Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis by Julie Sze

China’s environmental emergency, Julie Sze tells us, has given rise to fear, loathing, and, more recently, what may prove to be a historic agreement by Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to limit carbon emissions. The growing crisis has also set off a race to find solutions. From wind farms and solar panels to electric vehicles, Chinese government and businesses are in a race to keep the Chinese dream of a higher living standard from being overwhelmed by coal-choked air, toxic water and clusters of cancer villages.

China needs big solutions for problems that are almost unimaginably large. Setting up entire new cities—so-called eco-cities—was one path to change. On paper, it seemed sensible enough to build high-end showcases that could serve as experimental demonstration sites and diffuse good environmental practices more broadly throughout the country.

Dongtan was the most ambitious of these projects. Set on Chongming Island, the world’s largest alluvial island just north of Shanghai, Dongtan was supposed to exemplify the way in which a rising and increasingly urban China could live in harmony with nature. Crucially, it was also one of the earliest such cities, so the entire concept was something of a blank canvas.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: City of Darkness Revisited by Greg Girard and Ian Lambot

Two decades after its destruction, the Kowloon Walled City has acquired an increasingly shiny gloss of respectability. Architects of the new urbanism celebrate its dense, human, organic development. The government’s dystopian view of the Walled City as a place of “notorious… drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” has given way to a vision of the Walled City in the collective imagination as the lost paradise, a sort of Atlantis, Xanadu and urban Shangri-La rolled into one.

Symbolizing this re-imagined city, and helping make the gloss even shinier, is a new and dramatically expanded twentieth-anniversary edition of City of Darkness. In its earlier editions, the book was smoothing of a cult classic. It was also a book that focused very much on the people of the City, trying to de-mystify and humanize this place of urban myth.

The new edition is big and bold, a colorful heavyweight book perfectly suited for gift-giving and coffee-table viewing by people who never would have gone to the City while it was real. But it is also a far more ambitious attempt to look at the underside of the city and at its larger global and urban-architectural dimensions.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: Villages in the City, edited by Stefan Al; Paris Reborn by Stephane Kirkland

The city was one vast construction zone. New streets were literally smashed through buildings. Half-demolished buildings dominated the cityscape. Roads were ripped apart and mountains of rubble piled up.

Much of this will sound familiar to anyone living in China today. In the eyes of the Chinese media, a village that stands in the way of lucrative high-rise property development is derided as an “eyesore”, “cancer”, an “ill” that is a “scar” on the city. The residents of these poorer areas are labelled as filthy, as burglars, drug users and even murders.

As in Second Empire Paris, so too in China today: governments exercise their power of eminent domain to seize land. It is a contest, naturally, with the state and its development allies against those who stand to lose their apartments. Importantly, it is also a struggle between the state and private developers over profits. For urban real estate redevelopment can be spectacularly lucrative, whether in Paris or Shenzhen. Money, as much as vision, drives urban change.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed here

Review: China’s Urban Billion by Tom Miller

In a region full of big challenges, one of the weightiest is the on-going task of moving 500 million Chinese from farms to cities. This story, that of the world’s largest human migration, is told vividly by Tom Miller in a pithy book, one that is part of Zed Books’ “Asian Arguments” series. It is a book that is at once sympathetic to the task faced by Chinese policy makers and yet infused with a journalist’s solid reportorial skills and natural scepticism, qualities that give the book a gritty, grounded credibility of a sort that is missing from most of what has been written on this subject.

This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=140

Wealthy and Healthy: Why Asia Needs Good Cities

It is the twenty-first century’s version of the Asian Dilemma: how do we provide places for the Asian half of the world’s population to live, to work, to play as economies boom and air, water and living space are ever-scarcer?

This essay was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. Can be accessed at www.asianreviewofbooks.com/?ID=1189