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City planners urged to stop building look-alike cities with “identical faces”

Xinhua, Monday 14 June

Global scholars have called for more efforts to be made in city planning to prevent the trend in which cities increasingly appear identical.

“Many Chinese cities used to be different, but they are monotonous in looks nowadays. More efforts should be made to protect their unique characteristics,” said Sha Zukang, head of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

He made the remarks at a World Expo theme forum that ended Sunday in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. The two-day forum attracted about 800 participants to discuss the value of cultural heritage along with urban regeneration.

“Globalization was causing more pressure to protect a nation’s cultural heritage and many cultures were inundated in the process,’ he added.

“The U.N. department I am working in mainly focuses on protecting indigenous peoples’ cultures and languages,” he said.

“From the 1980s, China’s traditional cities suffered damages due to a lack of proper cultural heritage protection,” said Ruan Yisan, a renowned expert on ancient building and professor with the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Shanghai-based Tongji University.

He displayed pictures of two Chinese cities: Lanzhou in Gansu Province and Changsha in Hunan Province: both looked identical with crowded high-rises, though the two cities are located far from each other.

“You could barely discern differences between the two cities,” Ruan said.

“Nowadays, cities have grown in height, but they are having identical faces,” Ruan said.

Meanwhile, China increasingly has residential communities dubbed with foreign names such as: European Style, Venice Garden, German Town and French City.

“To some extent, it showed the builders are not confident in their own cultures,” Ruan said.

Ruan helped safeguard many historic cities and towns from inappropriate development and made them important heritage sites through conservation planning and practices, such as in Pingyao in Shanxi Province and Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province.

“Some cities were building their own projects to make money under the name of protection,” Ruan said.

They built reproductions of architect in Ming or Qing dynasties to attract tourists, but those were just “fake relics”, he said.

“I often heard sayings that old buildings were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but it was not true according to my own experiences,” he said.

“The Cultural Revolution mainly destroyed relics in the form of objects. Dismantling buildings is something happening today,” he said.

The main reason for blindly tearing down buildings was because the value of historic architecture and cities was not fully realized and some only looked for something new or what was capable of being quickly finished, resulting in the identical faces of thousands of cities, Ruan said.

Experts believed cultural heritage protection could help define a city’s unique identity.

“Many would doubt why we should preserve old urban areas instead of building new ones. The ancient architecture with unique Chinese styles could provide nutrition or inspiration to new Chinese building styles. No one want cities of the same face,” Ruan said.

Paul Andreu, the French architect and designer of the National Center for the Performing Arts, said it was difficult to tackle the problem as it was “happening everywhere in the world.”

“You know cooking tastes of meat? They used to be different in France. But now the tastes are leveling. Many original tastes are lost. It’s the same in China that many tastes are lost,” he said.

Architectural diversity is experiencing the same “leveling,” he said. However, geography and climate differences might provide some solutions, he noted.

“Just as Beijing is not Chongqing, Chongqing is not Shanghai. Some have rivers. Some don’t. City planners could receive directions from that,” he said.

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