Chengdu and China’s New Future

Fortune Magazine and the city of Chengdu held a joint press conference here on April 10th announcing Chengdu as the site of the 2013 Fortune Global Forum. This is the fourth FGF held in China since 1999, with the most recent eight years ago in Beijing in 2005.

This time around the FGF chose Chengdu, a city known best for pandas, spicy food and the 2008 earthquake. The focus throughout the day-long press conference was on the question, Why Chengdu? The conference assembled a team of speakers to address that question, including outgoing Mayor Ge Hong Ling, managing editor of Fortune Magazine Andy Serwer, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Southwest China, Benjamin Wang, the business officer of the German consulate Claudia Spahl and economist Wang Zhi Le.

Most of the panel’s comments were the broad, positive strokes longtime Chengdu residents and China watchers have become familiar with, ie Chengdu

  • is the hub of the west
  • is “up and coming”
  • is a growing consumer city
  • is “livable”
  • has a large and flourishing hi-tech sector
  • has a large and well-educated talent pool

There were very few specifics, only this pervading idea that Chengdu represents China’s future in some way. Although the panel patiently fielded questions on Chengdu’s urbanization, internationalization and livability, it was evident that the city officials in particular wanted to steer away from past accomplishments and talk about this new future, China’s New Future as it were …

The Modern Garden City in Asia

The Jinjiang Modern Garden City Exhibition Center is located in south Chengdu, just outside of the Third Ring Road. The building is small and empty. There are no brochures, no maps, no information to pick up and take away, just a two-minute film on repeat and a massive scale model of Chengdu. The video and the model show visitors what Chengdu could look like in ten years. The southern side of the model is covered in tiny green, red and orange trees, the center is lined with rows of orderly skyscrapers, while the northern end has multiple railroad tracks radiating out.

I am alone in the building, but outside a gaggle of three-year olds from the Golden Apple kindergarten are running around and screeching. A group of teachers herds them toward a man-made lake surrounded by willow trees and bamboo just behind the center. Stretching out into the distance is the Lohas Green Belt, a bike path surrounded by greenery heading off south. The bike path will eventually link up with the Wenjiang Green Belt to the west to form a circle of green around the entire city. The belts follow the tributaries of the Min River that flow down from Dujiangyan in the north and are some of the most beautiful and rejuvenating areas of the city. Wenjiang and neighboring Pixian Country have no heavy industry, relying instead on services, tourism, organic and non-organic agriculture, real estate, high tech parks and retail for economic growth.

The flower market in San Sheng Xiang

Just east of the exhibition center is San Sheng Xiang (???), or Flower Town, one of the city’s most demonstrative examples of urban-rural integration. Flower Town farmers were among the first in Chengdu to employ the ??? nongjiale B&B model as a way to take advantage of urbanization and a growing urban middle class eager to escape the city. The government awarded the town – actually a collection of small villages built around a massive flower growing base – AAAA level tourism status in 2006 and it is currently one of the top destinations for city dwellers looking for a garden to relax in.

To the west are the beginnings of Chengdu’s next great project: Tianfu New City. The project is a mixture of several different  visions for post-industrial garden cities, including elements out of Ebeneezer Howard’s book, The Garden City of Tomorrow (1902), which describes a central urban district surrounded by fields and suffused with gardens. His particular layout never really took hold of city planners, but his ideas did. Those ideas became the architectural foundation for cities like Washington DC, Canberra, Brasilia and influenced almost every modern city today. Much of the theory behind garden cities deals with removing disease, crime and slums; planners replaced twisty, garbage-filled lanes with wide, tree-lined boulevards. Tianfu New City is built along exactly those types of boulevards.

In “Green Modernism: The Irony of the Modern Garden Cities in Southeast Asia,” Craig Johnson traces the origins of the Garden City movement from Howard’s book through planners like Baron Hausmann – who designed Paris – and high modernist zealots like Le Corbusier to the prototype modern Asian city, Singapore. He quotes former PM of Singapore Lee Yuan Kew in his paper:

“After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to
distinguish ourselves from other Third World countries. I settled for
a clean and green Singapore. One arm of my strategy was to
make Singapore into an oasis in Southeast Asia, for if we had First World standards
than business-people and tourists would make us a base for their business and tours
of the region. The physical infrastructure was easier to improve than the rough and
ready ways of the people. Many of them had moved from shanty huts with a hole in
the ground or a bucket in an outhouse to high-rise apartments with modern
sanitation, but their behavior remained the same. We had to work hard to be rid of
littering, noise nuisance, and rudeness, and get people to be considerate and

Singapore is a model for China in many ways- the clean, efficient urban space is just one. Chengdu also wants to become a base for business in the region, and integrating farmers with urbanites was one of Mayor Ge Honglin’s main policies for the last 10 years. With Chengdu’s space advantage, the city has the opportunity to build Tianfu New City up from scratch – similar to other planned cities like DC and Brasilia. Preliminary plans show wide boulevards and high rise complexes interspaced with office buildings, high-tech zones, museums, parks and two of the largest, most impressive buildings in the world, Zaha Hadid’s  New Century Contemporary Art Center and the New Century City World Center.

Zaha Hadid's design for the New Century Contemporary Art Center

Although the magnificence of Hadid’s vision and the ambitions of Chengdu’s leaders are hard to deny, Johnson is skeptical of the modern garden city in Asia:

“Cities in Asia are going through a process of modernization based very much
on modernist ideals … Namely the decontextualization of the city from the existing
environment, the use of new technology in an attempt to radically remedy the pitfalls
of the existing urban fabric, and a forward looking perspective that seeks to erase
physically the historical social/physical urban fabric on which the city was built.
Interestingly, as can be seen in the cases of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, these
modernist processes are being packaged under the guise of a “garden city” although
they have little in common with the “garden city” concepts that Howard first

The original garden city model and its ensuing editions in the US, Brazil and now Asia all call for a similar plan. We can see the results throughout Asia and especially in China, where cityscapes resemble each other and the charm of the good old days is wiped out by glass and concrete. Chengdu’s historical Kuan Xiangzi district strongly resembles Shanghai’s Xintiandi, which in itself is modeled after Beijing’s renovated historical neighborhoods, and it is precisely this pattern that taints the idea of the modern garden city. Garden cities, it seems, destroy the unique culture of the cities they replace.

But Chengdu has a plan for that as well.

Modern Cultural City

During the press conference, many of the answers to the question Why Chengdu? had to do with the culture of the city. The food and the tea houses, the laid-back living and friendly, open folk … Chengdu has a thriving artist community and music scene  – both in the modern and the traditional sense – and Chengdu locals respect the artist, which is not often the case in a rapidly developing nation. The municipal government recognizes that culture is every bit as important as skyscrapers and parks and they have extended their macro hand out to those in need.

Capturing Chengdu's Intangible Heritage

The first big project the government put together was the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Park, built in 2007. The park meets every possible official standard for success. The bi-annual festival held at the park, jointly organized by Unesco and the Chinese government, is one of the nation’s four State-Level Cultural Festivals. Thousands of dignitaries show up each year to praise the efforts of the Chengdu government to preserve local intangible culture.

But when the festival is not on, the park is empty. Colossal buildings drip paint chips into barren parking lots and mahjong tiles echo out through the double doors of dark restaurants. The nearby green spaces, however, are crowded with people: Several recently-built, already-dilapidated, European-style buildings have become a popular backdrop for wedding photos; packs of children roam the grassy knolls with grannies scampering up behind them and groups of friends play cards and litter the area with sunflower seeds. The Cultural Heritage Park was built to showcase the intangible culture that Chengdu has to offer, yet that culture is most evident in the unkept green spaces between the park’s awkward Century Dances District and the Folk Plays District.

The second big project, Chengdu East Music Park, was finished last year to great fanfare. Developers renovated a massive factory into a honeycomb of concrete spaces connected by huge pipes, skyways and tiled sidewalks. It was the most popular nightlife spot for a few weeks after it opened, but eventually the excitement died down and reality set in. A few venues, most notably Xiongmao danceclub, are having success, but many of the spaces are heavily subsidized by the government and at night, except for Xiongmao and a few others, the place is empty and silent.

Both of these projects are examples of the classic Chinese “build it and they won’t come” narrative that has come to symbolize massive government spending on top-down macro projects that never truly fulfill their stated purpose. For the Tianfu New City, such methods are necessary — in fact, it is the only method that works when creating the modern garden city. Culture, on the other hand, requires a grassroots approach, or people will see the commercial and political will behind the puppet screen and lose interest in the show.

A New Future

Fortune Magazine has judged the Chengdu Model – high-tech garden city with a strong cultural foundation – to be the core of China’s new future and perhaps a template for other developing cities across the world to study. This puts a lot of pressure on the city. Not only must the economic numbers keep rising while the pollution statistics drop, but Chengdu has to maintain a unique feel to it that can survive the massive uprooting that building a garden city requires. When I asked Mayor Ge Honglin if other cities come here to study what Chengdu has done in the past 15 years, he said that the solutions come through years of experimenting and are all highly tailored to the specific environment.

However, the major criticism leveled against the modern Asian cities is that they sacrifice a unique environment upon the altar of business development. Chengdu’s great task over the next decade is to achieve the modern garden city they dream of without losing its identity in the process. How they fare will have a great impact on the future face of all of China’s cities. Below a Google Map of Tianfu New District:

View Chengdu Tianfu New District in a larger map

8 thoughts on “Chengdu and China’s New Future”

  1. “Build it and they won’t come”

    A damn shame- one can only hope that cultural projects and infrastructure developments in China’s future can prove to be longer-lasting and of higher quality than they have in the past. And while some developments may remain barren, crumbling and empty, there is a certain type of project that never ceases to draw hordes: anything that involves money in excess. I can’t speak to Kuan Xiangzi, but Xintiandi is absolutely packed at all times, with foreigners and locals alike throwing money every which way. The same can be said for revamped strips of roads all over China: put an expensive foreign store in, and you’re golden. Let them throw their money around. When it comes to free, there seems to be less enthusiasm. Let’s hope the Chengdu High-tech garden style development can help remedy some of the disconnects between the vapid glitz of shopping and the less-appealing calm of keeping tradition intact.

  2. Yep, that’s absolutely correct. If it costs big money and you can gain status from it, people will come. That’s actually what I was telling a few friends of mine last night:

    if the government took one of these apprentice-less Sichuan Opera performers struggling to pay rent and made him a wealthy hero of Chengdu culture, BAM! you’d revamp the opera scene in a heartbeat.

    gotta play with the cards your dealt I guess…

  3. Managing the culture development of its cities seems to be among China’s principals tasks in the years to come and this is as true with Chengdu as with anywhere else in China. Chengdu seems to be at least a step ahead of most other cities though since it has a lot of distinct culture to preserve and develop. Some of the lackluster cultural developments in recent times (like the Chengdu East Music Park) are legitimate cause for concern about the central government’s ability to cultivate real culture, though.

    It’ll be interesting to see what happens, that’s for sure.

  4. The government should stop tearing down old communities and replacing them with soulless condos and commercial strips, just because they look ‘modern’ and western.This is destroying the ‘intangible culture’ and driving it into extinction. It’s not about building, but about preserving. Less is always more.

    • That is a wise and insightful comment, Amy. Hopefully China learns this before all of the old relics of it’s true culture are eradicated and subjected to “modernization”.


Leave a Comment