Pearl River Delta 2.0: Balance is More——Doreen Heng LIU

1. State of Crisis

This is a story about the future of a Chinese city. It is also a story about the constant conflicts and balance of urban life, spaces, boundaries and mobility in the course of development. It is a new story that is often told, but only in part. What is missing from the narrative is a sense of balance, a concept with deep roots in Chinese culture, which has new relevance today.

Today as the world is undergoing diverse and profound changes as well as accelerated urbanization, crises such as lack of available land, energy shortages, climate change, population explosion and sustainable development have become common concerns worldwide. Though China has woken up after a period of stagnation and taken advantage of the last opportunity of accelerated urbanization, nevertheless it also confronts development bottlenecks and the dilemma of whether to continue such acceleration or slow down.

The Pearl River Delta (PRD), a pilot region for China’s rapid urbanization over the past three decades, now stands at the crossroads. Thanks to its importance in global trade networks and immediate proximity to Hong Kong, and booming with a population exceeding 40 million people over a total area of 41,698 square kilometers, this coastal region in Southern China has rapidly grown into the largest megalopolis in the country, and, according to some accounts, the world. Known as “World Factory,” the Pearl River Delta is home to countless factories supported by a massive mobility infrastructure of dense waterway, highway, road, and train systems designed to efficiently transport manufactured goods. However, new demands for industrial transformation, sustainable development, social and spatial changes, and a shift toward information and knowledge as the new “goods” are forcing the region to reimagine its future.

Driven by the trinity of sweeping globalization, the powerful top-down rule of the Chinese government and Western-style modern planning, the region has come to resemble certain Western cities, and to embody the high-efficiency city where capital is put to its highest value. But the region’s prosperity is shadowed by numerous crises. The pursuit of fast growth and efficient urbanization has led to two different consequences: on one side, great wealth matched with glamorous cities, grand infrastructure and the luxury life we have never lived before; on the other side, fragmented urban spaces, polarized communities, substandard living conditions, rapid land deterioration, polluted air and water, and an excessive reliance on imported resources.  

Yes, we are prospering, but are we living well? The juxtaposition of the robust economic growth and deteriorated social and ecological environment, produced during only thirty years’ time, is clearly a result of imbalance, and is not a happy one. The questions raised by Chinese urbanization have international relevance: why else would they seem even more troublesome to the international community? Rapid development has brought miraculous economic success, but at the cost of a more polarized relationship between humanity and nature, and between rich and poor.


2. Collages of Time   

As the planning historian Peter Hall has observed, “Many historical events stubbornly refuse to follow a neat chronological sequence.” He was speaking about urbanization in Europe and America over the past 150 years, but the same holds true for China, with its overlapping layers of ancient and modern history.

Modernity in China means living and reliving multiple time periods at once. Although China’s powerful economy is frequently traced to the “open door” trade policies introduced by Deng Xiaoping after 1978, there are echoes of earlier periods as well. The early decades of the twentieth century (around the end of the Qing Dynasty) saw heavy trading with the developed West. And centuries earlier, during the Ming Dynasty, Chinese fleets were the largest in the world, connecting Asia and Europe. The “feudal capitalism” of previous centuries foreshadowed the economic expansion of today, while the modern top-down governing system recalls some aspects of the imperial tradition. 

What is modernization? In its paradigmatic form it is very much a Western discourse coming out of the intellectual culture of the European Enlightenment and the technological growth of the industrial revolution. Its linear notions of time and progress imply a rejection of the past. And indeed, much urban development in China today follows this Western model. China’s new cities are large, dense, and centrally planned to an extent that modernist European planners of the last century could only have dreamed about.

It took London 100 years (1800-1900) to grow from a population of around 1 million to 6.5 million; Paris, in the same period, grew from about 500,000 to 3 million; and New York grew from 33,000 to 3.5 million. But it only took Shenzhen only 30 years to expand its population from 10,000 to 10 million.

However, real change cannot simply be reduced to a growth curve, like that of rising population or GDP. The dynamics of change and continuity are more complex than typical formulations of modernity and modernization. Everyday reality departs from the overly simplified, abstract ideal of modernity. China’s modernity is a unique and incomplete modernity, colored by history and culture.The rush toward the future does not eliminate the presence of the past. On the one hand, Chinese culture has shown itself readily adaptable to the shock of the new, and the rapid pace of change. On the other hand, everyday life remains deeply embedded in traditions that endure even amidst new material and spatial forms.

Modernity presents layered collages of time. Multiple phases of development seem to happen at once, or in an unexpected sequence. For example, the growth of industrial manufacturing in the PRD is now paralleled by the rise of digital media and a “post-industrial” service economy. Rapid migration from the countryside into cities is occurring simultaneously with the urbanization of the countryside itself. Communism and capitalism coexist, combining the planned economy and market economy. It is as if the trajectory of modernity is flattened, collapsed, and compressed into a single moment in time: the collage of the present.  


3. Opportunity PRD: balance and experimentation

The question then arises: for the metropolitan future of PRD, should we repeat the paradigm of Western development, or should we try another way? Already we have seen serious problems in the application of classical Western theories of urbanism to Shenzhen and other Chinese cities. Even seemingly unlimited central planning power does not guarantee a well-functioning, livable city. Top-down processes do not necessarily eliminate uncertainties, but rather introduce new uncertainties born of the disconnect between planners and everyday life. 

We have to propose a new approach that accommodates differences and experimentation. Experimentation can take the form of designers working with the city instead of upon the city. Designers and planners should seek out the opportunities specific to China and the region. 

This is PRD 2.0, a vision of a more balanced urbanism. Rather than striving toward an abstract ideal of development, we will move forward by embracing the collages of time that characterize our past, present, and future. The guiding principle of PRD 2.0 is “balance is more,” a play on the old mantra of “less is more,” associated with Mies van der Rohe; and Robert Venturi’s rejoinder, “less is a bore.” Unlike the growth paradigm, which is one-directional, balance supposes multiple elements in relation to each other.

Balance—a concept with deep roots in Chinese culture—is also relevant to contemporary urbanism. Nothing is absolute. Everything stands in context and relation to something else. In Chinese, this is a philosophical proposition known as 命题。Perhaps the ancient idea of 提出, “nature and human are one,” can inform the urbanism in the PRD. Shenzhen, already a vast metropolis, needs to balance economic development with social and ecological health. 

Even more profound than balance is flowing balance. Everything is in motion, ephemeral. Cities, too, thrive when we allow for changes over time. We must adapt to our urban environment, but at the same time the city must adapt to our needs. In this way we swim in harmony with the current of change. Top-down masterplans alone are too rigid, too static to accommodate flowing balance. 

The fullest expression of balance is multi-dimensional flowing balance. This means that multiple realities and potentials are considered at once. The people, the land, the spirit, the history, the architecture of the city—all these things and more contribute to PRD 2.0. In place of false certainties, we must embrace ambiguity. The many layers of the past and present create new possibilities for the future. 

PRD 2.0 is therefore about reliving the city and readapting urban life for an uncertain future. The paradigm of balance evokes different elements in shifting equilibrium, even as they move and change in relation to each other. The new metropolis is still envisioned as a highly efficient and densely populated city, but also as a city full of possibilities arising from its multiple layers.

With this points in mind, here are ten urgent and important issues pertaining to land, space, environment, and population explosion in the PRD region, to be considered by urbanists, architects, and all kinds of designers: 

1. Urban Regeneration: Transforming, renovating, and consolidating what already exists, including urban villages, factory towns, landscapes, and territories.

2. Instant Urbanism: The design of new towns, integrated infrastructures, public parks, politics of space and territory, free trade zones, and land reclamation projects.

3. Tropical Practice: Regionalism, Lingnan culture and lifestyle, tourism.

4. Infrastructure and Mobility: Integrating urban systems in our built environment.

5. Water: Delta urbanism, floating estates, interfaces between water and land.

6. Resources: Energy, waste and recycling.

7. Informal practices: Making our cities more livable based on research and respect for everyday realities and bottom-up methods.

8. Food and Agriculture: Global food chains and future agriculture in the context of large-scale urbanization, with attention to food security and quality.

9. The virtual dimension: How does information technology change our practice of urbanism and city living?

10. Digital modeling and fabrication: Exploring and applying new parametric techniques to study urban fabric and spatial form.