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Ancient philosophy guides good urban planning

2010. 20 January

Editor's Note:
As the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai approaches, China's landscape development and urbanization process is drawing more attention. Global Times (GT) reporter Wu Meng interviewed Ma Xiaowei (Ma), president and chief architect of AGER Shanghai, a landscape design institute, on China's urbanization.

Ma Xiaowei

( GT: The theme of the World Expo, "Better City, Better Life," represents people's wishes for a better urban environment. What stage is China at in terms of urbanization?

Ma: Urbanization is a complicated matter. People tend to focus on hard figures such as population, income levels and the size of the city, and ignore other aspects of urbanization. We see all these reports on how rapid the process of urbanization is in China, but it is mostly driven by special interests.

For instance, a small city can use the claim of a "need for urbanization" to turn farmland into development land, and by selling the land to the developers, the local government will benefit from it. With new buildings and roads springing up like mushrooms, people directly feel the benefits brought by urbanization.

However, many aspects need refining.

Urbanization means the movement of people from rural to urban areas, with population growth equating to urban migration, but in China, we have a lot of migrant workers. They come into the city when we need them and go to another place afterward when they are not needed. Only when we provide a permanent home for this social group can we say that urbanization has achieved its essential goal.

GT: At the coming World Expo 2010 in Shanghai, the China Pavilion will incorporate elements from traditional culture, such as the traditional guanmao (official's cap) and the color shade of "China Red." Do you think that the traditional culture card is being overplayed in global activities?

Ma: With a 5,000-year-old culture, it would be difficult and unnecessary for China not to evoke any cultural symbols in its display. The final design of the China Pavilion was selected from a series of possibilities.

So I think Chinese cultural elements are still appealing to both Chinese and foreigners. It is hard to avoid those symbols just for the sake of it.

Perhaps we are overusing them a little bit. There is nothing wrong with using the culture to represent a country. But it should be more than just some symbols like a certain shade, or a cer-tain kind of clothing.

To be more specific, in the China Pavilion, the "China Red" and the "official cap" represent the imperial authority, which was the essence of power in ancient times.

But in traditional Chinese culture, humanity and nature are essential, too. Little things like green grass, small bridges, dark blue bricks and painted white walls are what ordinary people relate to a harmonious life, and they are more than just simple symbols.

China could learn from the 1970 Expo, which was held in the Osaka Castle, on how to mix culture into the actual exhibitions. The location was in a rural area, surrounded by bamboo forest, where people enjoy a peaceful life. This concept is what harmony is all about, and it used the famous cherry blossom to represent Japan without it seeming like a forced cultural symbol.

GT: Traditional Chinese landscape architecture, such as private gardens and small bridges, offers a good example of living in a harmonious environment. But does it work in today's fast-paced urban lifestyle?

Ma: I think there is a misunderstanding about traditional Chinese landscape architecture. It does not equal a small bridge over a flowing stream, nor an elegant pavilion with a pagoda far away.

What traditional landscape architecture really offers us is a way of thinking, a philosophy that modern people should adopt. People should live in a natural environment and live in harmony with nature. This is the essence of it.

But now, we tend to only look for big things such as wide roads, fancy skyscrapers and forced city planning. When it comes to urban planning, first we divide the land into different areas – residential, commercial, education, public parks and so on.

What we really need to pay attention to is: Will people live comfortably here? Is it convenient to cross an eight-lane road to enter the park? Do we really need a man-made mushroom in the park?

Time changes, and so do people's aesthetic values. But the essence of what makes a happy life will never change. A harmonious living environment and a reasonable view on development is what we really need to remember from traditional Chinese landscape architecture.

GT: The estimated 70 million visitors will put Shanghai's infrastructure to the test. Inadequate peripheral facilities, such as public transport, seem to be a common problem in Chinese cities. What can Shanghai and other Chinese cities do to improve this?

Ma: I don't think it will be a problem for Shanghai in terms of testing its economy and transportation. Having been living in Shanghai for nine years, I am still astonished by the speed and scale of construction, which is unmatched in the world.

But I do think it will post a tough challenge in some regards. For example, ordinary people's daily habits. I still see people throwing their household garbage out in the alleys, waiting for the cleaning workers to take them away.

Yes, the government relabeled the trash cans in an attempt to get people to divide their garbage up for recycling. But these changes have more to do with people's way of thinking and a change of their attitude toward the responsibility they should take as a citizen.

When we say "Better City, Better Life," we also need to think about what aspects of the city actually make our lives better. Convenience, security, a strong infrastructure, and good education affect us all.

But what about sanitary conditions? In a city with a permanent population of 20 million, dealing with the waste is not easy. It takes everyone, not just the cleaners, to make an effort to keep our living environment clean.

Say we have 70 million visitors, that means 14 million a month over the five months of the Expo. A population of 34 million people will soon turn the city into a big dump site if we don't take urgent measures on garbage sorting and recycling.

We can make a comparison with other big cities in Asia.

In Tokyo, which is about the same size as Shanghai, they implemented a "super ecological region" to promote the classification of five different kinds of garbage: construction waste, industrial waste, medical waste, household waste and electronic waste. By doing that, Tokyo successfully resolved this problem. It is a useful experience for Shanghai to learn from.

GT: Green ecology is a must in today's urban development, and has been prioritized at the Expo. What can China learn from other cities in the world?

Ma: As a matter of fact, Chinese people traditionally live a low-carbon life. People used to live in hutong and build their houses around small alleys. It saves energy on transportation. This is a green lifestyle.

Compare this to some Western cities, such as Pittsburgh. The environment was polluted by heavy industry first, then people realized how important it is to have a healthy low-carbon lifestyle. It is a green city now because people learned from the mistakes they made in the past.

So for China, we can see the mistakes other cities made before and should learn from them. As long as we do not abandon what our ancestors had and were proud of, it won't be very difficult to maintain.

But in reality, green technology costs more to begin with. Property developers may be reluctant to adopt green materials because it raises their costs. Government departments need to release policies to support green development.

With more financial support and hard policies, people will be more willing to use them. I think it will be a good start for us.