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Beijing in danger of losing itself

Beijing Today by Han Manman,  Wednesday 28 June 2010

The Gulou area, a symbol of old Beijing, will be destroyed. CFP Photo

The Gulou area, a symbol of old Beijing, will be destroyed. CFP Photo

Letter from Shanghai

In our modern global village, the World Expo may be losing its appeal for audiences that don’t necessarily need  to see the world’s latest inventions or trends. But it is still an effective and concrete way for people to congregate, to get to know each other and brainstorm. This year it’s about urban life.

A country becomes “urban” when more than half of its population lives in the cities. China has almost realized that – from 17 percent in 1978 to 46 percent in 2008.

People enjoy advantages and suffer disadvantages during urban development. The problem’s causes may be the same, but the solutions differ. During the expo period, our reporters will touch on the hottest topics at the world fair, find common cases and solutions and record their observations in this series titled “Letter from Shanghai.”

By Han Manman

Harvard social scientist Nathan Glazer once published an article in The New Republic that said one day Shanghai could replace New York as the epitome of modernity. Indeed, it has already surpassed New York in some respects.

But to interpret Glazer’s quote as aggrandizing would be an error. Glazer’s words were a warning to all cities in the process of rapid development.

When one city emulates another in its quest to develop, it offers up its own character and cultural heritage as a “necessary” sacrifice.

At the recent Shanghai Expo forum “Cultural Heritage and Urban Regeneration,” global scholars met to call for an end to the pattern of development that is turning urban China into a collection of cultureless shells.

Becoming identical

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

“The Cultural Revolution destroyed relics in the form of objects. The dismantling of traditional buildings is something that is still happening today,” said Ruan Yisan, a professor of ancient construction at the Shanghai-based Tongji University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

He displayed pictures of Lanzhou, Gansu province and Changsha, Hunan province: both were identical with their crowded high-rises even though the cities were 2,000 kilometers from each other.

“You can barely discern any difference between the cities,” Ruan said.

“Cities are growing in height, but they all have the same faces.”

The death of the unique

Experts fear Beijing is setting itself up for a similar fate.

As the capital continues its rapid growth, much of the city’s cultural heritage is lost or diluted. The city’s hutong, courtyards,  ancient sites and underground cultural relics are falling away at an astonishing pace.

The latest casualty is Gulou, the Drum and Bell Towers.

Once a traditional symbol of Beijing, the area around these towers are scheduled for demolition as part of what the government is trumpeting as a “restoration” plan, the Beijing News reported.

The towers, used to keep city time during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, are surrounded by 12 hectares of ancient courtyard homes and winding alleys. Once “restored,” the area will be the site of Beijing Time Cultural City, a network of restaurants, shopping malls and parking lots from which officials hope to glean tax revenue.

Experts chastised leaders, saying that a “world city” is defined more by its unique cultural influence than by deadlines and skyscrapers.

Finding a balance

While experts mourn the slow death of Beijing, some local residents have welcomed the chance to shake off dusty hutong life marked by outdoor plumbing for posh apartments along the city’s northern outskirts.

“A complex set of relationships influences urban planning,” said Iris Reuther, a German city planner. “You have the developers, the architects, the municipal authorities and the people, and then you have many social demands. It’s hard to satisfy everyone.”

Reuther said the city needs both heritage and development, but that  with careful planning these need not be contradictory.

Foreign city planners speak

Many experts have pointed out the many missteps the capital has made in preserving its heritage. But balancing its unique character with the need to develop is a struggle.

Beijing Today reporters spoke to city planners and mayors from Moscow, Barcelona and Konstanz, each of which has faced similar problems.

Maxim V. Perov/Photos by Han ManmanMaxim V. Perov/Photos by Han Manman

Give old buildings new life

Beijing is rife with modern architecture that projects an international image.

That’s not necessarily bad, but from the view of an urban planner I have to say smashing historical buildings is not the best way to become a “world city.”

One of the best ways to balance heritage and development is to renovate old buildings and put them back into use rather than turning them into museums.

Old buildings should still have life in the modern area. In Moscow we rarely smash down old factories. It can always be renovated to become a gallery or an office building.

City planning requires a long-term strategy. In Moscow, we learned some hard lessons about this. We were in a hurry to construct new buildings and never considered what future troubles they would cause as the city continued to develop.

- Maxim V. Perov, city planner and vice president of Union of Architects of Russia

Xavier Valls SerraXavier Valls Serra

Jail irresponsible developers

When thinking about Barcelona’s cultural identity, people’s first thought is Gaudi.

I can’t find any specific identity in Beijing. I think it’s more difficult for people to pin down what makes Beijing Beijing. Barcelona made many mistakes during its urban development. I hope Beijing will learn from our mistakes and treasure its heritage.

Thirty years ago, Barcelona felt a lot like Beijing does today. The government was ripping down old buildings to fuel the economy. It was only after extensive losses that the government realized it was important to protect our heritage and passed strict legislation to imprison any developer that damaged or destroyed the city’s old buildings.

Separating districts into new and old might be a good path for Beijing. You can  find a good example in our Ciutat Vella district. During the 1980s, the government preserved more than 100 of its historic buildings while boosting the standard of living of its residents.

Our government also turned the neighboring Poblenou district into an innovative business center capable of attracting global investment.

- Xavier Valls Serra, Barcelona city planner

Horst Frank, Mayor of Konstanz

Let citizens shoulder the responsibility

Konstanz is a small German city with great historical relevance. We have worked very hard to protect our cultural heritage, especially in our city’s old town, which still has traditional cathedrals and renovated carefully old houses.

Some businessmen wanted to develop our old town into a tourist destination, but we rejected their plans even though it could have brought in a lot of money. We can’t ignore our citizens just to chase profits.

I’ve been to China many times. Several years ago, I saw many cities were smashing apart their old buildings with abandon. Beijing was no exception.

But I think Beijing’s attitude to its heritage is changing, and the government is slowly realizing that preserving the city’s character is important.

But Beijing can still do better.

Protecting city heritage should not be the government’s job alone. Every citizen needs to take part. The government should consider public opinion and draw on the enthusiasm of the people, many of whom would take pride in cultural protection.

I suggest Beijing let people rent the old buildings rather than leaving them vacant or smashing them. But whoever lives there should be responsible for protecting it.

- Horst Frank, Konstanz mayor

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