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Walking...
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.

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Tokyo Sky Tree / from Kappabashi-dori

In only a short time from now I’ll be heading to Japan (mostly Tokyo) for a week or so for work. Yikes. That date is quickly getting closer. Which is great – I can’t wait – but this week I’ve also realized that it’s now really time to start filling up that week with appointments and meetings.

I have a long list of people and organisations I would like to meet with. Many of which will not be a problem to meet with, but some of these people have no idea who I am. So it’s also important to get my story right when contacting them. Exciting – another step in establishing my own business.

Why am I going to Tokyo? The trip has a few objectives, but mostly it is meant to further strengthen my professional network locally and to do some research on a few topics I’ve been working on. Mostly these are to get a better perspective on developments on sustainable urban development in Japan, and to find out more on CSR in Japan: what are the main topics in Japan for companies and what are currently the main challenges?

[UPDATE 12/5: thinking about it more, the main question that I take with me to Tokyo is Are Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability on the business agenda in Japan?]

To be continued, of course. And in the mean time, if anyone has further suggestions of relevant organisations/people to meet with who can help me with the above questions, I’d love to hear them!

This month saw the formal change in leadership in China, with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang taking over the positions of president and prime minister at the 12th National People’s Congress.

It quickly became clear that one of Li Keqiang’s main policy items will focus on urbanization in China as a way to maintain economic growth. Urbanization has been an important development in China for the past decades, with the urban population outnumbering the rural population since 2011.

The China Economic Watch blog looks a little closer at this intended focus of the new administration:

“What is interesting about Premier Li’s approach is that it takes the issue of urbanization, which has been the primary driver of regional disparity and income inequality, and repackages it in a way that addresses those exact issues.”

It won’t be easy to tackle the issues that come with urbanization and urban development in China, and to turn them into a source of positive economic development. It will be interesting to follow how this works out in the next few years; also from a Dutch point of view. Many organisations from the Netherlands are involved in the topic of urban development locally but also in China as some news items & events from the past week will show:

  • last Monday, Pakhuis de Zwijger hosted an evening on working in China as a Dutch architect, including a screening of the documentary “The Making of the World’s Largest TV Tower” about the Guangzhou TV Tower;
  • last Thursday I attended the book launch for “The Shanghai Alleyway House; a vanishing urban venacular” at IIAS;
  • the Dutch company Arcadis has signed an agreement with the city of Wuhan to work on restoring some of the old parts of the city (article in Dutch);
  • the Dutch company Inbo recently was one of the experts at an expert meeting for the Shenzhen International Low Carbon City.

It seems that Dutch expertise can be useful in some of the issues that Chinese cities will tackle in the next few years. However, in my discussions on this topic over the last few weeks the big question remaining is how to successfully connect these many and various companies and experts to the right projects and local governments in China. My next few weeks will be spent exploring this question further to look for possible solutions.

A lot is being written about ecocities in China. Smart cities, sustainable cities, future cities: you can call them by different names which mostly come down to the same thing. In my (non-official) definition: a city which is built for the future, which can offer its inhabitants a high quality of life while using its natural resources sustainably (i.e. staying within the limits of this planet) and making smart connections through IT, use of land, agriculture, nature etc – and of course through its people!

As you can probably tell from some earlier posts on this blog, it is also a topic I’m very interested in. It seems to be bringing together so many different things that fascinate and inspire me.

Architecture and design: what will these cities look like, and how do they need to be designed to offer a comfortable and happy place to live?

Sustainability: how can these megacities keep growing and offer space for so many people while using its resources responsibly? How do you feed a city with millions of people living in it?

Business: what role can companies play in inventing innovations which will make life in a big city so much smoother for the millions living there; and in Asia often in poverty?

Earlier this week I came across an online talk by Dutch architect Neville Mars, talking about ecocities and what the many issues are in developing these successfully in China. Interesting talk, which he gave at TEDxTheBund last October in Shanghai.

The Netherlands is also following these developments, some examples of which are a seminar on smart cities in Asia late 2012 (of which you can find short excerpts on developments in the various countries here), a Dutch sustainable building platform in Shanghai and other activities both by the Dutch government representation in China and by companies and individuals active in this field.

There seems to be a lot going on, but at the same time making real progress is difficult – which Neville Mars’ talk illustrates clearly as well. Some of my preferred websites to keep track of these developments are, for example:

Any favourites yourself? I would love to add a few more to this list!

I was contacted recently by a journalist asking about some photographs I took on a trip to China two years ago. He is working on an article on ‘white elephants’ in China which is why he contacted me. I had never heard of this expression until then, but Wikipedia explains:

A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The term derives from the story that the kings of Siam (now Thailand) were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance. In modern usage, it is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, etc., considered to be without use or value.

The New South China Mall in Dongguan, Guangdong province in southern China is one of these ‘white elephants’. I was taken there on a road trip showing the extremes of Chinese development. I wrote the below short article on my impressions of that day (written in april 2010).

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The Pearl River Delta is the main economic region in China and the two main cities, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, are some of the richest cities in the country. We spent the day driving to see some extremes of China – a good change from being in meeting rooms in Beijing for the four days before.

Shenzhen actually surprised me. The city has transformed in 30 years from a small fishing village across from Hong Kong to a major, modern city filled with high-tech companies. It was the first Special Economic Zone in China, announced in 1978 as part of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy. It sparked tremendous growth for the region and ultimately made the Pearl River Delta into the production powerhouse of the world. A lot of the cheap toys and computer components which are ‘made in China’ are likely to have been made here. So in my mind Shenzhen would be a very industrial, factory-filled, dirty & grey, chaotic city. Similar, in fact, to surrounding cities such as Dongguan.

Surprisingly it was much better than that. We visited Shenzhen to meet with an architect from OMA who is working on the construction of the building for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. And this is only one of many buildings under construction with some other top designed buildings close-by. The wealth of the city is clearly showing.

But to show me that China isn’t all about amazing growth rates, spectacular buildings and more, my colleague also took me to the biggest shopping mall in the world. I guess it’s another symptom of China’s development where everything needs to be bigger and better. But bigger doesn’t always mean better, as the New South China Mall clearly shows.

At first we thought we were in for a disappointment. Driving up to the mall we saw shops, people, lights and, well, activitiy. This wasn’t what we were coming for. Because apart from it being big, we were told it would also be empty. When we walked in behind the McDonald’s we were relieved to see this was true. Five floors and corridors going off in every direction, but no shop in sight. It was clear that there had been some shops at a point in time, but everything was gone apart from the Spar, the McD’s and the local drugstore out front. A ghost shopping mall – and an example of how it can go very wrong as well.

Haphazard investment clearly doesn’t automatically guarantee growth and further investment. And that ties in nicely with a presentation I attended earlier that week on the Chinese economy. That presentation closed off with the prediction that the current level of high investment is only going to have a negative effect and that China’s economy will crash within the next few years. Let’s see what will happen.

Dongguan/ New South China Mall

Indrukwekkend. Eigenlijk is het gewoon een debatavond. Maar met een beetje extra.

En dat is te zien. Een uitverkochte Rabozaal van de Stadsschouwburg. Een overwegend jong publiek, met hippe brillen en kapsels. En dat voor een avond gewijd aan de nieuwe megasteden in China, waar wij nog nooit van gehoord hebben.

Daan Roggeveen & Michiel Hulshof begeleiden ons door de avond, we zijn hier tenslotte vanwege hen: het is de boeklancering van hun boek How the city moved to Mr. Sun, het resultaat van een driejarig project. Het boek beschrijft 16 Chinese steden. Van het enorme Chongqing tot het onuitspreekbare Shijiazhuang en het verre, mysterieuze Kashgar. Allen miljoenensteden waar alles hard groeit: de economie, de bevolking en alles wat daar bij hoort. Hun boek beschrijft en toont deze steden en de mensen die er wonen.

De avond is een leuke mix van humor (leer 1000 mensen ‘Ik hou van je’ in het Chinees zeggen), informatie (historische ontwikkeling van Chongqing), exotisme (‘gekke’ Chinezen die Franse paleizen nabouwen), muziek en discussie over hedendaags China in een clubsfeer. Tussendoor maken we door korte intro’s op de verschillende onderdelen kennis met de steden en families uit het boek.

Conclusie van de avond is dat zich een enorme verandering voltrekt in de binnenlanden van China. Is Chongqing over 20 jaar net zo bekend als Chicago?

De paneldiscussie over deze en andere vragen wordt wat te tendentieus geleid naar mijn smaak (door oud-China-correspondente Joan Veldkamp) maar de twee panelleden (beiden van de Universiteit Leiden) weten goed de nuance in hun verhaal te leggen.

En de toekomst? Ook de Chinese panelleden kunnen (willen?) daar geen goed antwoord op geven. Maar duidelijk is dat China voor grote uitdagingen staat: sociaal, economisch, politiek – waar ook wij nog genoeg van zullen merken.

Leuke avond, slim gebruik gemaakt van de verschillende elementen en ik heb nooit geweten dat je dus op deze manier een debat over China hip kan maken.

Ik kijk uit naar het boek.