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Learn from past for better urban future
By Li Yang
Published: Aug 26 2011 8:38
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For the past 20 years, Western countries have mistaken urban sprawls as the symbol of urban development. The car-dependent lifestyle this mistake has created is, in fact, a failure of urban development.

"Urbanization is not synonymous with urban sprawl," says Ting Ho Cheung, a registered architect and member of the Architectural Institute in British Columbia, Canada. "Urbanization should be a process of sustainable densification with respect to urban ecology. It should eventually upgrade a city into a metropolis," says Cheung, who is also an accredited professional for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Advancing urban infrastructure creates a livable density in a metropolis. But a city should preserve the green space needed for the healthy physical and mental development of its residents, he says. "Every nation should have its own definition of livable density according to its culture."

But American-style urban sprawls have exerted too strong an influence on developing countries such as China. Over the past 20 years, North America has promoted an image of suburbia living as a dream lifestyle for the middle class: single houses with big lots, huge landscape, a double-parking garage with gas-guzzling SUVs driven to work, school, other facilities and even groceries. Cheung says: "It is the (handiwork of) marketing cheats promoting a chain of business like automobiles, oil and gas, and bulk sales of consumer products."

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    This is not a lifestyle suited to Asians. This wrong vision initiated the illusion of increasing urban sprawls, which has mistakenly become the main strategy for urbanization. "The radiating-style city expansion devours lots of land and materials for unnecessary infrastructure like highways, water supply and power. It intensifies traffic problems on main commuting roads from a city's outskirts to downtown" where most of the workplaces and other facilities are situated.

    The global financial crisis dealt a fatal blow to the myth of this over-consuming lifestyle. It will take years for the West to pay off the price of promoting and practicing this wrong lifestyle. Little wonder then that the public quest for sustainable living and embracing environment-friendly urban planning has gained ground. This movement will help preserve land resources for future generations and force a rethink on the nature of urbanization.

    "Because of this sustainable consciousness, they (Americans) have dropped the gas-guzzling Hummer and are picking up bicycles. Then why did we Chinese try to buy their abandoned Hummer and drop our own sustainable bikes?"

    Cheung says Chinese people should learn from the West's failure to protect nature, and preserve the ancient Chinese wisdom of sustainable living in houses that promote family harmony.

    He cites hutongs (alleys) lined with siheyuans (traditional courtyard houses) as an example. The micro planning in hutongs should be expanded to the macro scale to develop a sustainable Chinese urbanization pattern, he says, and sustainable suburban communities should be developed around Beijing to solve the overcrowding problem. "To attract people from downtown, these communities should be self-sustainable, offering most of the urban facilities and working opportunities such as green industries and environment-friendly houses, and have necessary amenities within walking distance."

    Actually, old-style Chinese planning and construction are examples of eco-friendliness. Ancient Chinese planning and architecture summarize the mental and physical criteria to create better living conditions - for example, the bathroom door should not face the kitchen or bedroom.

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