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Revive Chinese wisdom to make cities better
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For those people long frustrated with long commutes, noise and bad air in big cities, Expo 2010 Shanghai's theme "Better City, Better Life" is aspirational.

For the many urban designers who still regard a sprawling megacity defined by high rises as an ideal, it should be a sobering and educational experience.

The early Expos were basically forward-looking in that they demonstrated what promise industrialization, and then science and technology, held for the human race.

Gradually Expos also cast a backward glance by taking stock of the mess that "progress" had left.

The 2000 Expo in Hanover, Germany, focused on sustainable development.

The "Better City, Better Life" Expo promises to give us a close-up look at a sustainable urban way of life.

It's exciting to look forward, for it affords us a glimpse into other possibilities, but retrospection takes courage, for it makes us aware of false starts, disenchantment, and missed opportunities.

It's a rare privilege to read the message one of the greatest civilizations on earth delivers to the world.

And to give living expression to the "Better City, Better Life" theme in the largest city of the world's most populous country affords unique challenges and advantages.

For residents like me, there are daily reminders of the great event - cranes, bulldozers, and drills.

Chinese is a proud, face-loving nation that goes to any length to please a guest.

But the roaring bulldozers can also symbolize China's change over the past decade, variously known as growth, miracle, industrialization, or urbanization.

It's said that one-quarter of the world's mega-construction cranes are operating in construction sites in China.

Every city is trying to look like something else because what it actually is today is perceived as a source of shame.

The mass flow of peasants to cities sharpened China's cutting edge as the global supplier of consumer goods, but only recently have we become conscious that these migrants have parents and children, they can fall ill and may even need a pension.

Implementing China's recent announced medical coverage reform plan is just one of the many difficult first steps we must take.

There are others.

Many an urban designer, in conjuring up a chiseled skyline, forgets a simple truth: a city's primary function is to serve the needs of its residents.

Failure to properly prioritize may incline some urban planners to manage a city like a museum piece, as something to be admired visually, from a distance.

High rises and a glittering facade exude an ethereal air, overwhelming unsophisticated visitors, but longtime exposure can be numbing aesthetically, and that aesthetic sense can only be revived by timely exposure to a rundown shikumen.

Some are squalid and seedy looking, but that's always an indicator of real life, and a bright facade is less important than a smile from a kid or an elderly person.

Visitors may also ask locals what's the local housing price, are their offices and schools within walking distance, and do they have easy access to medical services.

For a resident, a local library, a neighborhood park, a corner shop or a breakfast stand can mean more than all the marvels and sights that can be easily created by cranes, bulldozers and drills.

There is great art in how to reconcile the needs of residents with those of officials, developers, and tourists.


The Urban Best Practices Area of the Expo will be dedicated to real-life scenarios to foster urban innovation and create high-quality urban environments.

While innovation always tantalizes, and it is always profitable to learn, it should also be realized that a rational way of living evolves historically, as a result of gradual adaptations to climate, geography, and culture.

We can always learn from our past.

The traditional Chinese dwelling is characterized by harmony with its natural surroundings, with relatively little emphasis on personal comforts and privacy.

Today you can see such dwellings in places like Zhujiajiao, the water town, that are preserved only thanks to geographic barriers.

Even in old neighborhoods in Shanghai, some residents can still share gossip with their neighbors and children from different families can play together.

Such neighborhoods are torn down to make way for identical high rises in huge compounds that are guarded by security. Residents usually must rely on cars for everything, as nothing is within walking distance.

These blocks are segregational - typically a resident knows more about a third-rate actress in the other hemisphere than his next-door neighbors.

Many still idealize American-style suburbs and urban sprawl: a cluster of far-flung satellites cities linked up by wide, heavily traveled motorways.

Diminishing oil reserves and environmental degradation increasingly cast this way of life in a negative light, as people call for small neighborhoods, five minutes' walk to conveniences, and narrow, tree-lined streets as a means to reduce or slow motor traffic.

Hopefully these issues would all get an airing in the Expo forum.

In the run up to the Expo, local governments, schools and other institutions can involve students and residents in an educational experience, and help restore our confidence in traditional Chinese attitudes and outlook.

Shanghai is a particularly suitable host for the Expo because Shanghainese are traditionally known for their open-mindedness, and their tolerance of outside influences.

Different countries will have different answers for how to live better in cities, but exploring these issues in Shanghai is bound to be exciting.

(Shanghai Daily May 11, 2009)

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