Tag Archives: books

via Flickr/David O

Attractive and well-maintained public pedestrian space is probably essential to a smoothly functioning democratic society, because we are forced to develop and maintain a civic awareness there, our activities are visible and we can meet as equals

This quote comes from Just Enough: Lessons in living green from traditional Japan, the book I’ve been drawn into the past week. It’s a great book, lent to me by a friend, about what Japan in the late Edo period (18th/19th century) looked like: a self-sufficient and sustainable society. The book follows the narrator on his visits to friends and acquaintances and shares with the reader what he sees: by telling us the story, and showing us with great illustrations. The book is amazing in its richness of detail and the amount of research that must have gone in to it. Not only is the book a good way of learning what kind of elements a sustainable society can have, it is also a great way of learning more about what people lived like at that time (so I now think it should be compulsory reading for anyone studying Japanese, like I did).

But back to the quote. At the end of each chapter, the writer Azby Brown shares lessons learned: what elements of Edo Japan can – or should – we integrate in our modern societies? Many of them I’ve come across at different places: eating local, waste = food, and many others. But the above quote stood out to me immediately.

I’m a walker. Despite being very Dutch, I don’t enjoy cycling (in fact, I can’t remember the last time I took my – broken down – bike out of the garage). I’m happy just walking through cities, turning in to streets that seem interesting and exploring a city that way. But this quote highlighted some other aspects of city walking that I hadn’t really thought of much before. Interaction with others, and the link to a democratic society. And it makes sense, because by walking I feel part of the city and I feel connected – even if only slightly – with the people around me.

The quote also reminded me of a discussion I had with urban planner/architect Christian Dimmer in Tokyo, and his ideas on how cities can become a more sustainable urban space. It’s not just about having green buildings, energy-efficient infrastructure and renewable energy sources. It’s also – mostly? – about the people. If you cannot create a sense of community in a city than all of the rest becomes a lot more difficult to realize successfully. But governments and top-down planners seem to forget about this social dimension of cities too often, maybe because it’s also seems to me to be one of the most difficult things to get right.

One initiative in Japan that is trying to bring attention to this dimension of urban development is the Tohoku Planning Forum, which brings together professionals in urban development to find ways of involving local communities in developing reconstruction plans in the tsunami-hit area of Tohoku in Japan. This article also explains some more of the initiative’s objectives and ambitions for the future.

However, talking to different people including Dr. Dimmer in Tokyo, my impression that urban development in Tokyo is very much top-down driven was definitely confirmed. In a way, that’s understandable. But, like the above quote also shows: you can’t create livable cities without involving the people and communities that are supposed to live there.

There does seem to be quite a bit happening in the field of (sustainable) urban development in Japan – even if China takes the spotlight currently – but my impression is also increasingly that this market is much more difficult to penetrate as a European urban planning or architecture firm. Not impossible, several European (including Dutch) architecture firms are active on the Japanese market. But the Chinese market seems to be much more receptive to outside expertise and knowledge.


Shenzhen Stock Exchange being built / OMA design (taken April 2010)

Working in China as a non-Chinese brings all kinds of challenges with it. Of course, this isn’t a surprise. The book “You can’t change China, China changes you” explores exactly what those differences are, in one particular industry: architecture.

The book had been recommended to me a few times over the last couple of years, as I work on China and regularly with architects. So when I came across a copy in the local bookshop it was an easy choice to take home. Only at home did I realize that this was an English-language copy of an originally Dutch book. In itself not a problem, except that the book would have benefited from a good editor.

The book covers the adventures and experiences of Dutch architect John van de Water of NEXT Architects. Spanning several years from about 2004-2008, Van de Water shares with the reader his amazement, surprise, fascination while working in Beijing in cooperation with a Chinese architecture firm. And yes, the Chinese building & architecture industry is different – the book shows differences in how projects are acquired, the importance of the client, the perspective towards the role of the architect as part of a project etc. And of course the speed at which China is building.

It’s a good read, even for a non-architect, though I am sure that fellow-architects will gain more from it. The book contains a lot of theorizing, and abstract concepts on what the function of architecture in society should be. Sometimes these parts became a bit too pompous for my taste (but that could also have been the language issue noted above). And knowing the industry from inside would probably help to appreciate the differences more.

What the book has left me with is the sense that being an architect in China means that you need to be able to deal with unpredictable situations; whether this is a client which is constantly changing its mind or changing government plans, you never quite know what will happen the next day. In fact, that is probably the same in any industry across China.

A few weeks ago I posted my favourite books on China: what are must-read’s on this country if you want to get an idea of what is going on in this country, according to mthld of course.

But I don’t only read on China (and in that case, that list possibly would’ve been longer). Especially some of the books which I’ve read on the topic of sustainability and corporate social responsibility have made quite an impact on how I view these topics and what I have done about them in my personal life. But not only that, reading about these issues and getting a better understanding of them has also led me to work towards a career shift. I’m in the middle of this career shift right now in which I will combine the topics of international business and CSR much more than I have done so far. Exciting stuff.

More will follow about that later, for now – what are these books that have made such an impact?

Collapse by Jared Diamond
Diamond is the writer of another fascinating book (Guns, Germs and Steel) which is a recommended read as well – but for me this book is the more interesting of the two. In this book Diamond describes what made the difference for societies to either be successful or to fail. Often, according to Diamond, the reasons behind this are in part environmental and also dependent on how societies work with their natural environment. He sketches how caring for and maintaining the natural environment properly is a critical factor in the survival of a society. Fascinating reading, which gave me a much better understanding of longer term effects of environment and of not handling it as well as we should.

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
Despite the title of this book, this book – and the one-week experiment that resulted from it, the No Impact Project – has probably influenced my personal life and the choices I make the most. The book is the result of one year living with no (or at least very minimal) impact on the environment in the middle of New York City. Colin Beavan’s year goes to a lot more extremes than is considered comfortable living, but it also shows what is possible. By participating in the No Impact Project (twice, and it’s starting again in the Netherlands in spring 2013) I’ve discovered much more about the possibilities of changes in your own behaviour towards a more sustainable way of living than I expected.

Prosperity without growth by Tim Jackson
Is continuous economic growth possible within the limits of the earth? Jackson argues that it isn’t , but he also argues that economic growth is not necessary for prosperity. However, this does require major changes in the current economic system, and in this book he explains some of them and how to make them work. Persuasive reading, and especially recommended if you are interested in the economic & business side of sustainability.

The necessary revolution by Peter Senge, and others
This is another book which looks at the more economic side of sustainability and the changes needed both to make business more sustainable but also how this will impact the rest of society. It looks at creating partnerships across society and how this will enable change to happen. Interesting ideas, and it contains good examples and best practices.

The ecology of commerce by Paul Hawken
This is an older book on the basics of what sustainibility means for business, and how business can work with this. Still worth a read.

With the amount of books written about CSR & sustainability of course there is a lot more out there. For the moment however, these are my personal favourites – and of course I am always curious to hear your’s. What is missing from this list?

China is a much-discussed country following the increasingly important role it is taking up in the world. This also means there is a wealth of books out there (not to mention blogs, articles, and all kinds of other news) which all explore some part of China. A simple query on Amazon brings up tens of thousands of titles. Wow.

I recently finished another book on China, one which has gotten a lot of exposure and good reviews since it was published in 2010. The book made me look back at what I have been reading over the last few years and I’ve put together my personal top 5 of non-fiction books on China, for anyone looking for some interesting reading. The books are a mix of politics, society, history and a little bit of economics – and posted in random order.

Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan
This book is a collection of essays on Chinese regular citizens who made a difference, in one way or another, written by a former China-correspondent of the Washington Post. What I liked about it is that the stories are very personal, every chapter is on one individual. Together, the stories touch on a lot of important parts of Chinese history and society: Tiananmen Square in 1989, SARS in 2004, hutongs being demolished in Beijing etc. This means that you get a pretty good grasp of modern history and society, while at the same time being drawn in to the personal stories of these individuals.

The Party: The secret world of China’s communist rulers by Richard McGregor
I’ve seen this book at the top of various Top 10 China book listings, and I’m not surprised. The book describes how the Chinese Communist Party works and every chapter discusses a different part of its workings, including the judicial system, HR inside the party, state-owned enterprises etc. Fascinating to read how all-encompassing this system really is.

The Concrete Dragon by Thomas J. Campanella
The subtitle of this book is China’s urban revolution and what it means to the world, which sums up pretty well what this book is about. I’m quite interested by how cities grow and evolve, as this will be increasingly difficult to do well with an ever-expanding population and growing pressure on resources, land, etc. This is not only true in Europe, but much much more so in China where cities of several million inhabitants and more are the rule, rather than the exception. This book discusses how cities in China have evolved, discusses the impact on society of these changes, and shows some fascinating examples of Chinese urbanisation right now with a chapter devoted to for example themed suburbs and themeparks. It’s a more academic read than the other books in this list, but I enjoyed it a lot.

Tied to this book I also want to mention another book on Chinese urbanisation which looks at the same topics from the perspective of the people living in those cities: How the city moved to Mr. Sun, written by Dutch journalists Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen. The duo visited 13 of China’s new megacities: cities away from the Eastcoast and more inland such as Chongqing, Lanzhou and Hohhot. In these cities they follow the life of someone who lives there and this story represents the impact these expanding cities have on China and its population. Besides containing interesting stories, the book is also beautifully designed with lots of photographs and additional information.

Red Dust by Ma Jun
This is a very different book than the others which are listed in this post, as this is a travelogue by a Chinese journalist who leaves Beijing to travel around China for three years in the early 1980’s. I haven’t read it for a long time (and in fact, gave it away to an ex-colleague – as I’ve done with many of these books) but it still sticks with me as quite a special and fascinating travel story of China 30 years ago.

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter
This book actually prompted this post, as I finished it most recently. It has received quite a bit of coverage since its publication in 2010 and it’s clear why: the book uses formerly inaccessable Chinese archives to go through the couple of years of the famine which occurred during the Great Leap Forward between 1958-1962. I didn’t know that much about this particular part of Chinese history. Most of the gruesome history is told about the Cultural Revolution – but not anymore. Through his research Dikötter estimates that around 45 million people died during these four years in China, through famine and related causes. The book contains LOTS of numbers, statistics and facts that made it slow reading, but the amount of research put into this book is dazzling and it’s very recommended if you want to get a better understanding of how the Chinese Communist Party made their decisions – at least during this time it seemed to be all about keeping up appearances to your boss and to the outside world. But at least not based on what is happening in the country itself.


So, the above are my favourites on China (in random order) but of course there is much more that I haven’t read, and I have a couple of books waiting on my book shelf, but this top 5 will be hard to break into.

What have you read, and what did you like? Please share your additional recommendations in the comments!