The term “modern city” is often enough to make a traveler cringe, as these words invariably conjure up images of endless strip malls, McDonalds, and department stores. But in China this term is often spoken with excitement by both foreign residents and locals. When someone here says “It’s a modern city,” it’s meant to be a good thing — and oftentimes it is.
I rode my bicycle the 80km from Taizhou to Jiangyin last Thursday. For the most part, I rode on brand new, massive highways that could easily accommodate many times the traffic they were currently handling. Many seemed overtly deficient of traffic: either passenger cars and trucking routes had yet to discover them or they were built in preparation for a future demand that has not yet manifested itself. It was a comfortable, relaxing bike ride to put it mildly: it’s a pleasant surprise when you ride a bicycle between cities anywhere in the world without needing to fight traffic. In the New China, this is more and more becoming the rule as the country adapts to the new demands of modernization.
I’d never heard of Jiangyin before a friend told me that he lived there. I had no preconceptions of the city, no mental images of what to expect. I thought it would be another bumfuck, quasi-rural, cinder block Chinese river town, but what I found was interesting:
Jiangyin was 100% modern — and beautiful.
Jiangyin is not a new city, it’s been around for 2,500 years, but it seems to have been completely rebuilt on the new Chines urban model over the past few decades. There is a feeling of space there: you can look up and see the sky, wave your arms, and move through the streets without competing without against cars or other humans for the right to exist. The skyscrapers rise high there, as they do throughout the world, but they do not close off the sky and leave you with a feeling of claustrophobia. Jiangyin is made up of incredible boulevards, wide streets, big tree studded sidewalks, restaurants serving foods form around the world, bars, international supermarkets, truly awesome parks, places for people to mingle, and perhaps most importantly, a lot of green mixed in with the grey. It is an example of the New China City.
I was only in Jiangyin for a couple of days but it was clear that it’s a pretty decent place to live. What is more interesting is that it’s in no way out of the ordinary, and seems to be a model for what China is creating all along its eastern flank.
The Chinese have shown that they know how to revitalize cities. They seem to have learned from the mistakes of the gung-ho Communist years, when they covered the country in rolling seas of faceless grey concrete buildings, that humans need more than the basic necessities to survive happily. Now that endless grey sea is often mixed with green: parks, trees, plants, and bushes are distributed through the new Chinese cityscape. There are places to sit down and places to walk, the streets are becoming places to promenade and a park is rarely more than a few blocks away.
China is reinventing the city. They are razing the old to the ground, clearing it away, and building new places for their people to live virtually from scratch. They are adapting to the country’s new car culture, weaving nature and city, and are setting a new standard for urban life. It’s as if they’ve collected a massive amount data on what makes a city livable, threw it into a computer, mixed it all together into a virtual model, and then went out and built the output.
Though the results often seem somewhat automated. These New China Cities are excellent places to live but they lack a lot in regards to personality and character. In point, these modern cities all tend to look the same: if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. In fact, if you walk through a modern city in China it tends to repeat itself over and over again. The same stores, the same restaurants, the same banks, the same parks, the same wide avenues over and over again into the distance. These new cities also tend to lack full-fledged epicenters. What is refereed to as the center of one of these cities can be moved in accordance with where the newest and trendiest shopping mall is built. But all this does not seem to be taken as a downside in this culture that errs towards conformity: if something works well once, why not repeat it over and over again to get the same result?
In China, they are creating fantasy cities, and the results are setting a new global standard.