Archive for August 2011
“The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it’s like a sandstorm … Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.”
These are the words of the famous Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who recently published a piece in Newsweek about the two-faced reality of life in contemporary Beijing. In an article that is sure to enrage Chinese authorities, he is talking about the corruption and the injustice of a fickle justice system where the lives of powerless citizens are in the hands of government bureaucrats who own the law.
A lawlessness that is especially pervasive on a local level, leading to many questions about the nature of local governance in China.
In such a large and diverse republic, it is not feasible, nor advisable, that all matters of importance should be decided in the capital, where people without intimate knowledge of varying local conditions design one-size-fits-all policies that will have immensely different consequences in different parts of the nation.
Just like in the similarly enormous USA, Chinese states and municipal governments should be given room to explore a wide range of ideas and act as laboratories of policy (Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ “laboratories of democracy” will have to wait for a while, but policy is a good start) so that effective state and local governments can, not only take local conditions into consideration, but also lead by example. Innovative localities can take charge of their own destiny and allow more economic and individual freedom by, for example, implementing local migration, school, labor and birth policies. Or, more humdrum, local property rights, environmental and safety regulations, building codes etc.
Thanks to decentralization, one state or city can show the rest of a region and the country the benefits of a new approach and force others to follow if they want to stay in the development game. A classic case of efficiency-increasing jurisdictional competition á la Charles Tiebout, where companies and citizens vote with their feet and leave corrupt backwaters to seek a new life in a better governed, and more successful part of the country. At least in theory.
In a reality where China lacks accountability measures, localization is likely to take a much darker turn. After the Chinese empire collapsed in the early 20th century, the country lost decades to civil war where the breakdown of central government led to the rise of a long line of regional warlords who did whatever they pleased with the territory they controlled. It was an intense form of legal sandstorm, where no one knew whose will or whim would affect your life.
This anarchy was what the communist party fought and defeated, which is why Beijing is incredibly rattled that a China of local chiefdoms may be resurgent, and that erratic and unjust local governments will undermine the people’s faith in the party’s ability to maintain stability and growth, prompting Beijing to try such extreme measures as capital punishment in order to discourage corrupt bureaucrats from abusing their powers. But with little effect, other than that local officials become less overt in their ransacking of the public purse and use of their powers over property rights and the legal system to enrich themselves. Since they know that there is no way for the federal anti-corruption authorities in Beijing to register every act of official misconduct in such a vast nation as China where millions of people are involved in corrupt activities. The capital’s resources will only allow them to go after the big game – people who have ended up in the Corruption Hall of Fame – leaving thousands of local emperors to continue undermining the people’s trust in the “harmonious society”.
The reason that countries like the US managed to rid its state capitals and city halls of corruption, and countries like Mexico failed, was because thousands of individual citizens could go above their local authorities’ heads when they misbehaved to get help from an accountable and independent federal judiciary and law enforcement that was beyond local governments’ control. Thereby, the US didn’t need to rely on a small group of anti-corruption officials to uncover and punish every local power-plot, but utilized the force of the masses as well as a free press of muckraking journalists. Without a strong and independent federal judiciary, local government officials all over America would have had no far-reaching independent authority to fear, and Americans would have had no far-reaching independent authority to rely on when some Peckerwood Caligula of a governor, mayor, city councilman or sheriff decided to interpret the law in accordance with his or her personal interests.
And herein lays the problem for Beijing. Hu Jintao desperately wants to rein in corrupt officials in order to protect the party’s autocratic hold on power, but the only way of doing that is to create an independent judicial authority that the party can’t control. A judiciary that may be intended to singlehandedly pursue cases of corruption, but that certainly would become a refuge for a thousand and one unforeseen complaints that the party would rather deal with behind closed doors.
Which is why Chinese law is likely to remain an ever changing sandstorm and why a majority of Chinese local governments will continue to be seriously flawed.
It is great that cities and towns think more about how they can use underutilized public space to improve the urban environment and make a locality a more attractive and interesting place to be. But sometimes local governments don’t think things through, like in Piteå, a small town of 22,000 people in Northern Sweden. Here, the municipality decided to build an observation tower, but didn’t contemplate exactly how high a tower needed to be for there to be an actual view. Which is why it ended up like this:
And when confronted with the fact that the observation tower is too low for anyone to observe anything, town officials defended themselves by saying that they couldn’t afford to build a higher one. Which is why the rational response was to spend public money on building something that was entirely useless, rather than not spending anything at all. Leslie Knope would not have been happy.
Xiaoji Chen of MIT has created some really interesting isochronic maps over Paris and Singapore where the city “size” varies depending on your mode of transportation (which I found thanks to The City Fix). Chen rightly points out that “the distance between a spot and the city center is not proportional to their geographical distance, but the cost taken to get there”. Here is the travel cost map over Paris:
For more maps and info see Xiaoji Chen’s blog.
Here is a promotional video from Detroit (that I found thanks to MLive), as part of the one year anniversary of Quicken Loans’ move downtown, that aims to convince people that living in Motown isn’t such a bad thing. PR that tries to sell something with an incredibly bad reputation by stressing how unique it is (and not uniquely bad) can be very amusing. But this video isn’t that bad, on the other hand it’s interesting to see lots of moving pictures of normal life in Detroit.
“Detroit isn’t dying, it’s being reborn”, says one of the people in the clip, and it’s true in a sense. Precisely because the situation in Detroit is so incredibly depressing it is currently doing the most out of the major Rustbelt metros to transform itself. Detroit has hit rock bottom, making everything possible.
A tall building is worth its height in gold. According to a recent SERC discussion paper (read a summary of it here), London is doing the right thing when reaching for the sky since skyscrapers serve their cities well. Building up, rather than out, comes with important agglomeration and reputation benefits that will help businesses and metros fare better.
Skyscrapers make people more productive by facilitating intra- and inter-company face to face contacts, as well as boost a firm’s standing by impressing current and prospective clients (after interning in a windowless box that much resembled a six story safe right next to the iconic Gherkin for a couple of months I have some highly circumstantial evidence that vouch for this).
Looking at three Dutch cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht – the SERC researchers found that adding 10 meters to a structure increase rents by, on average, 4 percent and that “[t]he 1% of buildings 100 metres or more are 40% more expensive than the 40% of buildings less than 20 metres high”.
Though there are some caveats. Firstly, the effect is mild if you only build a somewhat high building, since reputation benefits don’t seem to kick in until the structure is spectacular. Secondly, the average building height in Amstedam, Rotterdam and Utrecht is only 29 meters, indicating that it’s not that hard to build something that stands out, while this would be significantly tougher in a place where the competition for attention is more cutthroat – like NYC, Chicago, Seoul or Shanghai.
But such high density places are the exception rather than the rule, and there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked in Europe’s short cities if and when places like London, Amsterdam or Stockholm would do more to embrace height.
Gawker has embarked on a great American tour where it’s ranking all the states in order to settle which ones that are the best and which ones that are the worst. Starting with the good ones and counting down, it’s easy to see what wins over the Gawker crew – great cities.
All the top ranking states (except for those with a tiny population such as Vermont and Maine) appeal by being either very liberal, or by having impressive cities – and preferably both.
New York is number one because of NYC and gay marriage, Minnesota prevails by relying on the Twin Cities’ cultural capital, Washington is popular thanks to Seattle, Louisiana is what it is due to New Orleans, Illinois would be nothing without Chicago, Virginia is considered a champion by having D.C. suburbs and Charlottesville, Pennsylvania makes it to the top through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Atlanta and Savannah makes Georgia a Southern leader.
The ranking will continue over the next few days, and if it follows the same pattern it feels safe to say that the worst states will not only be conservative, but conservative with unremarkable cities.
That kids go to school in containers while their ordinary school building is being renovated is not uncommon. Sometimes for several semesters. But what can you do? Old buildings need to be renovated, which often takes more time than a summer break, and children still need to learn where they live.
This is where creative containers come in. The Pop-Up City led me to this, and the Slovenian architecture Jure Kotnik’s book Container Architecture, which shows what you can do with these temporary structures to make them nicer and more inspiring. Just compare going to school in this:
To going to school in this:
I know what I would choose.
The same goes for large scale construction sites in urban areas where the containers will stand for years. Having something like this:
Is much nicer than this:
Making better use of containers will improve a child’s school experience or a city’s public space and make the most out of something that isn’t great to start with, and that can’t cost much due to its ephemeral and practical nature but that has to be there.
Whenever change is about to happen in a city there are people fighting tooth and nail to stop it. No matter how unassuming the plot of land that is being defended is, people who live there get used to it, feel sentimental about it, and want to keep it like it is.
One examples of this is a small stretch of Ringvägen in south eastern Södermalm, Stockholm. Most of Södermalm has undergone a transformation during the past few decades where it has gone from dinky and dirty to the place where most fun things happen (and where the world’s first sour dough hotel is located). And now the change has finally come to neglected east Ringvägen, which prompted Sweden’s biggest daily DN to write an article called “Ringside – the last stand of Söder” (in Swedish, “Ringside – den sista ronden om Söder”).
These approximately five hundred meters of inglorious urban space, that is referred to as “No man’s land” or “the Béarnaise Swamp” (given folksy-Sweden’s love for buttery béarnaise on pizza and potatoes), with its grey, brown and yellow facades that are home to tanning salons, an underground hostel, a Chinese medicine shop, a hot dog place and an IT store named the Data Prince, among other businesses, is being fiercely protected by its long-term residents.
Old-timers are lashing out against the encroaching modernizers, relying on a rhetoric that emphasizes their Stockholm insider-status and the migrants’ (presumed) non-urban backgrounds. DN reports about heated online discussion forums where one man wrote “Can’t you farmers who dream about being in London or New York stop taking a detour through Stockholm? You are not welcome here. We hate you”. And he was not alone; others chimed in as well, writing: “Rubish, stop with your disgusting plastic inventions, fucking farmers” or “End the fuss. Don’t soil the name of Södermalm with yokel devices“.
Indicating that the best way to improve a city is to keep a steady in- and outflow of people. As soon as a city stagnates, people and businesses stop innovating – keeping dinky Söder, dinky Söder. That a large share of the people who live in places like New York and London come from somewhere else (and I’m not just saying this because I happen to be one of them…), are willing and open to change and look at their neighborhoods with unsentimental eyes that see potential in transformation, is the main reason that these places stay interesting.