Zooming out and Zooming in on China’s Cities

The Atlantic, The Aspen Institute, and Bloomberg Philanthropies are putting on a fun event on cities, CityLab: Urban Solutions to Global Challenges. Having written a book on the political role of cities in the developing world and particularly in China, I thought that I would toss in a couple of thoughts to the conversation happening in the city that is (or is not) the Internet/Twitter.

Zooming out. My forthcoming book, Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China (Oxford, June 2014), mostly examines the political effects of cities on regime survival in nondemocracies, and especially in China. Having all of your urban residents in a single large city, what I refer to as a high level of urban concentration, is dangerous for dictators. I argue that concern over urban instability, particularly in Beijing and Shanghai, explains much of the Chinese regime’s policies that shaped urbanization: the hukou system of effective migration restrictions, the spreading out of cities around the country, even the geographic distribution of China’s stimulus to the Great Recession. That China has dozens of large cities (and so lots of cities building subways) rather than a few super-megacities is a result of policy choices by the regime.

But CityLab, like most urbanist thinking, is mostly about how individual cities and streets and neighborhoods can be improved by way of urban design and architecture. China’s cities tend to be monotonous: huge streets, superblocks of apartments with few entrances or exits, and ring roads sprawling out into the countryside. The dense, narrow streets of Beijing’s hutongs are systematically being demolished and replaced with apartment complexes of 6 to 8 buildings surrounded by walls and underground parking. To note that this is the case is easy, to explain it is hard. How much of this is a result of the planning mentality that desires to make the population and the city legible (a la Scott)? How much of sprawl arises from the need of local governments to derive revenues from land sales? Are roads wide so the tanks can move in easily or in an attempt to avoid potential traffic problems? I don’t have a lot of answers as to why China’s cities look like they do at a micro-level, but to ignore the macro, to ignore the forest for the trees, is as problematic and much more common.

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