China’s Urban Boom — (Intro) Building A Century in Fifteen Years



“What China has been able to build in the last 15 years took the U.S. over a hundred years,”

—Silas Chiow, China director for the U.S. Architectural firm Skidmore Owings Merrill

The question of “how soon” is debated, the question of “whether” is not even doubted… the subject is the Chinese economy moving past the United States.

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), noted Canadian economist, wrote about the truth behind the name of one of her best books, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” (1984). Jabobs does nothing less than demolish and rebuild modern macroeconomics. Economics went wrong with the work her titles allude to… Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”

Jacob’s espoused that nations are not the proper unit of macroeconomic analysis… the focus must be cities, their development into productive centers, and their ability to export… while providing ever more compelling living experiences.

Reason: What do you think you’ll be remembered for most? You were the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said they were destroying the lifeblood of these cities. Is that what it will be?

Jacobs: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I’ve contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I’ve figured out what it is.

Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.

I’ve gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn’t import less. And yet it has everything it had before.

Reason: It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a bigger, growing pie.

Jacobs: That’s the actual mechanism of it. The theory of it is what I explain in The Nature of Economies. I equate it to what happens with biomass, the sum total of all flora and fauna in an area. The energy, the material that’s involved in this, doesn’t just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rainforest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

— Jane Jacobs, City & Urban Studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy, Reason Magazine, June 2001, Interviewer: Bill Steigerwald

Jane Jacobs concluded that the most important sociological mechanism of wealth creation is urban import replacement, supported by urban export generation. She was brilliantly correct… And China gets it!

Jacob’s prescription to urban decay, decreased job opportunities and lack of economic innovation was ever more diversity, density, and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.

Cities are the primary drivers of economic development… Europe, which has great cities, gets it and now works to join together city dynamism to achieve an urban quantum dynamics (the U.S.? Absent and falling obliviously ever further behind as we drive down our superhighways with the Bible in our lap, a gun in our hand, and a grip on the steering wheel of an outdated clunker)

Originally posted in Faustian UrGe, October 15, 2010…”THE SIGNIFICANCE OF A BIG TUNNEL…”


I wonder what kind of bar today’s U.S. sets? One so low no one wants to get near it? Talk to a European or Chinese or even UAE businessperson or official, as I have, and they no longer seek the U.S. as an example to follow or bar-setter to exceed (seek the U.S. as a place to make profits, sure). In short, we are seen as a failure. Don’t think so?

Let’s see…

  • we can’t design, manufacture, or even afford a space ship to get to the International Space Station and
  • will soon be dependent for space transportation upon the Russians and the Chinese to whom we will pay taxi fare;
  • we struggle to replace ill-kept major bridges that threaten to fall down at any moment (think Oakland Bay Bridge and thousands of others);
  • we have NO actual high-speed rail systems in the U.S. and only a malfunctioning demonstration project from DC to Boston
  • … Well, forget high-tech and heavy industry projects…
  • we’ve fallen so complacent as a nation that we don’t even foreclose on our own houses properly — having learned nothing after our free-marketeer, Libertarian-oriented financial gurus decimated the world’s economy by their careless failures
  • But, really, this tops it all (and we’ll revisit this example in an upcoming Faustian urGe): we haven’t managed to replace a few tall buildings some thugs knocked down in New York City a decade ago(!)

Again… The Significance of a Big Tunnel!

Wait until I show you what China has achieved, building out some land over the same “Ground Zero Decade.” Think building entire New York City_s (plural)…


The China Boom: Building A Century In 15 Years

Drawn by a building boom unmatched anywhere in the world, U.S. and European architects are flocking to China, turning Chinese leaders’ bold visions into concrete and steel realities and giving Chinese cityscapes a distinctly foreign and modern signature.

At a time when the U.S. economy is stagnant and construction projects have been delayed, scaled back, or canceled for lack of financing, China is on a major push to urbanize — building new office towers, apartment blocks, exhibition halls, stadiums, high-speed train stations and nearly 100 new airports.

Train stations, airports, massive housing and business developments… entire major cities… the Chinese are building everything! Said Martin Hagel, senior architect with the German firm GMP, based in Shanghai, “It’s a place where architects want to be.” He added, “The scale of things is unbelievable – building a new city is something you don’t get to do often.”

Many of modern China’s iconic structures, including the New Poly Plaza, the World Trade Center in Beijing, and the Shanghai World Financial Center, have been designed by U.S. and European architects. China can afford the best, the most noted names in architecture.

Many more projects are in the works – in some cases, the equivalent of entire cities, such as the sprawling industrial park being built in Shanghai’s Pudong area. Every major city, it seems, is building or expanding a new central business district or financial center – often the size of the downtown of a midsize American city.

Nearly all of China’s population growth in the past 20 years has occurred in urban cities. Over the past 50 years, the country’s urban population has increased more than seven-fold, from 72 million in 1952 to 540 million in 2004.

By 2004, 183 of China’s 661 cities planned to position themselves as “internationalized” metropolises—modern cosmopolitan cities on par with New York, Paris, or Tokyo.

This should — but doesn’t — resonate with Americans: seven years ago (!), China’s urban population in modern cities exceeds the entire population of the United States by about 200 million. The middle-class of China already exceeds the entire population of the United States. And, the Chinese plan for 183 modern cities like our one New York City!

The Chinese have the capacity to fund and build these mega-cities because they now have the wealth-building, middle-class building manufacturing base that the United States handed them in the name of “free markets” and irresponsible pursuit of cheap labor.

Demographers project that if urbanization continues at the rate of 1 percent annually, an estimated 900 million Chinese will live in cities by 2020.

China’s real construction boom began in 2001, just as work slowed in the United States. China’s government estimates that an additional 300 – 500 million people — an amount between the population of the United States and Europe — will move into brand new urban areas in the next 15 years.

Paul Katz of the New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox, or KPF — standing on the firm’s Shanghai office balcony, with sweeping views of the city — said, “There’s hardly a building you see today that stood 15 years ago.”

Not Free to Voice Opposition; But… Free to Innovate

China is also a place where foreign architects say they can be their most creative.

In China, “people have no preconceived notion of what building development should be,” said Silas Chiow, China director for the U.S. firm Skidmore Owings Merrill, or SOM. “That gives young architects an opportunity to try new ideas.”

SOM designed Shanghai’s Jin Mao tower, one of the most visible buildings on the Pudong skyline, with its traditional Chinese style, as well as Beijing’s New Poly Plaza, with the world’s largest cable-net-supported glass wall, and Tower III of the World Trade Center in Beijing. SOM also designed the futuristic car-shaped Pearl River Tower, with wind turbines and solar panels.

SOM in China is working on 50 projects in the country, with a dozen due to be completed in the next two or three years. “China is almost like an experimental laboratory for different architects,” Chiow said.

U.S. and European architects say it is an unparalleled chance to show off their expertise, experiment with cutting-edge designs, use new energy-efficient “green” technologies, and, for young architects, an opportunity to gain experience on a massive scale.

“I’m just fascinated by the urbanization happening in China – and the speed of it,” said Chiow, 51. “What China has been able to build in the last 15 years took the U.S. over a hundred years.”

The Relationship of Governance Competencies & Performance: China Sets Part of the Example

The Chinese people may not elect their governing officials (and this will eventually come to be a source of trouble), but they clearly have a system that appears to ensure a reasonable degree of competency. Indeed they currently set the global standard in such matters – a measure of just how low that standard has fallen in the United States.

Promoters of our current system of periodic voting for media-selected political (corporate) representatives of the wealthy — a plutocracy incorrectly known as “democracy” in the United States — need to address the failure of this system to deliver even basic competence in their forms of governance, as well as the outrageous and escalating risks that the system takes with people’s livelihoods, their personal wellbeing, and the very survival of the human species.

The United States (and to a lesser extent, an element of the EU) is still frantically riding, in the hope of a resurrection, the dead horse of neo-liberal economics — a variety of movements, political-economic philosophies, that de-emphasize or reject government intervention in the domestic economy and toward advancing corporate control of the market and citizens’ lives.

Chinese governance form does not set the example for a free people, but Chinese performance and achievement most certainly do set the example for the United States, if its peoples expect any reasonable economic future. A new balance must be achieved.

Is it time to create a new governance system in the United States, one removing the artificial personage of the corporation? Is it time to remove the over-funded voice of corporate interests? Yes! It is time to work in the interests of our citizens’ welfare. Indeed.

So, it’s time to look at the China that has bloomed since the U.S. ceded its manufacturing capacity — it’s engine of the middle class.

What you’ll see is the growth and dynamism that could have occurred here in the United States but didn’t and now never will… all because we’ve chosen to sacrifice our engine of prosperity upon the alter of self-destructive, free-market, conservative ideology.

Without Further Ado… Photos of Some of China’s Rapidly Blooming Modern Cities

If you consider that most of these cities and the buildings you will see have been developed to this extent within the last fifteen years, you will be hard pressed to not drop your jaw.

The next series of posts will provide pictorials of SOME of China’s modern cities. Compare them to your own stagnant or deteriorating city in the United States.

Chongqing, China -- A population over 35 million, a modern manufacturing center, and a transportation hub for Southwest China.

First, may I introduce, America’s decline expressed through our former industrial cities…


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