Lookalikes: 12 Insights into China's Love of Copycat Suburbia

Curbed

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What do China's cities look like after 15 years of government policies attempting to mimic planning templates that have since been abandoned in the US and Europe? Urban chimeras with "Houston-style financial districts," "Dallas' car culture," and "Atlanta's endless sprawl," surrounded by surburbs like Rancho Santa Fe, a faux-Californian community of Mission-style homes outside Shanghai whose developers decided to simply name it after the real one. That's according to Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, who wrote on the country's "deja vu design binge" in The Guardian. Below, 11 insights from her discussion of copycat planning and its effects on the country that also reproduced Paris, a Bavarian castle, and an entire Austrian town:

12. "McMansion communities like Rancho Santa Fe have also helped recreate the golden state's car headaches and endless sprawl, thanks to planners and policymakers who have repeated the urban design sins of developed countries. For China, California dreaming has turned into a nightmare."

11. In copying outmoded planning templates, Chinese authorities have committed "essentially all the mistakes that have been made in the western world before", says UNC professor Yan Song.

10. According to Song, a delegation of US planners once tried to dissuade Chinese officials from doing away with Beijing's bike lanes to make room for more cars: "The American planners were saying, 'Don't do that, please! We've done that, we have made that mistake. Don't follow us.' But at the time, when you have that kind of modernisation, people love cars—so unfortunately the planners there didn't listen."

9. "Besides expunging cycle lanes, China's leaders have also inflicted Dallas' car culture and Atlanta's endless sprawl on their country."

8. Suburban homeowners' contribution to smog and gridlock is owed "in part to another problematic template that's enchanted China's planners: Houston-style financial districts packed with towering glass boxes that are inhospitable to street life, all but abandoned in the evenings and far from people's homes."

7. "China's 'deja vu design' binge has been driven in part by policies that provide incentives for the real estate equivalent of pawning jewellery to pay bills. Local bureaucrats have financed their operations to a large extent by hawking property to developers, who in turn expand the suburbs farther and farther from the urban core."

6. "In China, the government owns the land and sells the land to the developer, and that's the last dollar that the local government gets off that piece of dirt. So then what do? They have to sell another piece of dirt. They have to plan for a bigger city," says Chip Pierson, a senior principal with the Dahlin Group. "This is why they're coming up with schemes about a technology city in the middle of God-knows-where.'"

5. Despite the Chinese government trying to outlaw the use of land for luxury villas by mandating that housing units be built smaller, "the Developers know each square meter of a home's outdoor space counts for only a fraction of its actual area, so they've been building apartments with colossal balconies that owners can easily wall off to create an extra room."

4. "China's bureaucrats and homebuyers are drawn to the same trappings of success that moneyed classes elsewhere have enjoyed. There's the sense, for example, that to become a financial centre, China must look like a financial centre—which means replicating the plans for the Loop in Chicago or Canary Wharf in London. Businesses want the appearance of modernity that, it seems, only stacked glass boxes can provide. And homeowners want the white picket fence that defines the Chinese dream as much as the American one."

3. Design firm director Laurence Liauw: "In a way, it's the Louis Vuitton complex: 'because everyone else has a Louis Vuitton, I have to have one, too. We [the Chinese] want to be like everyone else. We want to be like Palm Springs, or Portofino, or whatever is the latest fashionable address."

2. Liauw continues: "There's nothing wrong with it," except that "it comes at a very, very high cost to humanity, to the environment and in resources."

1. On the bright side, Chinese planners seem to be waking up to their mistakes. This spring, unveiled a new urbanization plan aiming at promoting smarter infrastructure. According to UNC professor Yan Song, the plan's authors took inspiration by what might seem to be an unlikely source: "They love Portland. Portland is a really great model."

· Why haven't China's cities learned from America's mistakes? [The Guardian]

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