much more to the gritty details of soil micro-biomes, algae growth, and managed nutrient-cycles.

Here is where planning for deep space exploration links most profoundly to city planning. Cities are complex emergent systems. One dimension of urbanism is that cities are integrated into multiple ecosystems; they are part of the environment and we need to plan accordingly. For example, Singapore has dammed off all the coves and bays of their island-city, so that all rainwater runoff is literally captured before it reaches the sea. The political tensions with the Malaysian national government have pushed Singaporean leaders to think about how political isolation of their island affects access to water. Since it is easier to remove bacteria than dissolved salts, Singaporean planners are willing to recycle everything from stormwater runoff to sewage into potable water before engaging in large-scale desalination. That is an entire city thinking about their life-support systems along the lines of spacecraft planning. Thus, political tensions have caused Singaporean planners to think about sustainable urbanism well beyond what most planners have considered–yet. It will help if high-profile missions in deep space draw attention to humbler things: the beauty of composting, window-box gardening, and water-cycles.


Cramer (1985). “Physiological considerations of artificial gravity.” in A.C. Cron, ed., Applications of tethers in space. NASA CP-2364, v.1, pp.3.95-3.107.

Connors et al. (1985). “Living aloft: Human requirements for extended spaceflight.” NASA SP-483, pp.35-51.

Gilruth, Robert R. (1969). “Manned Space Stations–Gateway to Our Future in Space.” Manned laboratories in space, p. 1-10. New York, New York, USA: Springer-Verlag.

Globus, Al and Theodore Hall (2015). “Space settlement population rotation tolerance.” Preprint PDF.

Hall, Theodore. (1994). The Architecture of Artificial-Gravity Environments for Long-Duration Space Habitation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: PhD Dissertation.

Noordung, Hermann [Herman Potočnik] (1929). Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: Der Raketenmotor. Berlin: Schmidt & Co.

Back to Berkeley

Since I research the intersection of urbanization and globalization, I have studied a fair bit about migration and refugees. With that perspective, our family situation is pretty good. But it is still strange to be away from my family for most of the year, teaching at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. It is a great work opportunity, and as an urbanist I am pretty thrilled to be working and researching smack dab in the middle of the largest process of urbanization going on in the world. If demographic projections are accurate, this may be the largest moment of urbanization ever, because the human population may level off within one generation and begin to decline after that. So I am glad to be in Suzhou, and my wife and kids are glad for this opportunity for me, and they are glad that they can stay in Berkeley and pursue their own life-ambitions. But it is weird to be on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. Communication technology does make a huge difference, but it does not quite “collapse space”: we are on very different circadian rhythms, living 1/3 of a planet apart, and the total difference in weather and time of day is a constant (albeit instantaneous) reminder of how big the planet is, and how far apart we live.

Rather than ‘migrant laborer,’ though, I feel like my family situation is much more like a soldier deployed on a tour. Returning to our home after months away means re-assuming the direct role of being a parent; not always comfortable for me and our early-teen kids. I am doing a lot of house chores to earn my credibility and reassertion of my role. Still, we all have to be pretty up front with out expectations. I guess that military families have had to deal with these dynamics a lot.

And now, on to some political griping.

Like a lot of military families, this is a career opportunity for me. But it is also strongly pressured by my need to pay off grad school debt. A financial planner from Shanghai remarked at how much worse off her American clients often are — how they seem to have a lot of debt, whereas Australians, Europeans, Britons, and Koreans don’t. We agreed that for the regular household, China is passing the United States right now. So much for a Reagan-defined, free-market America. We could make policy choices to reduce inequality and middle-class debt for regular American households — we did it under FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson — but Americans seem too insecure, too frightened to really make bold policy moves. Or, maybe most Americans want to go back to fixed gender roles, segregation, and ‘people knowing their place.’ I am not sure if it is public will, or just conservative political weirdness, but there seems to be a push to wind the policy-clock back to somewhere in the 1890s (railroad robber barons) or the late 1920s (free market free-fall of the economy).

Ach, general griping. But some things need to be repeated in case a short collective public memory enables conservatives to somehow avoid accountability for the harm they have done to this country. I am tired of being a ‘tactful’ good sport towards a whole movement that has revealed itself as demonstrably harmful. Nixon and his ‘Southern Strategy.’ Reagan’s union-busting and bank deregulation. GW Bush and his Iraq war (by now it is pretty clear that his cabinet did not believe in WMDs; so once again: Why did we invade, occupy and spend $2 trillion on Iraq?). The plutocrat Romney. The plutocrat-racist Donald Trump. Republicans used to stand for individual rights; but Eisenhower seems to be the last Republican president who tried to do good. Ever since 1964, when Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond decided to switch from Democrat to Republican, Republicans have been the party that opposes a black person’s right to life and the vote; a woman’s right to reproductive control of her own body and equal pay for equal work; and an immigrant’s right to the 14th-Amendment principle of equal protection under U.S. law. Frankly, I have serious disagreements with some Democratic policy positions. But I don’t really have a voting choice, because the Republican positions are both ethically and Constitutionally indefensible. Rather than the party of ‘just say no’ to all Democratic legislative proposals, I wish the other major party in this country were the Greens, who actually propose policy positions.

For instance, Democrats are pro-business and pro-trade (despite Republican claims to be pro-business). In some ways that is a good thing, but what about a party to counterbalance this ‘growth at all costs’ position? What about a party that understands ‘conservative’ to mean environmental protection? What about a party that acts conservatively to protect the 99% from the financial-speculation harm of the top 0.1%? Dems are sort of in favor of this; but a meaningfully different party would be strongly advocating this. What about a party that advocates immigration, and the elimination of bigoted immigration quotas? Since none of the Wall Street investment-banking and hedge funds have been seized by the federal government, Democrats apparently tolerate open malfeasance by high-value corporations (sadly, Republicans are even worse). What about a party that advocates seizure and break-up of firms that violate the public trust and knowingly do harm? Republicans ‘just say no’ to whatever Dems propose. That is not even an opposition party, because it is not the articulation of a coherent alternative position. Rather, it is the “Nuh-uh!” obstinacy of a teenage brat.

I apologize to those readers who prefer tactful and measured reflection. Perhaps lingering jet-lag suppresses my tact-o-meter. What set me off, this morning, is that I had to the ‘sane’ thing and vote for Hilary Clinton in the California primary today. In my crabby mood I should point out that this could be a very good thing: first woman president, and a candidate with tremendous experience who might therefore be very effective in working with this dysfunctional Congress and getting legislation passed. That is all good. But I am crabby because I could not risk voting for my first choice, Bernie Sanders. We have already passed a point in the electoral cycle where the overriding need is to prevent Donald Trump from being elected. Hilary needs to have as much support as possible, not just for the good she might do, but to prevent the political disaster of a Trump presidency. I feel like we cannot risk splitting the vote or weakening her candidacy now. We cannot risk allowing another conservative demagogue to become president. The consequences of the Gore/Nader split in 2000 was George W, the Iraq war, and the largest economic crisis since the Republican free-marketeer Herbert Hoover allowed the 1929 crash to become the 1931 Great Depression.

For my younger readers, maybe the usefulness of this post will be a series of keywords so they can look up and get a better feel for the last 120 years of the U.S. political economy. Democrats did some bad things in that time, too: Woodrow Wilson segregated federal offices (though Truman and Johnson redeemed some of this). FDR sent Japanese-Americans to concentration-camps. Bill Clinton caved to Republican pressure to eviscerate welfare and partially repeal the Glass-Steagall Act. Southern Dems were often horribly racist — but their political and literal descendants are now “Dixicans” I guess (don’t know if there is another term for them). A ‘balanced’ view of history implies that the good-versus-harm of both parties is roughly even over the past 12 decades. I see no evidence of this. Historical evidence enables a nuanced historical perspective, a counterpoint to a political amnesia about the chronic harmfulness of Republicans. Their one consistent bright spot had been advocacy of individual rights: the abolition of slavery (1865), right to clean air and water (1971), and right to dignified equal access, regardless of physical disability (1991). But most conservatives today openly oppose environmental protections and effectively favor slavery through anti-immigration policies. So I am not even sure if 21st-century conservatives can claim credit for the achievements of a past Republican Party whose policies they now oppose.

Not sure if blog-ranting actually has therapeutic qualities. Joe Rogan warns about the American tendency toward “recreational outrage.” Though I have proposed some options and alternatives here, and pointed to very specific historic events that I think conservatives would rather conveniently forget.

Rethinking urban forms and ideals

Over the last few weeks I have begun to rethink my ideals for the design of cities at the block level of scale. Yesterday my colleague Raffaele Pernice reviewed the history of modern urban design with our class. His slides reminded me that the mid-19th-century industrial city is often seen as the starting-point, the problem. I don’t disagree with that, but I am not sure about the way that lessons were learned from the reaction to it.

Le Corbusier's vision of the "Radiant City"

Le Corbusier’s vision of the “Radiant City”

Raffaele showed le Corbusier’s concept of the Radiant City. From my American experience, I shudder at the idea, because we associate it with the failed experiments in tower-block public housing and the arrogance of Robert Moses. Then I thought about it from the perspective of our Chinese students. In general, the conclusion here has been: Right. High-rise concrete and glass, modern, lots of natural light and ventilation, good. The only objection might be that historic sites should be preserved, not destroyed as Corbu proposed in the Voisin Plan (below).

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Voisin Plan, exibited in 1925. Perhaps deliberately provocative, this image has been used for decades to categorically oppose high-rise urbanism.

Meanwhile I assigned Chapter 1 of Jane Jacobs to my students: standard fare for an introduction to planning and urban studies in an American university, and perhaps necessary here to explain the American approach to planning. But I may have absorbed a corrupt lesson myself in the U.S., where Jacobs’ advocacy for vibrant urban streets is associated with opposition to massive tower-block housing. Her opposition to urban renewal and public housing in the 1950s is portrayed as opposition to the impersonal regime of the State and its sterile, State-funded towers.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

Hylan Houses, Bushwick, NYC.

But Jacobs did not oppose high-rise housing. She objected to the insensitive destruction of existing neighborhoods. Her objections were echoed most famously by Robert Caro (1975) and Marshall Berman (1985). In some ways they both shifted the blame of arrogance from the impersonal State onto the very personal Robert Moses. But I think Caro and Berman missed a point that Kate Bristol identified in “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in 1991: she documented how this most symbolically infamous public housing project was doomed by the political decisions of racially-prejudiced leaders in St. Louis. They wanted the blacks out of the way so that they could redevelop land adjacent to downtown. So they built Pruitt-Igoe as a displacement-warehouse and treated it as such through the neglect of maintenance and management budgets for it. Going back to Jacobs (1961), her objection to public housing in New York City was also about the policy failures in management.

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

Jane Jacobs in 1961, photo by Phil Stanziola

So the linkage of “Intimate urban streets = good” with “High-rise towers = bad” is a flawed association, and really has nothing to do with Jane Jacobs. So let me re-pose an urban question: How do we design high-quality, high-rise housing combined with vibrant, urbane streets?

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

Greenwich Village. The four-storey frontage defines the character of the street. It might or might not have a high-rise tower behind it.

There are a lot of policy questions that need to be tackled as well, such as dampening speculative inflation, promoting racial and class integration, and sustainable use of resources. Those are also in the recipe I am mulling over; but at the moment I want to re-visit a basic spatial-structure question, because I have never heard it asked in quite this way.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

1930s-era building, with step-backs.

Part of a solution comes from a 90-year-old NYC policy: the stepped-back building. In NYC this was intended primarily to maintain exposure to direct sunlight in winter for the lowest floors in buildings. But the same policy can also be used to define street-space, by limiting the number of storeys that a building can rise adjacent to the street before stepping back. The most famous example is the Empire State Building (1929). When you stand next to the building, what you experience directly is the “podium base” which is about 6 storeys along the street, which do a fine job of defining the street space. The 80-storey “shaft” of the building is stepped back so that it does not impinge on you from the street; it feels remote rather than looming.

Empire State Building, street-level base

Empire State Building, street-level base

I think that in Vancouver they are trying this at a smaller scale, the scale that interests me. 100-storey buildings might make sense in the city center, but for the main part I think the 10 to 25 storey range makes more sense. I think I will post more on this in the next few days.

The Will to House!

One of the maddening obstacles to making cities both interesting and affordable in the United States is the opposition to real urban housing. Back in 1920 there was good reason to fear density: we had just figured out how to deal with contagious diseases. And apartments at that time were still cramped, dim, and poorly-ventilated. In contrast, there is the recent experience of China…


On my way towards downtown, I came across this bank of housing (like a bank of cliffs). As far as I can tell it is fully occupied. But as in Shanghai, massive housing here does not mean crowded streets. Notice the absence of congestion in the foreground. When I take photos here, I actually have to wait for people and cars to come by so that I can show some humans in the picture! I thought this was peculiar to Shanghai, but I have found this absence of congestion to be typical across much of Suzhou.


One factor that explains the lack of congestion is that people in Suzhou–just like Americans–stay at home more. Newer apartments are quite spacious, and almost all units are south-facing, with copious daylight. And with internet and big-screen TVs. So I am not saying this new world is ideal, but I can certainly refute the presumption that tower-blocks = teeming streets. If anything, this neighborhood commercial street has a homey, village-like feel. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ arguments about Greenwich Village, fifty years ago.


From a distance you can see two eras of housing in Suzhou.


Using higher-strength concrete, developers are now able to design buildings with very generous windows.


Still, the scale and abruptness of new housing developments is a little shocking. What was here two years ago? Farmland? A water-village?

Americans and Brits had miserable experiences with high-rise public housing. We tend to associate that scale and style of construction white flight, “urban malaise,” and authoritarian regimes. I expect that an English-language film director would look at this site as the ideal place to shoot a dystopian film. But as Kate Bristol pointed out in “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” back in 1991, high-rise design had nothing to do with the failures of housing projects which were horribly mismanaged. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe–and all the public housing in the U.S.–boils down to racist practices of segregation and neglect. Such practices would (and did) render even a two-storey apartment complex into a dangerous nightmare.

In essence, Americans misread high-rise housing, and link them to vivid but misleading conclusions which distract us from real accountability for our very painful social failings. Worse, the dissemble-and-distract policy of avoiding open acknowledgment of our racism has another unfortunate side-effect: we have become utterly phobic about rebuilding our cities with mid-rise and high-rise housing.

Meanwhile we keep wondering why the housing supply in center-cities is so limited and expensive. “The market”, you say? The market in U.S. cities would result in buildings like the ones pictured above. No, as in so many domains of the U.S. economy, social prejudices override ‘market logic.’ Frankly, the urban housing market is freer here in China than in the U.S. Hmmm.

Reading the infrastructure

Last week I assigned an unusual text for my students: the city of Suzhou itself. In this post I am going to show some examples of what I mean by reading the city as a text.


My first examples are quite literal. I began looking at the lids that cover infrastructure immediately after I arrived in Suzhou. It help me learn the Chinese characters that are most important to me. For instance the character in the center of this lid is yu, which means rain. This is a stormwater drain cover.


In conrast the central character on this lid is “wu”, which means filth; this is a ‘sanitary’ sewer cover. The Chinese is actually more sensible in this case.


“famen” means valve. Probably water supply; possibly gas.


“gong dian” means electric supply. Red lightning symbol as a fair warning!


But reading a city–even just the infrastructure of a city–goes beyond literal reading of labels. Suzhou is now implementing a permeable-paving program. All across the city I have seen recent installations of permeable parking areas adjacent to existing buildings. Since Suzhou is built in a wetland, this makes a lot of sense. Still, I was surprised to see so much revision of areas that already had paving before.


There are also flood-control gates adjacent to major navigation canals throughout the city. Here it is important to think about urban hydrography.


The canal-system is still a major, active system in Suzhou, and so it is being dredged. In this image the filled barge on the right is heading away under the bridge where I am standing, and the recently-emptied barge on the left is heading over to receive mud from the dredging-shovel.


In this photo the infrastructure is massive and new: high-voltage transmission lines on the right, and a new highway bridge on the left.


But in this area, we might overlook the fact that there was a lot of investment in infrastructure in the past: electric supply, telecommunications, water, road.

Urbanism and Geopolitics

Today I have just completed my first month in China. Time permitting I will get back to blog-postings that include lots of photos. But for today, I wanted to reflect on issues of urban politics and what that means for my work in China.

1. Addressing some paranoias about China

When I was preparing to move here to Suzhou and teach at XJTLU, a number of people raised concerns about how I might get in trouble with Chinese authorities for speaking my mind. This blog post is a reflection on that question. And as a public posting, it is immediately accessible to a number of potentially interested parties.

First of all, as an employee of XJTLU, I was not only hired by a British university—but also by a Chinese university: Xi’an Jiaotong DaXue is a joint partner in this university. So the Chinese government has reviewed my research (and perhaps older posts on this blog) and hired me. In effect, they asked for me, critical approach and all. XJTLU has been pretty explicit about wanting a critical approach to planning, and planning is about politics at the urban scale. I have said that before and it is public knowledge. Furthermore, as a planning educator working at a Chinese university, I am part of the government of China; so I need to consider my position from multiple angles. I learned this years ago in Kabul: to some extent I continue to represent the Islamic Republic as a former professor of Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic.

As for concern about monitoring and censorship: my role as an academic is one in which I expect to be monitored. In 2008, after returning from my fieldwork in Kabul, I flew to the Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Chicago, partly as a test of whether the US Department of Homeland Security had put me on a no-fly list. Why? Because in 2003, 2006, and for seven months in 2007 I worked for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Thus far the U.S. government has left me alone, and I appreciate that. But for more than a decade I have also deliberately maintained a policy of public disclosure of information in the hope that I will prevent Homeland Security from ever being nervous about me. I will behave the same way here in China. My travel history is a little weird, and a matter of public record for national governments. I think they have fair reason to check on why I was in Haiti in 1988 when a coup happened; why I was in Tashkent and northern Tajikistan in 1992; and so forth. My job, in this respect, is to pursue my relentless curiosity about urbanism across the world, and not get paranoid about it. Self-censorship based on imagined hypothetical futures would be paralyzing.

As it is, being a planner means living with the curse of Cassandra of Troy. I am still struggling to imagine the radical implications of climate-change and resource depletion on massive future cities. I have plenty to worry about already. As for the People’s Republic, they just had a typhoon sweep across several provinces. On that scale I am completely insignificant; and if I ever do become significant, it will be in an effort to help the PRC plan for their cities to be more sustainable. That may involve some harsh criticism of current local urban policies, but as I understand it that is the job the People’s Republic itself has hired me to do.

2. Kunduz, Mosul and the intersection of urban and national politics

As my colleagues say, urban planning is about politics with a small ‘p’, not a capital ‘P’. Generally I agree with that. The planning of bus routes, sewer lines, and housing affordability generally does not cause the same level of concern as questions of national sovereignty. But politics at both levels tends to be mutually reflective because people from the same environment of governing expectations (what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’) comprise the staff and group-thinking at both levels within any country. And every once in a while the national significance of cities themselves becomes apparent.

Several days ago the Taliban took over Kunduz City in northern Afghanistan. From their point of view, they are probably arguing that they recovered the city from the infidel-backed, corrupt government now based in Kabul. The news coverage I get from here (BBC, CNN, and China’s CCTV) focuses on the military struggle to take back the city from the Taliban. What I want to know, though, is: How will the Taliban govern the city while they control it? and What impression will that leave on the citizens of Kunduz?

Seven years ago, when the Taliban started taking back a few rural districts in remote provinces, I heard reports that they immediately started collecting taxes and used them to fund their governing. Part of their governing process was to set up courts to resolve disputes. Generally, Shari’a courts focus on things like real-estate property disputes, inheritance disputes, and divorce cases. In 1989 the current President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, wrote a great paper about such court-practices in Jalalabad. Western media tends to portray Shari’a as something utterly alien and anti-modern, like Klingon jurisprudence. In fact, women have had property rights under Shari’a for 1300 years, whereas women under Christian rule have only gained many of their rights since 1789. I am not going to go into a detailed comparison here; rather, I need to point out that men and women might prefer Shari’a jurisprudence. In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul actually incorporates Shari’a into the legal system, especially for property disputes. It is worth noting that the constitution of the present Islamic Republic was drafted with consultation from American lawyers and it incorporates both Shari’a and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

The problem across Afghanistan is not the inclusion of Shari’a, but the failure to implement justice in practice. The Islamic Republic’s courts are slow, and prone to charging exorbitant ‘clerical fees’ before a case sees trial. In contrast, the Taliban courts begin to consider cases immediately, and the fees are paid by the general tax. In one district, after the Taliban were driven out, interviewees commented that disputes which had languished for years where resolved by Taliban judges within a few days. As far as I can tell, the decisions were not annulled when the Taliban were driven out, probably because both they and the government use the same legal system. Instead, the lasting impression seems to be that the Taliban are harsh, but they oppose corruption and they implement justice. In other words they are building up more credibility than the Islamic Republic, because of the way that they govern local affairs. Politics with a small ‘p’, you might say.

I also noticed that the province of Kunduz had been dominated by the Taliban for more than a year, but what got international attention was the takeover of the city. This reminds me of the attention that ISIS began to receive after it took over Mosul. Control of turf, in itself, is not so symbolically important. Control of the people and the resources of urban space is what matters today. This was the lesson that the Taliban learned inadvertently in 1994. Mullah Omar was motivated to drive out several grossly corrupt mujahideen commanders from Kandahar. When they fled without a fight, the Taliban suddenly had control of a whole city. So far as I can tell they did not imagine what it would mean to be a governing authority until that moment, because anti-corruption had been their whole agenda. Two years later, when they took Kabul, they had to reimagine themselves again as the government of an entire country. Their initial behavior—storming the UN compound and executing Najibullah—indicates that they were indifferent to, and perhaps ignorant of international diplomatic protocol. Stomping on the sovereignty of local UN facilities came back to haunt them. It is not a good idea to piss off UN staff if you want to gain international recognition as a legitimate government. But 20 years later I expect they have learned a lot about what it means to govern, how to win hearts & minds by working at the local scale, and the symbolic significance of governing a city. I hope the Islamic Republic has learned those same lessons.

Shanghai (上海): first visit

On Saturday, the 3rd-year urban design class visited the “M50” site and the surrounding area in Shanghai, which they will be redesigning for the semester. The instructors, Chris and Yu, invited me along! Before showing pictures, here are some maps to orient you. In the first map above, M50 is just below the center of the image. The relatively empty area to the north and west of M50 is the site of a former furniture factory complex. That is going to be the site for the semester’s exercise. Only a few buildings, deemed historic, have been kept. The rest of the site has been cleared for new development. The river which bounds the site is called Suzhou Creek.
In the next series of maps (courtesy of BaiduMaps), I zoom straight back out. Suzhou Creek is still visible running from west to east (left to right) across this area. Why is it called Suzhou Creek even though we are in the middle of Shanghai, you might ask? Glad you did… Whereas Shanghai dates back to 1843, Suzhou dates back to at least the 8th century; so for more than 1,000 years Suzhou was the main city in this region. People used to travel from Suzhou to Shanghai and back mainly on this creek.
The center of Shanghai is where Suzhou Creek runs (eastward) into the HuangPu River, which is flowing northward. It is the larger river on the right side of this map. Suzhou Creek runs into it at the rightward bend, which is the location of the Bund in Shanghai. In classically logical Chinese geographical thinking, the area west (Xi: 西) of the HuangPu (黄浦) is called PuXi (浦西); and the area east (Dong: 东) of the HuangPu is called PuDong (浦东). The mega-scale financial center, and the international airport, are located east of the river, so both are called PuDong.
At this scale SuZhou Creek is no longer shown, but you get a sense of the overall layout of the whole city. At top center, the HuangPu River flows into the Yangze just as the Yangze itself is flowing into the East China Sea. You can also see the rail lines running west from the city center towards SuZhou.
In this last map, I zoomed out further and shifted westward a bit so you could see SuZhou, located on the left edge of this image. Much of the land between both cities is farmland, interspersed with industrial compounds and the occasional cluster of high-rise residential towers.
So here we are arriving by chartered bus in Shanghai, for my first time. I was expecting serious density, like Manhattan or Bangkok, and a bit more chaos than the highly-manicured SuZhou Industrial Park. To some degree I got what I expected; but the traffic congestion is not as bad as downtown San Francisco. Note the illuminated congestion-indicators in the sign above the roadway.
This older building amidst towers reminds me of a scene in the film Inception. Anybody with me on this?
Here we arrive at M50, which is a series of preserved older buildings now used as art galleries.
The M50 district definitely caters to foreigners.
M50 is bounded on the east by SuZhou Creek. The pipe in the foreground is significant: the ground (grade) in M50 is the same elevation as SuZhou Creek. As in New Orleans, I suspect they have to do a lot of pumping to prevent the water-table in M50 from rising to the surface.
Behind the riverside wall is a lovely garden. The table and chairs are carved from solid stone, and beautifully polished.
This preserved and restored building reminds me of Faneuil Hall in Boston.
A bit of commercial photography at M50.
This photograph did not turn out well, but look! Double-decker bike parking! And we, in California, were so proud when we put in double-decker car parking…
This image is for my wife. Electric scooters are very popular here, and many are shaped like Vespas. The Union Jack is a popular decoration. Oy!
We walked around the corner from M50 and into the cleared site of the former furniture factory. As I mentioned in previous posts, it seems to me that vegetable-gardening is the most sensible use of urban space where there are not actual buildings. I don’t mean this only in the case of China, but more generally because vegetable gardening is labor intensive, and in a city, the labor is living right there. Here, where no-one is looking, the caretakers of the construction-side are acting sensibly and crowing corn and other crops.
One of the historic buildings which will be kept. In the foreground is the lumpy terrain of demolished building rubble.
Apparently the building in the foreground-left was the factory-owners mansion, so it is being kept. Meanwhile the housing on the north side of SuZhou Creek, in the background, gives some sense of the new scale of development in this city.
In this portrait-view, Chris and Yu provide more of a sense of scale to this scene.
Another building that will be kept. Note that after just a few years as a cleared site, vegetation is reclaiming the area in the foreground.
Yu and Chris contemplate a potential site for a pedestrian bridge from the neighborhood on the far side of the creek to the park on this side.
SuZhou Creek has been cleaned up considerably in the last ten years. The water is still green and opaque, but it has no odor. Even though there are clearly tens of thousands of people living just across the creek from this spot, the feeling was quite serene. If you can imagine the apartment towers as tall cliffs, somewhere in southern Utah, that gives some sense of the unexpectedly non-urban feeling of this setting.
Apparently September 12th was an auspicious day among Buddhists in this area, and as an act of devotion they release fish into the creek. The security guard for this site, however, prefers to catch and eat said fish. Yu tells me they are excellent in soup.
The third-year students interviewed another caretaker for this site.
Yep, cornstalks and high-rise towers.
At the west end of the cleared site is a bridge over SuZhou Creek. Given the scale of development on both sides of this bridge, I was surprised at the lack of congestion.
Buses are well-used, but I have not yet seen any bus nearly so crowded as the 30 Stockton in San Francisco, nor the buses I used to ride in Kabul.
As one of the studio-leaders, Chris was looking at access to open-space near the study-site. This is the park on the north side of the creek. Access to the park is difficult, and it is also very underused.
I was expecting much more of Shanghai to look like this intersection above. But even in this case, the traffic is pretty mellow compared to many, perhaps most of the cities I have seen.
During our exploration of a massive furniture mall, Chris found a fire-exit corridor that was open and let out out onto a rear fire-escape stair. From here we could look at potential connection points between the redevelopment site and the city to the south. But I also noticed something else: when someone lowered the partition wall between these two properties, they simply jackhammered away a carved stone freize. In California it is rare to find anyone willing to pay for cut stone, let alone decorative carved stone. Here it is treated as cheap.
…speaking of stone: these mushrooms are carved granite. I cannot even guess their function. I wonder if they were once commissioned as part of a display in the mall, and were then salvaged by the staff once that display was taken down.
Here is my art photo. Most of Shanghai is so new that it is rare to see a real “patina” formed from layers of old paint and moisture, despite the frequent rains here.
This is how the furniture store advertises one of its beds: each side is adjustable to suit different-sized people. I am amused–but also bemused–by the choice of a Swedish beauty-contest winner as one of the models.
I love the cargo-bikes here. This is an especially fine model.

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.