In this trip, I have seen two kinds of people: one is the special, noble, but deformed, and dead. The other is the common, humble, yet healthy, productive and still alive today. The special city rulers of pre-Hispanic Maya deformed themselves in order to legitimate their power by cutting their fingers or flattening their heads. For more than a thousand years, young Chinese girls were forced to bind their feet in order to be able to marry citified elites, and the natural “big” feet were considered rustic and rural.
In this trip, I have experienced two kinds of landscapes: one is normal, real, associated with hardworking, but still alive and prosperous. The other is grandiose, special, creating mirage, but decayed, as shown by the ruins of Rome, the ruins of great Maya cities in Mexico, and the burnt Grand View Gardens in Beijing. These decayed cities are those built by the deformed and citified high class.
I thus contemplate two cultures: The low culture, the rusticus, which is invisible and seldom recorded in history textbooks: who know the art of survival that created the real landscape and real world and survive. On the other hand, the higher culture, the urbanitas, the visible, the dominantly recorded, who had lost the art of survival but have indulged into the art of entertaining and ornament that created fake landscape and fake world, and perished.
Unfortunately, for a long time, the practice of urban design has belonged to the later, and has been buried in the higher culture of civic cosmetics, monumental city making, and gardening to create fake paradise. Modern urban design, from theory to practice, is based on the knowledge about the ruins of those decayed cities, the Greek, the Roman, the Maya, the Chinese capitals. Students are taught to design for the decaying but not for the survival.
Movement from Rusticus to Urbanitas and the challenge of survival Each year 1% of China’s 1.3 billion population will move to the city, to become urbanized, or citified – from Rusticus to Urbanitas. 65% of the national population will live in cities within 20 years. The inherited values about urbanity not only changed the city itself, but the whole landscape of China and of the world. The rough and wild rivers are channelized and lined with marble stone; the rustic wetlands are replaced by shining furnished ponds and fountains; the “messy” native shrubs are uprooted and replaced by ornaments while the harsh native grasses are replaced by ever-green exotic lawn which consumes a huge amount of water.
In the overwhelming “City Beautiful Movement” in China today, the art of urban design has lost its way in searching for senseless style, meaningless form and exotic grandeur. Examples in contemporary China include the new Olympic park and the steel-wasteful “bird nest”, the dangerous flamboyant CCTV tower, and the energy-wasteful National Opera House. All these facilities of urbanity, as a reflection of the same values inherited from the dead high class in the past centuries, do nothing more than accelerate the degradation of the environment for our survival.
China has 21% of the world population, but only 7% of the world’s land and sweet water. Two thirds of its 662 cities lack sufficient water, and not a single river in the urban and suburban areas runs unpolluted. In the north, desertification is in a crisis. In the past 50 years, 50 percent of China’s wetlands have disappeared. The underground water level drops every day.
These are all by-products of China’s speedy process of urbanization and the movement for Urbanitas. One can only ask: Is this sustainable? This big picture leads us to argue that urban design should be recovered as an art of survival, the art of land design and stewardship. The redefinition of urbanity: reclaiming Urban Design as an art of survival If we want to survive, we, the city makers and designers have to take three strategies:
- the change of values: to redefine urbanity, value the vernacular and go back to the authentic relationship of land and people.
- the redefinition and practice of the profession of urban design: recover and reclaim urban design as an art of survival.
- the methodology: the negative approach, urban design around the ecological infrastructure. The multi-scaled ecological infrastructure safeguards the various ecological, cultural and spiritual processes across the landscape. It also provides ecosystem services for the sustainability of a region and a city such as water and flood processes, biodiversity protection and species flow, heritage corridors and recreation. This ecological infrastructure becomes an integrated medium of various processes, bringing nature, man and spirits together.