Aaron Betsky on what western planners can learn from Asia's mega-cities

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Aaron Betsky Opinion

"We can't stop super-blocks or sprawl, but we have to make space for life in between"

Aaron Betsky finds lessons for western city planners and designers in amongst the mega-blocks, privatised spaces and urban sprawl of Asian cities.


As a tourist and business traveller, I usually jet in and out of cities around the world, glancing at them from cars or buses as I try to figure out what they are or how they work.

But recently I had a chance to spend a fair amount of time studying urban life in one of them – Shenzhen – with some more care, and then took a series of long walks around a few cities in Asia and the Arab Peninsula, watching as urban life unfolded around me. I was part of the scene, rather than being in an automotive theater watching the city perform.

Walking in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dubai, you experience the urban scene as a continuity that houses people together, but does not always provide them with a place to act together. What encourages me is that new forms of scenography are emerging to make something out of these wastelands.

In America and most of Europe, life in the city takes place within a grid or cellular accumulation of blocks, intersected by boulevards and public squares as well as natural elements such as rivers or hills.

The same is true in Asia, but in China the blocks are much larger, offering a strong contrast between large public streets and interior neighborhoods of alleys and successions of small courtyards. In other cities the blocks are harder to find, as streets meander on a great length with little interruption.

These rhythms, frameworks, and backdrops of walls have created the scenography in which we appear as public people.

That, at least, was the traditional model. These days the urban scene increasingly takes place at a variety of new scales and in various spaces. It has become interiorised into shopping malls and other quasi-public spaces, which in Asia have often developed as a palimpsest of the urban grid, winding through and between buildings, encompassing office lobbies and food courts as well as train stations and shopping areas.

As cities extend and distend into the countryside, the scene unravels, leaving little place for any kind of urban scenography we might recognise (although it does reappear in the exurban nodes that increasingly organise this sprawling landscape).

And, of course, more and more of our urban scene happens online or in the cloud, as we congregate around social media and apps, games, and other forms of virtual connection.

In the fastest-growing cities outside of the western world, the city scene has also been interrupted by the emergence of the mega-block – a dense equivalent of the isolated suburban developments we know so well in the United States.

The mega-block has become the standard unit of development in every Asian city I have visited. It is a huge territory walled off from the outside world – sometimes with a plinth of retail hiding parking behind or above its street fronts, sometimes anchored by shopping malls or such public amenities as schools or recreation areas – and giving rise to clumps of either residential or office high-rises.

From Shenzhen to Dubai, the pattern is the same. Even if designers offer variations that might appear endless, this is really just a rearrangement of standard pieces.

At best, the outside faces of these blocks are filled with stores that enliven the street close to the edge, even when the streets are broad by necessity as they have to both serve and get by the super-blocks. In places with lush climates this problem is solved to some extent by planting, but it still means that real life huddles along the edges and stops at the corner.

The further you move away from the urban centre and the newer the blocks are, the less scenography they provide. By the time you get to the isolation of developments sprouting up with no apparent logic in the desert around Dubai, there is no way to inhabit the street.

Even in what its developer calls Downtown Dubai, walking between the blocks of housing, offices, and malls – which at times are low and made to look like traditional neighbourhoods – means frying between the "two suns": the one from the sky and the one reflected from the pavement and asphalt.

So you retreat inside to the mall or the office court, where the scenography is controlled and predictable and buying and selling governs all interactions. We once thought we could make such spaces into ersatz versions of the real street, but have found out they curve from nowhere to anywhere past all the same stores.

Between the super-blocks, you move by car or rapid transit in air-conditioned bubbles. Or you escape to parks and edges where new forms of sociality can emerge, from the old people dancing collectively in China to the raves and semi-legal parties that take place on urban edges everywhere, to just people walking their dogs or strolling their babies, which you can't comfortably do on the mega-streets. And then, at moments, life reappears, sparked by messages on the internet – sometimes two people meeting, sometimes a deal being made, sometimes a mob of dancers or protesters.

What gave me hope as I trudged from block to block was the ways in which the more traditional Asian street or Arab Kasbah has provided a model for urban scenography to reappear.

In Hong Kong, for instance, the city rises up the lower ridges of the Peak – the mountain at the island's core – along streets that snake around the contours, moving in and out of neighborhoods, changing character, breaking, reappearing, opening up to views or small parks, and letting you move almost always in shade and through many different scenes. In Singapore, you can sidle through whole sections of the downtown area along passageways, parks, and open bases of high-rise buildings, as well as down the traditional "shop streets".

In both cases, these streets reappear above and below ground in passageways connecting various parts of the cities' infrastructure. These are not just tunnels or bridges between subway stations, but commercial streets, public places that give rise to performances or just people watching (the true urban theatre) and spaces of encounter of all sorts.

They are not pretty and they can be confusing, but they have the vitality and variety that we like to think of as essential to the urban scene.

These linear spaces, which move in and out of buildings and between blocks, could provide the scaffolding through which cities in Asia could connect their super-blocks, and urban sites everywhere could connect separate developments in suburban and exurban areas.

In other words what we need in our rapidly developing cities is linear, thin infill: a weaving of threads of stores, stairs, squares, escalators, nodes and the other knick-knacks of urban life through, between, under and below our too-big urban streets and blocks.

They do not have to be purely public, but must be a mixture of public amenities and private enterprises. They cannot be planned in a preset order and all at once, but must arise according to circumstances, to connect dots, as pop-ups, and perhaps even as temporary structures that are then replaced by others. The marketplace, the original public space, might be the best Western model.

To make this work we need to loosen up zoning and planning that separates and regulates. We also need to seed the development of neighbourhood initiatives that grow on such events as the retired people dancing or kids skateboarding.

We need to observe what connects people, what draws them together, and what they need and then provide or encourage that – whether it is a 7-11 store or a parklet, a ramp, or the pad for pop-up stores and places for food trucks to park.

If we need any kind of urban design, it would be a physical and signage framework that connects, provides outlets and plug-ins to municipal amenities, offers shade and space for signage and way finding. This kind of connective tissue is what you already find in many Chinese cities. In Hong Kong and Singapore the government also provides some of these amenities.

We need to learn from these places and turn away from our focus on God's-eye-view planning, the provision of grand public spaces with little discernible function and the dressing of streets with pretty amenities.

We need a theory, a methodology, a matrix, or a handbook that lets us help such scaffolding appear. We should be teaching and learning this kind of urban acupuncture rather than the design of isolated blocks in grids.

We can't stop either super-blocks or sprawl. We have to find the life between and in them, and allow it to connect. The street is an old stage set to which we need to give new possibilities. Life happens as you walk along the street, so we need to make streets – or rather, we need to make that which will let streets happen.


Aaron Betsky is dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. A critic of art, architecture, and design, Betsky is the author of over a dozen books on those subjects, including a forthcoming survey of Modernism in architecture and design. He writes a twice-weekly blog for architectmagazine.com, Beyond Buildings.

Trained as an architect and in the humanities at Yale University, Betsky was previously director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (2006-2014) and the Netherlands Architecture Institute (2001-2006), and Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art(1995-2001). In 2008, he also directed the 11th Venice International Biennale of Architecture.