City and Regional Planning

Posted December 13, 2019

Visualizing Future Cities with Zhongjie Lin

While it’s trade that dominates U.S. media coverage of Chinese-American relations these days, when it comes to the built environment, it’s global issues like climate change, migration, and urbanization that will decide the future of both nations. Their response to these challenges is the subject of a new three-year project led by Associate Professor of Urban Design Zhongjie Lin at the Weitzman School.

The project is called Spatial Visions Connecting China and the West: A Centennial Review and New Perspectives on Future Urban Environments, and it recently earned the support of the Penn China Research and Engagement Fund. The project builds on a series of initiatives undertaken at the Weitzman School since the Fund was launched in 2015; the latest, spearheaded by Marilyn Jordan Taylor, professor of architecture and urban design, and Richard Weller, professor and chair of landscape architecture and Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, culminated in a Beijing summit in the spring of this year.

For Spatial Visions, Lin is joined by nine other Penn researchers and nine external partners, including Tsinghua University, Tongji University, and Southeast University. They’re planning a large exhibition and two symposia at Penn for the fall of 2020. The exhibition will then travel to the Penn Wharton China Center in Beijing, where another symposium is planned. Lin, whose thought leadership on cities has earned him Guggenheim and Woodrow Wilson fellowships, talks about his study of cities in China and beyond.

How would you compare the Chinese and American approaches to the built environment, and what inspired the Spatial Visions project?

Let me give an example to illustrate their different approaches. On both sides, climate change has been emphasized in recent years, but their focuses are different. In China, sea level rise hasn’t been a major concern for the most part, even though cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai are situated at low altitudes. Chinese cities, however, are confronted with serious flooding. A few years ago, a severe flood in Beijing killed nearly 100 people, which became a wakeup call. The government came up with a program called the “sponge city.” It forces planners and designers to reconsider the way cities have been built: the impact of mass infrastructural projects on nature and urban ecology, the domination of impermeable materials in buildings and open spaces, the disappearing arable land and wetland. Although issues of the built environment should be addressed locally, they are connected worldwide and require sharing of know-how and coordinated actions.

Penn has a remarkable tradition of engaging China: educating [Chinese] designers, architects and urban planners, and influencing its polices related to urbanism. The history has been studied through a 2003 conference at Penn entitled The Beaux-Arts, Paul Philippe Cret, and the 20th Century Architecture in China. One of the Spatial Visions investigators, Nancy Steinhardt [Professor of East Asian Art and Curator of Chinese Art at the Penn Museum] was a force behind that. Our new project examines the contemporary conditions and looks to the future of this China-West cultural engagement. Such exchange has not only become broader and more intense, its form has also evolved from the fragmented Westernization in China to one characterized by reciprocal influences and dialogues.

You lead a part of the project that studies the rapid proliferation of electric cars in Chinese cities. What can we expect?

Electric cars offer a preview of what we might see with autonomous cars; they are the first step. What we witness is not just a change in the energy source. All the data associated with electric cars can be collected through GPS and cell phones to better under urban systems. They can be tracked, which allows us to see if electrification has changed patterns of travel and how this might change the urban layout. Do cities become more compact and more sustainable, facilitating a healthy environment, active lifestyle, and social interaction? How does this relate to the mass transit system? If the planning is done right, these systems should be connected in a network, which will have a huge impact on how people live in the city. It will cut carbon emissions and reduce pollution. Beijing is moving very rapidly in this direction. That’s an example of how China could inform our policymaking and design in the U.S.
Your study of cities isn’t confined to China. Can you talk about the issues you and your co-editors explore in your new book, Rio de Janeiro: Urban Expansion and the Environment (Routledge, 2019), and how they compare globally?

In South America and in Asia, the cultural contexts for urban concentration differ from compact cities in Europe, examplified by the urban fabric of Paris or Barcelona that integrate different uses. In Rio de Janeiro, the [informal settlement known locally as a] favela represents a different pattern that has grown organically outside the system of master planning, clustered around mountains, and developed localized solution coping with climate conditions. In Rio, the favelas are seeing gentrification. During the Olympics and Soccer World Cup, the government implemented policies to make the favelas safer for foreign tourists, and property values grew. Some residents couldn’t afford the rising prices. In the mean time, there were efforts to improve the favelas by creating public spaces and shaping communities. The government realized there was value in having people stay, and in giving them economic opportunity, instead of treating these areas as slums.

The Rio project followed the example of the three-year China project, with a series of design studios and research in various cities. The result was another volume I co-edited called Vertical Urbanism: Designing Compact Cities in China. In China, the focus of research is shifting from single cities to inter-city networks. The government’s developmental policies, under such initiatives like Jing-Jin-Ji Mega-region (around Beijing) and the Greater Bay Area (in Pearl River Delta), are pushing cities to form megalopolises, connected by highways and high-speed rail. Intensified connectivity strenthens urban-region relation, enhances infrastructural efficiency, and encourages migration. Young, educated people tend to move to larger cities, while the aging stay in smaller towns—which, of course, is problematic. How the system of top-down spatial planning can better guide development of cities on the one hand, and preserve local cultural and natural sites on the other, is a topic for research in our Spatial Visions initiative.

You’ve written that the “new towns” of China should be viewed not as showcases for technology but as social projects that aim for more holistic development. How does your forthcoming book, Constructing Utopias: China’s Emerging New Town Movement, take up this concept?

The primary form of urbanization in China since the 1990s has been building new towns and new districts around large cities. The book explores the environmental and social challenges of this massive urbanization movement, and investigates several types of new towns in China. Economists study them by looking at the city as numbers, like rapid population growth, economic output, and real estate bubble. I mainly focus on the urban form and environmental quality of these places. How did an industrial park in Suzhou introduce the Western concept of neighborhood unit to reshape the post-Danwei social structure? What does an eco-city mean to a new city beyond green buildings and wind turbines? What kind of mistakes have the ghost [new] towns made in urban design that make them uninhabitable? I move through a series of case studies to provide a big picture of the largest urbanization ever seen in human history—which has been ongoing since the Chinese government changed its policy, making land a leasable commodity.

In two talks in China over the summer, you evoked the concept of “ecological wisdom.” Can you elaborate?
The two events I spoke at both focused on socio-ecological relations. My idea is, as we try to resolve current ecological issues, we often rely too much on technology and contemporary systems. Instead, we should look at cities and regions as ecosystems, and learn from our ancestors who had developed nature-based solutions for invention in the nature. Traditional [Chinese] infrastructure handled flooding, for instance, in a very effective way that we have now abandoned.

You have also written about the Chinese “eco-city.” How are its aims different from a “sustainable” city?

These terms are all a little ambiguous, interpreted differently in different countries and even by different organizations in the same country. The eco-city is a type of sustainable city that focuses on renewable energy, and on reducing carbon emissions, waste and pollution. My criticism of the eco-city and similar government-led programs in China is that they are too engineering-driven, too technology-driven. They don’t apply the principles of city design well. We need to design cities that are compact, diverse, and multi-use, and that can be sustained economically—before we start placing things like solar panels and wind turbines. You cannot use these technologies for suburban sprawl and call it an eco-city. We need a comprehensive strategy for a city to be sustainable.