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A Hollywood Message for China: Embrace the Past in Shaping Cities of the Future

Jul 03 , 2018

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The streets of Wakanda

Earlier this May, Chinese and U.S. business executives were among some 4,000 leaders from government, business, philanthropy, and civil society at the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. This year’s theme was “navigating a world in transition.”

Indeed, many of the participants attending from the Asia-Pacific region know first-hand the challenges facing rapidly growing metropolitan areas as the world transitions from rural to urban. For the first time in history, noted UN Migration Director General William Lacy Swing in October 2017, more people live in cities than rural areas.

But intriguingly, from Hollywood — just a few miles from the conference site — came a blockbuster film that might also offer up an unintentional message for China’s urban leaders.

Black Panther, Marvel’s early-2018 entry in its cinematic universe, has grossed more than $1.3 billion since its release, including $105 million in China and $50 million in Southeast Asia. Those box office numbers make Black Panther the highest-ever grossing film based on a single superhero.

But more than setting a new standard for comic-book inspired projects, the film, set in the Marvel Universe, has caught the attention of urbanists in its presentation of city life. Indeed, China’s property developers and urban planners should take note of how urban life in the film is depicted. That includes China's leadership as the nation moves forward with development of the Xiong'an New Area – a new special economic zone about 60 miles southwest of the increasingly congested and crowded capital city of Beijing.

On April 1, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping designated three counties in Hebei Province as the "Xiong'an New Area.” The characters for Xiong'an are a combination of the Chinese characters for "brave" and "peace." The Xiong'an New Area has been described as a possible new template for high-quality development with a focus on the environment and building a "smart city."

If all goes well, Xiong'an might also take a lesson from Black Panther in defining a "smart city" as one that is not only technologically advanced but also a vibrant urban area that draws from China's rich cultural heritage, traditions and sense of community.

A good part of the film Black Panther takes place in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, a fictional African nation protected from outside influences by the Black Panther, whose real identity is T’Challa, the king of the technologically advanced, but isolationist country. What is striking about Wakandan city-life is how different it is from what we have become accustomed to seeing in movies offering a view of modernity, as well as in our own travels through the rapidly growing urban areas of much of Asia.

Architectural Digest’s Marc Malkin writes that rather than seeing the ubiquitous glass-and-steel towers and sterile street life that we have come to expect in the cities of tomorrow, we are shown in the film a colorful cityscape infused with African textures, designs, and colors, organized to emphasize human interaction.

All this contributes to the fictional capital’s unique, memorable “vibe” – one where skyscrapers rise from vibrant communities below.

Sadly, the same cannot be always said about many of Asia’s cities, including parts of China.

Well-intentioned zoning rules separating commercial and residential districts may well reduce a city’s vibrancy, as we have seen in the United States. And, what is clear in a journey through Asia’s megacities is that the scale and direction of urbanization has led too often to reduced livability and burgeoning inequality between those who can and those who cannot afford the best that a city has to offer.

This challenge is likely to only grow, as more people move from rural to urban areas and inequality increases across the region. Asia’s wealth gap is now among the largest in the world. That’s according to Oxfam’s latest report on inequality, “An Economy for the 99%.”

A recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ annual World Urbanization Prospects report projects that many of Southeast Asia’s cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025. Jakarta, Indonesia is expected to grow 22%, from 10.3 to 12.6 million. Manila, in the Philippines, is projected to grow 17.4%, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2%, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.

This rampant urbanization has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric. Street vendors have been banished in parts of some cities as urban planners seek to impose a new, cleaner, but perhaps more sterile, vision of the modern city. And, as street life has disappeared, the longstanding, vibrant communities that made these cities unique have also come under threat, if not vanished.

What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification,” punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy. This is all too sadly evident even in a region of the world that is home to many UNESCO world heritage sites. These sites draw thousands of visitor each year for inspiration, but seem to have been relegated to the past.

This harsh division of past and present has not always existed in the region. One need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s as an example, when Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann (d. 2017) used building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition.

By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer. Sadly, many of his works have succumbed as Chinese and other investment has contributed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanization that seemingly emphasizes size over authenticity.

It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city. That’s according to The Philips Center for Health and Well-being, a Netherlands-based think tank focused on improving the lives of people around the world. Rather than ignore its history, urban planners and developers should embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity. This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what we also react to when we see the vibrant streets of Wakanda on screen.

Spoiler alert! As the movie Black Panther draws to a close, Wakanda’s leader, T’Challa, informs the United Nations of his decision to reveal the true state of his country’s advancements and development. The scene concludes with a foreign official responding by asking what Wakanda has to offer the world.

Here is one clear answer. Wakanda shows that there need not be a default setting for what urbanization looks and feels like. This need not simply be Hollywood make-believe. And that's also a message for those turning the Xiong'an New Area master plan into reality in the years ahead. Cities everywhere, including in China, will continue to grow, but they can also do so by embracing their rich pasts while building a vibrant, unique and inclusive future.  

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