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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #27 (July 8, 2008), page 16.

China’s six Big Ss

Thomas J. Campanella in print and at Powell’s

The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution

and What It Means for the World

By Thomas J. Campanella

Princeton Architectural Press, 2008

Hardcover, 335 pages, $35.00

By Ronault L.S. Catalani

China is in the midst of the greatest building boom in human history." So began University of North Carolina professor Thomas J. Campanella’s evening talk at downtown Portland’s Powell’s City of Books last month, and so too reads the theme most central to his lively and rigorous 335 pager: The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World.

Tom Campanella’s stand-up and his prose are both upbeat. He’s that kind of only occasionally occurring scholar our college kids pray for. Yet his professorial grip on sober authority for his super-tempo propositions is, well — compulsive. In combination, by the end of his lecture, by the end of his hardback, we are awed. Professor Campanella is an articulate messenger, and the message is awesome. The Dragon is rising. The medium is concrete.

Dig this: in the late 1970s there were fewer than 200 cities in China, today there are nearly 700; the U.S. has nine cities with more than a million residents, China has 102. Que mas: in a single decade more Chinese families were displaced by urban development than American families removed in 30 years of big city renewal.

All that concrete in context

Of course, professor Campanella paints a broader context to China’s astounding national development story. He takes us back to CP muscleman and 1978 Time Man of the Year Deng Xiaoping and his astounding economic reforms. According to professor Campanella, Comrade Deng’s apparently sudden decentralization of the People’s Republic’s economic activity — taking Forbidden City personalities and Communist politics out of business — busted wide open entrepreneurial energies and human dreamings at a scale unprecedented. Ever. In all of human history.

Since the early 1980s, national urban development has been at a speed and scale that supercedes all superlatives formerly owned by the United States. Like: the largest internal migration (rural to urban) in human history; like: the longest bridge, the fastest growing appetite for cars, for super highways and shopping malls, for drive-by burgers and drive-in movies. The downsides of all these stupendous highs are as troublesome for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as they’ve been in the United States of America. Indeed both China’s and our excesses are equally bad for our achy little planet.

Speed and Scale are only two of Dr. Campanella’s six big Ss. There’s also Spectacle. China’s cities, he writes, "flush with money from land leasing [Read: everyone rents real estate from The State], taxes, and development fees have embarked on a range of civic improvement projects, many of extraordinary scale, luxury, and extent … airports and opera houses; museums and convention centers and exposition halls; public recreation facilities, extensive new parks, waterfront promenades, and vast urban plazas studded with fountains and public art."

And then there’s Sprawl. Nothing new to city-spread-averse Portlanders, except the sheer scale and speed of Chinese megacities’ suburban sprawl.

And certainly like everyplace else, China’s got the urban Segregation issue — displaced poor and aggressive rich; country-bumpkin labor and brutally exploitive business.

And finally, there are all those pesky (and elephantine) Sustainability problems. Big growth minded by little government makes big environmental problems, everywhere. China’s no exception, except of course again, for how fast and huge it’s all happening.

But alas, in his closing paragraphs Thomas Campanella — visiting professor at Harvard’s School of Design, visiting instructor at Nanjing U, observer of China’s next massive march — lays out a tentatively hopeful note of how this may all yet play out. China knows her limits, Chinese are not stupid.

The PRC has tremendous innovative potential and motivation, particularly in green technologies.

This old nation has an indelible tradition of learning from and leaning into nature. Of conservation, indeed of slow love of old trees and sedate ponds and the mystery of seasons shifting.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

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