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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

How Free is Your City? or My Inability to Define Freedom within the Urban Realm

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I must admit that coming to China I had formed some preconceptions, though unfounded, they still made their way into my mind. The most prominent and most embarrassingly stereotypical was luckily the first to be challenged, almost immediately, through my Shanghai experiences. The notion centered on the idea of control. China due to its communist past, and the still centralized government’s  reputation, I imagined the population to appear slightly repressed upon arrival. My first journey into the city dismantled this view and replaced it with the opposite impression. The lack of control is most striking; the urban citizen is allowed to operate with a high level of autonomy, using the street as a truly public realm. From street vendors clustering around subway exits to temporal wet markets, the Chinese street has led me to question what constitutes freedom within the urban realm.

The level of public access that the Chinese urbanites have in the utilization of their streetscape is amplified by the juxtaposition of my past experiences. The United States, of course, is the counter pole of this activity but even the Japanese street wanes in comparison to the activity of China. The key difference between China and the other two nations seems intrinsically tied to levels of development. As a nation develops the occurrences that have made China so immensely interesting on this trip tend to disappear, the street becomes regulated, excluding uncontrolled activities. This trajectory of development seems to allude to a contradictory process: that as the city modernizes, moves toward a service economy, it becomes less free. Its inhabitants become more restricted, choice is diminished, regulation is imposed and enforced. Yet if one continues to compare and contrast say a city like Shanghai and Tokyo, it becomes apparent that freedom does not have a singular definition within the city but is something much more complex.

In Tokyo the population has given up a large amount of individual freedom and expression for the freedom of the larger whole. The immense conformity of the population, has allowed for an amazingly efficient, economically driven society to develop. But with the sacrifice in self-expression comes many benefits; most people can afford the consumerist lifestyle that drives society. Additionally the city is made democratic by the clockwork efficiency of its transportation system, creating a physically accessible city.

China’s current urban freedom, amplifies the opportunities of the individual. As a result of rapid urbanization the population must be given a large level of autonomy else the city would cease to function. The wealth distribution is too unequal to force the entire population to attain their goods and services from large, commercialized, global brands. The question now is how will freedom be defined as the Chinese city continues to develop. Given the statements of Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee concerning “human-centered-urbanization” and a “rebalancing of the economy,” the future is somewhat uncertain. Though human-centered-urbanization sounds as though it should support the microeconomic activity of the individual the rebalancing of the economy focuses on the need for the population to become more consumerist centric; therefore it could be argued that the Chinese government’s definition of freedom is that to consume. Yet it is more than just general consumption, for that occurs already , microeconomic activities are of course tied to consumptive needs, yet I believe consumptive centric development focuses of the creation of consumptive desires rather than only needs.

Filed under: Desensitize, development, Freedom, individuality, pedestrians, public space, Street

Blinding Nostalgia

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin understands that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” In terms of a city, tradition can be defined by changes in the elements that describe a city [physical, mental, social, economic, political, and cultural]. Shenzhen was originally a fishing and farming area until Deng Xiaoping declared it a Special Economic Zone [SEZ]. It started as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism experiment 30 years ago while the rest of China was under a communist regime and is now flourishing with activity and excitement.

Shenzen’s unique city growth conditions resulted as fast paced developments with density and sprawl moving starting from the east and now moving west and even more westward with the onset of the new express line between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s untraditional city has transformed from farmland and fishing into to urban villages, and finally high-rise developments for housing, offices, hotels, shopping malls around the Central Business Districts [CBD].

During my initial days in Shenzhen, I was heavily disinterested in the glass-clad buildings. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a bearing on Shenzhen’s new epoch of generic buildings. It seemed like the previous era had disappeared when the government decided to knock down the urban villages. After finally visiting a modernized urban village, I found a grounding that modern day Shenzhen was lacking. However, is it fair for me to use nostalgia and say that the developed area of Shenzhen lacked tradition that was obvious in these urban villages? If Shenzhen is a work of art as a city, where is the essence of tradition in its current development phase of high-rises? Are there certain aspects that still have not changed?

Shenzhen’s traditions as a city have obviously changed, but not all the elements that make a city have followed suit. Obviously, the mental grounding offered by that of the urban villages has transformed into my mental disorientation and discomfort with modern Shenzhen. The physical aspects have drastically changed from the days of rice paddies into high-rise towers. Economically, the farmers traded in the farms that made little profit and became developers that collected rent. Their land value increased after developers started to build housing and office towers to satisfy the demand of the new CBDs and as a SEZ. The social aspect of Shenzhen changed as China established Shenzhen as a SEZ and promoted urbanization. The government has also changed its policies on traveling to Shenzhen by lifting the Visa requirement to access this evil child of capitalism. Culturally, Shenzhen’s demographics have been morphing since its establishment as a SEZ. Migrant workers and people from all over China have been relocating there resulting in a cultural mixing pot similar to that of Los Angeles, with the exception that most of Shenzhen’s migrants are predominately Asian. But ironically, it is the culture that has changed only on the surface and not in its ideals.

When comparing Western Monuments, the Pantheon, Acropolis, and Coliseum all served the public as a public space. When one looks and lists China’s monuments, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and The Great Wall, they completely disregard the public and demanded containment. This idea of public space was never embedded into China’s social culture. It is still true today with the urban villages and high-rise developments, but for economic reasons. A tenant does not feel inclined to purchase an apartment with public space because they do not personally own it.

Because of my Western thinking, I was blind sighted by the inherent culture that was beneath the form and glass cladding of the buildings. It was my nostalgia and desire for historic preservation that made me uncomfortable with the government destroying their “real” culture. However, it is not the formal manifestation that defines its significance, but rather the place and conditions in which it is manifested.

_Joyce

Filed under: change, China, Culture, Government, nostalgia, Psyche, public space, tradition, western ideology

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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu