On inspiration

The reason to visit China this time in 2016 had a lot to do with my new professional passion, i.e. the history and development of cities. After having met the author of a book project I have always admired as well as pondering life amid landscapes zooming by the train window, herewith some notes on inspiration.

Hongqiao Integrated Transport Hub, Shanghai

The first time I was exposed to China’s cities in a more serious fashion was when I read How the City Came to Mr. Sun, a great book written by journalist Michiel Hulshof and architect Daan Roggeveen in 2011. Passing through Shanghai on my train journey from Dalian to Chengdu now too, I seized the opportunity to meet with Daan, who is based there. More on the professional insights originating from that conversation in a separate post.

Here, I wanted to jot down a thing or two he told me about the duo’s motivation for writing the book back then. With language still an issue and facing a paucity of reliable data on the topic, the two authors decided that the best way to gain a meaningful insight into the growth of China’s secondary mega-cities in the country’s west was to “kick the tyre” and actually visit these places one by one.

By picking a certain lens for each of their city chapters, they connect their chosen spaces (13 cities) with a variety of not necessarily tangible issues, thereby bringing them to life much more vividly. For example, their Kunming chapter is on heritage preservation, Chengdu on the growth of the urban creative class, and Guiyang on environmental sustainability. I think it is these spatial connections that make the content stick much more, unlike more academic and think-tank type presentations.

I remember being very inspired back then.

An early idea I had while working in the EBRD’s agribusiness team was to approach China’s agriculture in a similar way, i.e. in semi-journalistic form using specific locations as a window into the production of agricultural goods and livestock and their distribution via the country’s vast food retail network.

One of our Yangon book ideas was to feature only ten or so buildings but with an equal focus on select issues, touching on urban history and current affairs. Lastly, India’s urbanisation by way of ten-or-so housing projects up and down the country could have been another worthy project (maybe).

With the benefit of having completed the Yangon book, though, I shiver amid the workload either of these ideas would have entailed. Needless to say, neither of the three left the concept stage.

But who knows what the future will hold. Projects like these are great ways of learning. And a certain journalistic innocence is a great way of steering clear of being accused of outsider’s ignorance, something that is much harder to navigate on purely academic terrain.

The long train rides I took in China provided ample time to read. Apart from re-reading Hulshoff and Roggeveen’s book and refreshing some themes in our conversation yesterday, my main background reading consisted in a surprise library finding.

The book is called China’s New Urbanisation Strategy and is a 2013 translation of a publication by China Development Research Foundation, one of the country’s leading think tanks. It is a surprisingly honest analysis of urbanisation’s main fissures and suggested remedies. I will get back to it in the more issue-based post I intend to write.

Daan also gave me a copy of Urban China’s issue 63, edited by the two authors and concerning “Chinese Urbanism in Africa”. Drawing on several research visits to Lagos and Addis Ababa among others, they wonder which aspects of China’s urban growth story may be transferable to an African context, and which may not. More on that, too in a separate post.

And lest I forget, the night before my trip to China I went to a great presentation here in Tokyo. The editor of The FunambulistLeopold Lambert, introduced the magazine and two of the current issue’s authors their articles. I had come across the magazine before and really liked its ambition to connect design issues with the humanities. I will look at the copy we bought carefully and then hopefully subscribe going forward.

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