Issue 505

Dictatorship, Democracy and Urbanism

SPUR's city trip to Shanghai offered some tough but important lessons for American planners.

Urbanist Article

Has any place experienced change as rapid as China’s, growing from 26 to 50 percent urban in just 20 years — a shift of a half a billion people? The standard of living has risen equally rapidly: Since 1990 the country’s gross domestic product has grown by more than tenfold.

It might be possible to stop people from moving to cities in search of economic opportunity, but it would require a system far more authoritarian than contemporary China. For example, there are 14 million people in Shanghai with official permanent-resident permits, but an additional 9 million migrants live in the municipal region and are participating in its economic expansion.

This year SPUR’s annual city trip was to Shanghai. It was the first time we visited a city outside North America, and it afforded a glimpse into China’s phenomenal urban growth, the most significant urbanization project in human history. Shanghai is a modern city. It has high-rise towers, upscale retail and restaurants, and a transportation infrastructure (trains, ports, airports, etc.) far better than anything in the United States. But outside of the historic districts built before World War II, the development appeared terribly disorganized to us. There is lots of transit and lots of development but no real relationship between the two. Development far away from transit is just as intense as development close to transit. Add to this a tendency to copy some of the worst affectations of American cities and suburbs — extremely wide roads, towers surrounded by vast, empty lawns, elevated highways cutting through districts — and the result is a landscape that is profoundly un-walkable, in spite of being packed with tall buildings as far as the eye can see. On the SPUR trip, we called it “high-density sprawl.”

There are lots of reasons Chinese urbanization is turning out this way:

  1. The growth is so fast that they don’t have time to plan. They just build as fast as they can, trying to make sure everyone has a place to live.

  1. The official growth-management policy emphasizes “new towns” rather than directing growth into already urbanized areas of Shanghai. In a country that is experiencing this much population growth, there can be no question that new towns are a necessary part of the solution. But Shanghai could put more energy into growing its urban core.

  1. China is copying the American model of car dependency. If cars are symbols of personal freedom, imagine how powerful the symbol is in a society struggling to move from a form of totalitarianism toward a more open and tolerant model. Shanghai has taken more aggressive steps to manage cars than most cities in China, but providing lots of traffic lanes and lots of parking is pushing greater Shanghai into a dispersed pattern.

  1. In Shanghai the subways are organized in a grid to facilitate one transfer to anywhere; there are almost no central nodes that would warrant the greatest concentration of density.

  1. Local government is funded by selling development rights and leasing property, while the national government is funded by personal and business taxes. In order to pay for basic services, local government is deeply enmeshed in the business of land development.

  1. Bureaucrats in charge of districts, towns or cities compete with each other to create major places. To get noticed and advance in their careers, mayors want to be responsible for a new downtown or a major rail hub. When a new mayor comes into office, he or she wants to make a mark with something new instead of implementing another mayor’s vision; as a result the landscape is dotted with partly finished mega-developments. In some ways, the political structure is the form-giver.

Despite these problems, it’s clear that Shanghai and China have a lot to teach us. First, the rising prosperity did not happen by accident. China has an industrial policy of identifying industries to target for growth. The job of Chinese mayors is to come up with a profitable mix of industry in their cities, and they will not get promoted unless they succeed. Mayors have many, many tools at their disposal to carry out this task, including directing state-owned companies and foreign investments companies to desired locations; creating new universities; and even building the factories they want and starting new companies themselves. As we met with mayors of fast-growing new towns, we heard sophisticated interpretations of the “lessons of Detroit.” They talked about the need to nurture industries that are further up the value chain and not rely on manufacturing, which will flow to areas of least cost. For example Jiading, a new town specializing in auto manufacturing, is working to attract R&D and affiliated industries — to design cars rather than just build them.

The second big lesson from China in general, and Shanghai in particular, is that the government is spending heavily on the things the United States seems unable to afford anymore — especially transportation infrastructure and education. In the most respected international comparison of educational attainment among high-school students (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment), Shanghai came out ahead of every other place in the world. People who think China’s economic success is only based on cheap labor are drawing the wrong lesson, and are, frankly, not as worried as they should be. The cost of labor in China will rise — in fact it already has. What is more challenging to the U.S. economy is the smart, and massive, investments China is making in its future productivity.

When confronted with the stories of China’s successes — the growing prosperity, the new high-speed rail lines, the ability to move so quickly on infrastructure and other large projects — Americans tell themselves, “It’s easier in a dictatorship.” But let’s give the Chinese some credit: The results they are achieving for their people far outstrip those of any other dictatorship I can think of. As I watch California wade into a third decade of trying to build its first high-speed rail system, with, at best, more than a decade more to go, I don’t want to sound like one more star-struck American raving about the marvels of modern China. I am rooting for democracy. But our democracy is very, very troubled.

This brings us to the third and final lesson we took away — and it’s a hard one. How does the United States compete with undemocratic countries without sacrificing our democracy? Can a country with a rich public life and culture of debate still take on the hard decisions?

What if we continue to deny that spending is necessary to maintain first-world infrastructure and public services?

What if we are too short-sighted as a people to invest in the education and opportunity of the next generation?

What if, in short, our system is not capable of tackling hard problems?

Many of China’s mayors, the ones directing their nation’s thriving economy and building its supportive infrastructure, were trained as economists and engineers. If we can characterize China’s political system as government by engineers, then the challenge it poses to us becomes even more clear. American political culture is deeply distrustful of expertise and deeply wedded to the idea that the experts are probably wrong. This is where China — dictatorship or not — is more enlightened than we are. We cast our lot with democracy; with building a participatory citizenry that combines all our strengths. But in order for it to work, we must vote and act according to an intelligent, informed vision that is bigger than immediate self-interest. We have a lot of work to do to prove that these hopes for our democracy are more than naïve wishes.


Gabriel Metcalf is the Executive Director of SPUR.