Privatizing the city — in San Francisco and urban China

This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 20th by Robert Gottlieb and Simon Ng
Photographers shoot the Shenzhen - Hong Kong border at dusk in the Ma Tso Lung district of Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, June 8, 2017. Shenzhen is pivoting from its legacy as ground zero for China's manufacturing boom into a center for research, development and production of advanced technology. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg Photo: Justin Chin, BloombergPhoto: Justin Chin, Bloomberg

Are there lessons from China’s extraordinary urban transformation and rapid-fire expansion for the Bay Area, and, specifically, for San Francisco? After all, San Francisco has long prided itself as a city of scale, a multiracial, multiethnic urban oasis that is at once tolerant and livable. However, rapid gentrification that has swept neighborhoods has eroded that reputation and extended growing class and racial divides. San Francisco is increasingly becoming privatized, where public spaces are privately operated and where Uber and Lyft rides and Google buses claim the streets.

China’s cities, too, are becoming more privatized, where public goods are turned into private acquisitions and what seems old and traditional is being demolished. For example, China has established its own version of gated communities, or “sealed residential quarters.” These include huge residential and commercial developments as large as 30 to 50 acres, with populations ranging from 200,000 to 300,000. These resemble more of a “city within a city,” with buildings ranging from six to 10 stories. One benefit of this privatized space is exclusive parking with controlled access and a closed perimeter, an enormous premium as roads become congested and parking becomes scarce and contested.

In China, privatization is an outgrowth of a government development philosophy that emphasizes urbanization, marketization and modernization. China’s megacities have been created nearly overnight. Onetime fishing village Shenzhen and its surrounding areas have grown from a population of 50,000 to 18 million in just 35 years. At the same time, these megacities have developed enormous class divides, China’s version of the tale of two cities.

A huge migrant population, numbering 280 million, is on the move, seeking work in the industrial corridors in and around the growing urban middle-class clusters. For perspective, if this population were a separate country, it would be the seventh most populous in the world.

As a result of this urbanization, the historical character of cities such as Shanghai is being undermined and transformed. Shanghai’s famous alleyways are now seen as places that need to be “cleaned” and remade “smooth and quiet” into passageways for cars and for shopping enclaves.

Meanwhile, China’s reputation as the Kingdom of Bicycles is in decline in the face of the push for automobiles as one of the pillars of the new society and for the status it represents for those who can afford to purchase one.

Yet, Chinese cities, like Shanghai and even Shenzhen, still have a vibrant edge separate from their privatized, modern spaces for wealthier residents. These include the remaining alleyways, the street vendors and small shops, the wet markets, and the public dancing (primarily seniors, also known as the “dancing grannies”).

The huge influx of migrants from other provinces that has taken place in the past 20 to 30 years have created what are called “villages in the city,” places where migrants have reconstructed a new form of urban culture. As such, according to UC Berkeley architecture and urban design Professor Margaret Crawford, these villages represent “a genuine ‘bottom up’ urbanism in a city where top-down mandates play an ever-increasing role in city building.”

For San Francisco, in an age of gentrification and squeezed neighborhoods, where the private trumps the public good, the need for a bottom-up urbanism is as great as in a rapidly urbanizing China. Affordable housing, a critical need in San Francisco and urban China, needs to be complemented by support for the immigrant shops, restaurants and street food and other bottom-up community developments that strengthen rather than displace residents; that embrace rather than undermine the grittier, more diverse parts of daily life of neighborhoods in San Francisco — or Shanghai or Guangzhou.

 

 


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