The city of Wuhu, Anhui Province, People’s Republic of China, population 2,263,123 and counting. One of 120 cities in China with more than a million people living in them. Photo courtesy of Cultural China.
Tuesday night at CGI. The panel Gavin Newsom was part of, Megacities, Mega challenges included Yang Jiechi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Naturally, Yang had a lot to add to a point that Newsom raised in passing, that China has 120 cities with populations of more than one million, and those cities are growing and other, at the moment smaller cities are also growing.
All those people have to come from somewhere.
Many somewheres. Somewheres on their way to becoming nowheres.
The farther I drove across northern China, the more I wondered what would become of all the villages. The cities were easy to predict, at least in terms of growth---their trajectory was already laid out in tracks of cement and steel. In the countryside, though, it was impossible to imagine who would be living here in a generation. Often I stopped in a village and saw only the very old, the disabled,and the very young, because migrants left their children behind to be raised by grandparents. Workers still didn’t feel settled in the cities, although inevitably that was bound to change; it seemed likely that in the future they’d find some way to have their families closer to work. for many of the northern villages this might be the last generation where a significant number of children were still growing up in the countryside.
An hour west of Jingbian, I stopped to visit the Great Wall near the village on Ansi. This region had been a major defense point for the Ming, and people told me that that there were particularly impressive ruins near Ansi. The name means “Temple of Peace,” and when I pulled over in the village I saw only one adult. He was disabled, with a pair of rough-hewn wooden crutches, and he was minding a flock of children. In rural China, that’s become an archetypal scene: little kids dancing around somebody who can hardly walk.
That’s from Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler, a travel book about Hessler’s explorations of the Chinese countryside north and west of Beijing. He travels mainly by car, following the Great Wall as much of the way as he can. That’s the frame. Country Driving is really about this accelerated urbanization of China as seen from the parts of the country emptying out as young people flock to the cities and about its effects on individuals left behind or who’ve chosen not to follow.
As you can imagine, it’s a sad, wistful book. Sadder because it’s a reminder that the same thing is happening here. Not as quickly, and people aren’t leaving their children behind. [Editor’s note: But see the update below.] When we talk about immigration here, we usually talk about how immigrants take jobs most Americans don’t want to do. We should also talk about how a lot of those jobs are in places where Americans no longer want to live.
But while it’s sad to think about what happens when these places empty out, how poverty increases, how communities shatter, how people grow lonely and lost, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that more and more people are moving into cities. I’m a fan of cities, as long their growth can be planned for and controlled and as long as there are actually jobs and decent places to live for people moving in.
Planning and controlling the growth was the subject of the panel, of course, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that Newsom and Yang and the others didn’t talk about cities as places to live so much as engineering projects to be managed.
Just about everybody on the panel sees this urbanization as a good thing but they seem to it from a purely technocratic point of view. As they put it, one after the other, cities are good because they are useful for delivering goods and services efficiently. As far as I could tell from what they all said, the point of a city is mechanical--- a city is a machine for producing a well-fed, well-clothed, healthy population of workers who need to know where to park their cars. Hardly any of them talked about how cities might be fun and exciting places to live.
They all tended to sound like Newsom or like New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who said:
We have eight point four million people [in New York City]. We’re going to have a million more by Twenty-thirty. What are we going to do so that when we open the door in Twenty-thirty we’re going to like what we see. So [Mayor Bloomberg’s] strategy was to look at what that meant, and that meant reducing the environmental impact on the City of New York and it meat improving the quality of life, which had some really profound implications for transportation . So we worked really, really hard to prioritize people* in our transportation network, and so building out more places to walk, which is really important for business, building out more effective ways of getting around by buses, which can be done at low cost very quickly, rather than very expensive rail and commuter rail projects which can take decades and generations to build; engineering new mobility onto our streets with bike lanes, which are great also for pedestrians, because injuries to all users go down every time we put down these lanes….We closed Broadway, made it much better for people to walk around and that turned out to be much better for business. Times Square, for the first time in history, is one of the top retail locations on the planet.
*Note to bureaucrats and politicians: If you use the phrase “prioritize people" you probably aren’t really thinking about people and their priorities.
At any rate, in talking about managing the project in China, Yang got into something in broad, technocratic terms something that Hessler reports on in Country Driving at a more human level. The Chinese government is working hard to slow the migration to the cities, particularly to the fast developing and increasingly prosperous coastal cities. One of the things its doing is making the smaller cities outside the megacities more attractive to people. Yang talked about the thousands of kilometers of roads and rail lines being built to make them easier to reach and commute in and out of. Hessler describes how the seeding of these less than mega-cities with industries that don’t yet exist has resulted in scenes like this:
Wuhu is located on the banks of the Yangtze River, about five hours from Shanghai, and it’s one of the new frontiers of the southern economic boom. When we drove through the city’s industrial zone, it was still in the early stages: roads had curbs, sidewalks, and even street signs, but few people were outside. Most factories were still half-built shells behind high walls and impressive gates, all of them waiting for the machinery to be installed. In an odd way, it reminded me of the villages I’d driven through in northern China In places like Smash the Hu and Slaughter the Hu, everything had been surrounded by massive fortifications, but most residents had already left. Here in the development zone, it felt similar: big walls and gates, lots of structures, few people. If you were transported directly from a northern village to a fledgling factory strip, you’d wonder, Where is everybody? But that’s the nature of a country in transition: something is always being abandoned while something else is always being built. The people are in constant motion---on trains, in buses, on boats. They stand beside rural roads […] looking for a ride south. In half a year this Wuhu factory strip would be finished, and after that the young people would arrive in droves.
That scene from Wuhu struck me as ghastly and nightmarish when I read it the first time. But then I thought, where are there scenes like that here and how can we create more of them.
Tomorrow, President Obama is coming here to speak. Word is he’ll have something to say about that.
Sadik-Khan was able to break the techno-speak habit from time to time and translate herself into plain English. Making the case that cities can be environmentally friendly she said:
New Yorkers have one third the carbon footprint of the average American, so, really, if you want to save the planet you should just move to New York.
Update. Me: “…people aren’t leaving their children behind.”
Rebecca Clayton in the comments:
Here in Pocahontas County WV, there quite a few children being raised by grandparents or other relatives. Some of the kids are "left behind" by parents who can't find stable work, while others are sent "back home" because the urban workplace communities are unsavory. This is the case in the farming community where I grew up (southwestern Iowa) as well.
It's not as obvious as what Hessler describes, but it means that children are being raised on Social Security income, disability benefits, and pensions. They're growing up in an environment where they don't see many people working for a living, and the school system finds the grandparents under-engaged in the education process. In a way, it's a ghetto with fresh air and trees.
A hundred years ago, this was a boom town full of loggers. 60 years ago, people left for Detroit on the Hillbilly Highway hoping for good union jobs. These days, the destination is unclear.