BEIJING — "Better city, better life ..." This was the theme of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, a nod to the ancient Greek scholar Aristotle who understood what people expect from urban life: to make their living a better living.
But what is the reality in people's lives right now? During China's golden week — in which people celebrate China's National Day — Typhoon Fitow made landfall on the southeast coast and Shanghai was instantly turned into a lake. Buses became submarines. The nearby city of Yuyao in Zhejiang province was almost completely underwater. And even the north wasn't spared, as a haze lingered for days, causing serious air pollution in numerous cities including Beijing.
Cities that are supposed to bring convenience and comfort seem to offer just the opposite — overcrowding, stifling air, unbearable traffic jams, increasingly scarce water, madly rising house prices, frequent land subsidence, threats and frequent casual attacks by unstable people on the margins of society ... The list goes on, as life in Chinese cities gets worse instead of better.
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Beijing — Photo: Snow Kisses Sky
The worst of all is that when we inspect carefully all the "component parts" of our cities we discover that they function like a sieve: full of cracks and loopholes that leave the structure incredibly vulnerable.
Even a tiny weather-related event is enough to paralyze a city. In Beijing, a mild snow shower can bring the whole town’s traffic to a halt. A typhoon that was blowing towards Fujian flooded Yuyao, a city that is miles away to the north.
In fact, this growing vulnerability is becoming the common characteristic of cities globally. A recent report, published by the Swiss Reinsurance Company, about the world’s most vulnerable cities and urban areas shows that Tokyo-Yokohama tops the list, while the Pearl River Delta and Shanghai came in as the 3rd and the 8th riskiest places in the event of natural disasters.
Deep systems, not pretty facades
So why are cities full of people rushing about becoming so fragile? One can’t stop acts of God, but are human factors also contributing to rising risks?
Following Yuyao’s flooding, there was no running water, no electricity, no food for days. The shortage of relief supplies even led to brawls between the victims of the disaster and the volunteer workers — and to the public looting of the relief materials. When questioned about its risk management ability, the Yuyao Municipal Party Committee Secretary said that this typhoon was particularly strong and is a "once in a century" kind of event.
"Once in a century" has become the magic phrase for every Chinese official in front of any disaster, whether it's in the northeast, Shanghai or Zhejiang. Chinese city managers have always attributed a city's vulnerability to force majeure or acts of the public. For instance, one Beijing official blamed "drivers micro-blogging or sending text messages" as the cause of the city's traffic jams, or "cooking with coal” as one of the factors of the capital's smog.
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Photo: Craig Kirkwood
Instead, we discover that urban leaders attach greater importance to short-term construction projects than to deep thinking and strategic planning about a city’s future. Short-sighted behavior has become commonplace, with officials "paying attention to what’s above ground while ignoring what’s underground” and "worrying about construction while neglecting maintenance.”
Urbanization is expanding in every corner of the world, though the pace varies. According to a United Nations study, by 2050 urban inhabitants will reach 6.3 billion, totaling 68% of the world’s population.
Meanwhile in China, cities are springing up in an uncontrolled way. The official urbanization rate has exceeded 50% — which means that most Chinese people will live in cities in the future. Urbanization makes us accustomed to the convenience of various transportation services, the ease of use of electricity and tap water, the practice of shopping at a nearby convenience store. Where can we go if they suddenly disappear because things keep breaking in our cities?
A city should be a place where we live with dignity, security, wellness and hope. This requires our government leaders to think about building strong urban systems rather than just glamorous construction projects that are merely a weak facade that can't even withstand a bit of weather.