Localization offers the best cure for many of the malaises known as "urban disease," all of which result from population pressure.
China's urbanization rate stands at 47 percent. The number is expected to soar as 100 million rural dwellers will migrate to cities in the next 10 years. As cities grow in size to accommodate the new arrivals, their common strategy is to build satellite cities, linked with downtown by expressways. This development model has been criticized for creating more problems than it's solved. Explosive growth of cars for commutes leaves urban traffic severely snarled.
Unit cities may address this predicament by encouraging - not ordering - people to go about their business in a fixed area, namely, the individual units.
In order for that to happen, "units" must be designed for both working and living. Alas, many areas and districts in Shanghai are meant for specialized functions.
For instance, the Lujiazui financial zone and Zhangjiang High-tech Park are bustling in the day but when night falls, they become deserted like ghost towns, Li said.
The ultimate goal of forming separate units within cities is to mingle working and living. Besides, it's mandated by the fact that megalopolises face ever higher security risks. If one of Shanghai's pylons is sabotaged, half of the city will be crippled by a blackout. Imagine the consequences of the metro ceasing operation for 10 minutes, Li said.
In a unit city, if every unit can generate some power for its own use, it is less vulnerable to massive power stoppages. Pioneering as it appears, the very idea of unit city is sometimes a hard sell, mainly because our urban planners haven't kept up with the times, Li said.
Lujiazui may have been their pet project 20 years ago, but it won't stay advanced for ever. Urban planning has to constantly adjust to new conditions brought about by a fast changing economy.
China's existing urban planning philosophy was imported from the Soviet Union, which stresses rigid "scientific" planning of everything. In the 1960s, the fad in urban planning was division of labor between districts. But any planning is inevitably influenced by market forces and the "division of labor" model gradually fell out of favor. The trend now is to mix different social functions in a given district or block, said Wang Jun, assistant researcher under Li.
The underlying logic is roughly the same as what unit city endorses. Shanghai's urban planning model has to change, but how? It assigns clear-cut roles for districts and areas, for instance, Lujiazui is for finance, Zhangjiang for high-tech, Minhang for living and Jing'an for office work, with little crossover. How to break this entrenched model?
Of course, commuting, refuse disposal, and energy and food production cannot be 100 percent localized. But we can at least localize sections of these enterprises.
Li's ingenuous advice that is likely to be welcomed by housewives at a time of high inflation is to set up vegetable farms in the central city. This idea conforms to the current Western trend, which calls for cities to reduce reliance on the outside world for food.
For instance, in Britain there is a coinage of the term "urban village." In Seoul, South Korea, people are planting wheat in outlying green belts. When autumn comes, the billowing wheat takes on a golden yellow, which is aesthetically pleasing and also contributes to Seoul's food supply, said Wang.
Since seasonal vegetables are now available around the year, thanks to new planting techniques, children have a poor understanding of the climate differences between seasons, Li said.
According to him, cities are theoretically space where people live their joy and sadness and experience the vagaries of life, but they are now meticulously designed to leave no room for human emotions other than materialist wants.