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Monday, February 6, 2012

A Look At Chinese Cities

I've been looking at my traffic sources, and it seems like a lot of people are interested in Chinese cities. Most people that end up stumbling across my blog seem to do so in search of a few answers to questions like:

"Are Chinese cities overcrowded?"

"Are Chinese cities polluted?"

"Are Chinese cities ugly?"

------Yeah, are Chinese cities ugly.....well, okay then. I'll just talk about Chinese cities in general, I guess.

A "normal Chinese city", whatever that is, is usually going to be bigger and made up of more skyscrapers and multi-story buildings than most American (or Western, if you're not American) cities.

They'll be more compact, convenient, but a little drab. Most Chinese buildings are pretty much the same dull grey concrete color, so it's kind of dull, but at night, they light up pretty good!

This is Shanghai, so it's a bit over the top, but you get what I'm saying. Most cities aren't quite this crazy, but there's considerably more neon in the average Chinese city than the their Western counterparts.

(When I talk about Western/American cities, I don't mean huge cities like Chicago/L.A./New York/D.C.. I'm talking about the average, below 1 million population cities in America)

Yeah, it's pretty crazy, but that's just the way cities in China look.

I gotta say, the night life in a mid-sized to big city in China is pretty awesome -there are night markets all over the place, karaoke bars, regular bars, clubs, and all kinds of cool stuff to do. And because of the design of the cities, they're often pretty close to each other, which brings me to my next point: the design of Chinese cities.

The Chinese have pretty much mastered the art of building megacities.

This is Lanzhou - a city of about 3.4 million people and the capital of Gansu Province. It's where I lived for 6 months.

When Americans (at least those of us who grew up in suburbia) see cities like this, we get really, really freaked out. We think "how can people live like that?? There's so many people!!"
Well, that's kind of deceptive. Yeah, there's a lot of big buildings, but you've got to understand that somewhere around 1/4 of them are apartment buildings of some kind (at least in Lanzhou). The Chinese have realized that building up is better than building out. It may look scary, but it's really not.

I noticed that the cities I've visited/lived in in China is that cities are organized into districts, with each district capable of serving itself

At one point, I noticed I had lived in Lanzhou for about 3 or 4 months and had hardly seen any of the city, because all of my needs were satisfied in the area surrounding my campus. I started to get out and about, and I noticed that that was true for the other parts of the city. You can find all you need within the different areas of the city. There are shops for everyday needs, food, snacks, and fun everywhere, so you can get pretty much everything you need in a 10 minute walk or a 10 minute bus ride.

This way of making cities is pretty green, like Jonathan Watts mentions in his book "When A Billion Chinese Jump". It encourages people to walk or take public transportation, although a lot of people do try to buy cars. Instead of 1,000 people commuting to work in 1,000 cars, 950 might take the bus or walk while 50 take their own cars. Also, you can put more people in a smaller space, which frees up more land for farming or parks or wilderness - farming is the most important one in China.

(Right: A street in Beijing close to Lishi Hutong, February 2011. Below: A Chinese-like street somewhere in America)

Besides being the slightest bit greener, it makes life really convenient and cheaper. I would trade in my car right this minute if I could have a well-developed transit system in Texas' cities. It's just so much cheaper.

However, I don't think many Texans would agree with me. Oh well.

Visiting and living in these huge, tall, closed-in Chinese cities has forever changed the way I view America's cities.

This is Dallas, Texas, where I live and work (I split my time between Tyler and Dallas). Here’s the skyline. That’s it. Just that. 

You're in and out of it in less than an hour if you take one of the main avenues. 

And that scares the crap of the small town natives of Texas.

Now compare Dallas and Beijing’s skylines. There's a freakin huge difference. 

This is just one part. You could do a 360 and see this view on every side. You're totally closed in by this monstrous city of roughly 19 million people. 

When you’re in downtown Beijing, it goes on forever and forever and forever - it takes hours to get out of Beijing’s downtown area - not because of traffic, but size. 

One thing that I never really noticed until I was back in the States was that I hardly ever got a glimpse of uninterrupted sky when I was in China. Sometimes I'd go to the top of a mountain and be able to see the uninterrupted sky, but most of the time other mountains would get in the way. It's weird to think about it, but it's true. 

Here, in Texas, especially in the Fort Worth area, I can get a full helping of sky because of the openness of the land. It's not better or worse - I'm not judging China or anything. It's just different. I had a better picture to exemplify the openness, but I can't find it at the moment. Oh, well....

That's probably the single biggest thing that has changed within me personally - I will never see cities in the same light again after living in China. America's suburban sprawl compared to China's urban skyscrapers has really changed my view of what a "big" city is. It has also changed my view on urban smog and pollution. I never really noticed smog and pollution in America before I saw the heavy urban smog of China, but that's a whole other post, and I've done that before, check it out here. My experience has made me appreciate America's small towns more and see American cities through a different lens.  

There are so many things that are different between China's cities and America's cities. It's hard, nay, nigh impossible to list all of the differences because the concept of a 'city' encompasses so many different factors. Well, this is a start, and hopefully this will satisfy some people's curiosity. We'll see! 

I'll try to be back soon with a more introspective and interesting post soon! 

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