As skyscrapers sprout like weeds in cities throughout China, an anti-tall building movement is gaining momentum. In a rare display of public dissent, newspaper editorials in Chinese papers are openly criticizing political leaders for approving towers.
The latest example came this week, when the government-run People's Daily ran a commentary focusing on the wisdom of the aggressive push into tall building construction, attributing the issue to what the South China Morning Post translated as "vain local government officials."
The report questioned the cultural and economic wisdom of skyscrapers, calling the building boom the "result of the ambitions of mayors, not the product of market demand, with vanity determining city skylines," the paper reported.
"The idea of creating a vertical city is not that farfetched; China could be a testing ground for the next generation of innovative urban planning."
This type of open debate about tall buildings doesn't happen by accident in China and it has been raging for years, sparked by China's unprecedented skyscraper boom. More than 250 towers taller than 150 meters are in development in China, far more than anywhere else in the world.
Nine of the tallest 20 buildings under construction are located in China, according to data tracked by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
In China, the debate over skyscrapers raises a complex web of issues, including economics, the future of cities and deep-rooted perceptions of nationalism and culture. To city administrators, building a skyscraper is an easy way to show "face," the People's Daily commentary suggested. "We are too eager to express ourselves, too desperate for recognition from others," Ma Long, an architect with the Beijing Institute of Architecture Design, told the paper.
Around the world communities are examining the role of tall buildings in future cities, but the debate in China is different. Tall buildings can transform urban areas and change the quality of life for millions of people in China, which is in the midst of an unprecedented migration from rural to urban areas. Many of the big cities are still at a relatively early stage in their development, providing opportunities to link tall buildings to transportation systems, walkable areas and actual green developments. The idea of creating a vertical city is not that farfetched; China could be a testing ground for the next generation of innovative urban planning.
Unfortunately, China's track record on tall building development is horrific. Buildings often emphasize flash more than style. Many project were poorly planned and stand unconnected to their surroundings, icons of ego and community hubris, as politicians try to attract attention to their cities.
But there are also exceptions, tall buildings that are setting new standards.
The developers of Shanghai Tower repeatedly emphasize the green and community elements of the project. The 632-meter tower, which topped out last week, is a marvel of modern engineering, with carefully crafted energy-saving façade and large open, 15-story "park" areas within the building. (A recent Fast Company article labeled the tower, "an urban green space wonderland."
But it is stuck right in the middle of Pudong, one of the worst planned modern urban centers in the world. Walking from Shanghai Tower to one of the neighboring towers is a life-threatening, smog-filled experience, despite recent efforts to bolt-on better pedestrian walkways. (Reuters photographer Carlos Barria recently created a photo presentation illustrating the 26-year growth of Pudong.)
Throughout China, tall buildings stand as symbols of change, progress and, in many cases, missed opportunity.
Critics of the tall buildings argue China's skyscrapers don't make economic sense, that the money could be better spent. Many of the skyscrapers will take years to turn a profit, the critics charge. In China's seemingly endless list of Tier Two and Tier Three cities, many tall buildings will likely stand at least partially empty for years, with many cities sure to lose the competition for new business. Last year a China Daily editorial labeled skyscrapers "white elephants."
That's strong talk in China and it may change the country's role in developing the cities of the future. Suddenly it is possible for China to take a leadership position in urban planning, which would be an unexpected twist. More than simply "building a lot of tall buildings," China could move to the forefront of the debate about whether super-tall buildings are actually a good idea.