Is China's Urban Boom A House Of Cards?

Beijing's uncontrolled urbanization
Beijing's uncontrolled urbanization
Xie Liangbing

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.

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.

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!