Sunday, February 12, 2006

Downtown Inc., Chinese Style

I received a call from an LA Times reporter last week asking about the redevelopment of central city industrial sites for high density residential projects, especially in the San Francisco bay area. (Apparently, John Landis was out of reach.) More than one city, including Oakland, is facing significant opposition to such plans, based in part on concerns about more industrial jobs leaving the core, never to return.

Although reporters don't like to hear this, because they only have time to write, not read, I sent her to the classic Downtown Inc. by Frieden and Sagalyn. (Or at least call Sagalyn, I suggested.) Starting from a couple of unambitious case studies of public/private partnerships in a few cities, they produced at least two incisive conclusions about the changing character of downtown planning in the 1970s and 80s: Clearing out economically marginal industrial and warehouse districts in favor of office- and retail-driven growth saved some downtowns from economic disaster, and the scale of such efforts together with the entrepreneurship of some big city mayors, changed the terms of public/private deal making for development purposes.

A wide range of project details turned out to be subject to negotiation, allowing cities to share in more of the ostensibly private project benefits. (One implication for planning education is that planners should get more training in real estate development, even if they have no plans to work in the private sector.) The authors also argued that the benefits of these projects extended broadly to city residents, especially by contrast to the alternative of decline, even if there were indeed some net losers. The northern California conflict revisits many of these questions, with the difference that Downtown Inc.'s projects brought workers and shoppers back to the city, while Oakland et al aims to bring back residents. Will there be losers? Certainly. Is it a bad idea? Harder to say.

I luckily remembered all this as I happened to be rereading that very book when she called, to research an issue raised by another newspaper article, which starts like this:

"In China, Wholesale Urban Flight"
By DAVID BARBOZA, The New York Times
November 25, 2005

The huge chemical spill in the Songhua River that threatens the water supply of Harbin, an old industrial city located in China's frigid, northeastern corridor, has focused attention on the environmental and economic challenges faced by the country's withering rust belt.

Long before Harbin's officials were forced to confront the contamination of the city's water however, they had embarked on a radical step, one increasingly common among cities in China: fearful of losing out during the country's economic boom, they had begun efforts to move the center of the city north, across the winding Songhua, to a large plot of farm land.

The city of Nanjing did something similar last year, carving out a 37-square-mile area to create its own "new town." And so have other cities, like Ningbo, Yangzhou and Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, which is planning to relocate its city center to the western banks of the Gan River.

Across China, dozens of reborn cities are sprouting up like mushrooms after a spring rain, as the Chinese saying goes, relocating their town centers or creating entirely new ones. Latecomers to the economic race, these big cities want to revitalize their blighted urban areas and cash in on the nation's real estate surge....

In a trip to Hunan in December, I witnessed this for the mid-sized city (by Chinese standards, ~2 million) of Xiantang, which had a brand new, shiny city hall (much like that for Harbin pictured above), located beyond the perifery of the urban footprint. Speaking with Chinese planners, the pattern appears even more widespread than Barboza reports. The motivations appear in part very consistent with Downtown Inc., in that cities are trying to rebuild downtowns to leverage changed economic conditions by way of innovative public/private ventures.

The differences are pronounced, though. This is on an enormous scale and the new downtowns are going out of town. (These are often very old cities and apparently the feeling is that retrofitting to the modern, in many cases car-oriented, footprint would be too difficult in situ.) Moreover, all land was government owned until recently. Most still is but the new growth is expected to be private-driven -- so the changing nature of the private/public partnership is coming from almost the opposite direction and starting nearly from scratch. With luck, a colleague and I plan to look into this further soon. We haven't settled on what questions to ask yet. Reminded of how unpretentiously Frieden and Sagalyn started their project, I am ok with this for the time being.

1 comment:

Matthias Bauer said...

The described pattern of development is indeed very typical for many - in fact almost all - cities in China. More often than not the New Town development will start with the construction of a new government compound (as pictured), which almost always follows the same pattern: a monumental main building in the middle flanked by smaller ones to the sides, all completely symmetrical and arranged along a north-south-axis, and with a huge and usually deserted square in front to the south. In the next step a large school would be build to attract well-off residents in search for high-quality education for their offspring. Residential slabs and highrises will start to appear and, maybe, later on a shopping mall or two. The relationship between the old town and the new one is not always clear though. More often than not the New Town seems to suck out the life blood from the old town by luring away the most affluent residents and most successful businesses. And then the city is left with two problems: a run-down, under-developed old town and a boring, lifeless New Town...

Matthias Bauer, Beijing


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