What European Villages in China Really Mean

A friend of mine posted this photo series on his Facebook wall, and had an interesting comment on these Faux European villages that have been springing up across China:

You have to understand that there is little aesthetic education in China, especially the generation that grew up under communism that lacked charm (at least, the old type), so they have to look elsewhere to establish "charm". I wish they would just do what Asians are good at doing, minimalist, repetitive, modernist and futuristic glass and steal constructions. Maybe a bit colder, but at least a certain amount of authenticity!

Photos like these bring up interesting feelings when observed. On the one hand, they are very obviously large scale mass fabrications of successful European cities. They lack the soul and "authenticity" that the originals have, and therefore according to some pale in comparison.

On the other hand, good urbanism is good urbanism. I see amazing walkable city squares, dense city living, and cute townhouses that can serve as great templates for individuality to flourish as they age. It's aesthetically jarring to see classic European architecture look so brand new, but I also think the Chinese flora adds a unique touch to the landscapes. The Chinese brand of capitalism is one of top down organization; perhaps these kinds of pop up European villages are congruent with modern Chinese culture.

More importantly, if you believe that we should be focusing on building more densely and with more of an eye towards moving away from car-centric development, will "authentic" modern Chinese style be capable of achieving this? All modern style is influenced by car culture, and I'd argue we don't have a modern style that's truly pedestrian oriented.

This is why in American cities, urbanism is so tied to preservation. We have no modern model of what walkable space should look like, so the instinct is to preserve every single historic neighborhood because it's perceived as the best we have, even if development could increase supply, keep real estate prices under control, and divert environmentally unfriendly exurban development into cities with existing infrastructure.

An urban planner friend of mine addresses this concern at Republic of Austin when comparing development in Dallas to the lack of development in Austin:

I get it. Austin loves its neon signs, its vintage thrift shops in converted bungalows, and its trailer parks. Growth, however, is inevitable in this city and change is part of the process. Recognizing Austin’s morphology and transition from college town to major American city, Dallas may not be the poster child for what to avoid. In fact, Dallas may offer our city quite a few valuable lessons as we balance growth with quality of life. Both cities may find themselves in seas of suburban sprawl, but Dallas, quite honestly, has a head start on smart growth.

The key point here is urban growth is going to happen. If NIMBY forces win out and freeze a city in time, the end result will be a luxury city surrounded by unhealthy middle and lower class car dependent sprawl as the city develops. The question becomes how to handle this inevitable growth.

People perceive new development to be soulless, and fight hard to prevent it whenever they see it. This chases out all but the most profit driven new development, since anyone with aesthetic motives will begin siding with the preservationists. The more profit driven development is, the more soulless it will be perceived to be. A vicious cycle is born that freezes cities in place, and guarantees that any new development will look atrocious.

This is why I always try to point to examples of new developments truly enacting positive change. Via Verde in the South Bronx is perhaps the best example I can think of that shows how cities can evolve in a community driven, aesthetically pleasing way. Michael Kimmelman's review of the complex runs through all of the points. In comparison to tower in the park projects built in the past, this development had input from its future residents starting with conception, ensuring that its residents will be completely in control of their environment from the minute they move in. Kimmelman counters a common argument about how it's hard to justify paying for aesthetics in public housing by estimating it was about 5% of the total cost. If it improves outcomes for the residents, which is the point of public housing, and provides positive externalities for the neighborhood, it's worth it.

If all new development looked like this, I think we'd see a sea change in public opinion. Former NIMBYs would embrace change, and see that a city's identity is not just coded in its past, but coded in how it evolves into the future. In the meantime, at least for China, maybe it's best to recreate European villages.

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