Earlier this week, a friend of mine shared this TED talk on my Facebook wall talking about the state of climate change in the world. The talk is by Nicholas Stern. And at one point he talks about the incredible urban transformation that has taken place in Beijing over the last couple of decades; specifically, the shift from a bicycle oriented city to a now automobile oriented city.
I knew that this was the case, but it got me thinking. Because alongside this mobility change, there’s also been – not surprisingly – pronounced changes to the urban fabric of the city. The most significant is perhaps the demolition of the city’s hutongs and siheyuan. Hutongs are basically narrow alleys (see above photo) and siheyuan are the traditional Chinese courtyard houses.
For centuries, these alleyways and courtyard houses have defined Beijing. And while I realize that not all of them were as glamorous as Melbourne’s laneways, only about 1,000 of Beijing’s original 6,000 hutongs remain (according to Time). Which makes me wonder: Is China making the same mistakes that we made in the 20th century?
Because as the developed world moves toward transit oriented development, bike lanes, heritage preservation, and compact urban living, China has seemingly gone and done the exact opposite. They got everyone off bicycles and into cars, and they went and erased a scale of urbanism that has been in place for centuries.
This is not to say that China doesn’t deserve to have the same standard of living as the developed world. It absolutely does. It just seems a bit ironic to me that the things we’ve become sharply critical of, are exactly what China seems to want to recreate.