Chinese and Americans Have Different Concepts of “Livability”

By Mitchell Blatt | Literature

Aug 27

Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China, a book that explores the phenomenon of Chinese new city development. Why are so many cities seemingly empty?, Shepard thought, seeing what the media often describes as “ghost towns.” In fact, he argues, many of those “ghost towns” are actually in the stages of development, and will be populated soon, if they aren’t already. His book explains how development happens in China and gives specific examples from many cities he visited. I will be posting a review of the book later, but first, here is his answer to a question I asked by email.

Shepard is a contributor to Reuters, CityMetric, and the South China Morning Post, and the owner/editor of Vagabond Journey, a website that I have frequently contributed to.

My question was about the large-scale of developments:

You mentioned Pudong and some other districts with wide, 6-lane roads as examples of what new cities often look like. A writer for The Atlantic Cities [actually, The Atlantic, James Fallows] last year contrasted Pudong with the narrow, walkable streets of the French Concession. What kind of effect do new cities have on what might be called “livability”?

Here is the relevant excerpt from Fallows’ article “Nice Downtowns: How Did They Get That Way?”:

The older part of Shanghai—Puxi, “west of the river,” including the quasi-colonial international districts and the partly preserved French Concession—of course has its share of skyscrapers and elevated freeways and deluxe shopping malls. But it also has small, intimate streets lined with little stores and full of passers-by doing their daily shopping.

The newer part—Pudong, “east of the river”—is built on a Speer-esque inhuman scale of giant boulevards and huge walkways plastered with morale building “China dream” posters and barely a little shop in sight (until you go around to the alleys in back). Its center includes the spectacle of an 88-story, a 101-story, and a 128-story skyscraper side-by-side, as shown at right.

Photos from Wikipedia.

Photos from Wikipedia.

I used to live in Pudong, and I more of less agree with Fallows, but Shephard offers an alternative argument:

We really need to alter our concept of “livability” to fit the modern Chinese context. Generally speaking, the attributes that make up a desired living space are very different between Westerners and Chinese. Living in a cramped room on the 32nd floor of a high-rise that’s sticking up out of the top of a shopping mall that’s suffocated by jam packed eight lane boulevards and elevated highways sounds like some kind of dystopic urban nightmare to me, but that’s the “white picket fence” of the Chinese dream. Who am I to tell someone that their ideal living environment actually sucks?

What’s really interesting is how ingrained these contrasting perspectives on what constitutes “livability” actually are. For example, I have an apartment in a beautiful new development area that’s right on the beach just outside of the busy build-up core of Xiamen Island. I have the best view of the sea that I can imagine, the streets aren’t busy, it’s quiet, comfortable, and walkable. For Westerners, the place is the closest thing that we can get to our idea of livability in China, and an entire colony of us have just naturally gravitated over. But when my Chinese friends come over, they, almost without variation, complain: “Why do you want to live out here? It’s far from downtown, it’s too quiet.” They look at my island paradise with as much contempt as I do when looking at their high-rises sticking out of shopping malls that are wrapped in highways.

As far as livability is concerned, we need to take into account that the way modern Chinese communities are set up creates an incredible stark insider-outsider dichotomy. People here are gravitating to gated apartment complexes, which tend to take up the entirety of a 500 x 500 meter plots of land — which, not coincidentally, are often how they are auctioned off to developers. If you’re just walking down the street in these places you will often find little more than an eight foot high fence on one side of you and an eight lane highway on the other. Many of these new development areas seem like cultural dead zones of little more than massively wide boulevards traversing huge blocks, monstrous set-backs between the streets and buildings, few pedestrians, and nothing resembling what we would call community. But if we get over to the other side of those gates we find ourselves in a very different reality. Generally speaking, in most apartment complexes there are extensive gardens, pedestrian pathways, ponds, playgrounds, benches, and a relatively decent amount of open public space. Each evening the high-rises empty their residents out into this area, where they stroll, talk, play music, and watch their kids as they play together. Everyday after school my daughter rushes home to play with all the other little kids in our complex. They run around in a big mob without fear of being run over by cars or commandeered by perverts. Everybody watches everybody else’s kids. Apartment complexes in China are called xiao qu — little districts — and that’s exactly what they are. In modern China, “in the streets” is not where street life is taking place.

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About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.