I recently returned from Asia, where I noticed, as always, numerous people wearing face masks on the street. In Mainland China, I have always assumed this was because of the rampant air pollution in major cities. But I also observed masks in other cities such as Hong Kong and Taipei, where industrial and automotive pollution appears, at least to the unscientific observer, to be much less. And we Californians are also used to seeing some of our Asian neighbors wearing masks in American cities. I have wondered, is this a holdover from life in Beijing or Shenzhen or other cities in Mainland China, where the color of air can be as dull as a grey goose? (And I’m not thinking of vodka.) Or is it something else?
Something new hit me while visiting the Hong Kong Museum of History, an excellent venue to help understand the urban history and form of that Chinese city. Most if not all major Chinese cities have free civic museums that, among other things, have substantial exhibits on city planning, urban design and form. These museums typically display not only the history of that city in models and photos and text, but also diagrams explaining planning principles for urban infill and new town design. How much the public is inculcated into good planning by these institutions is beyond my knowledge, as basically an urban tourist. But I do know having this kind of urban design educational resource available to the public makes me jealous.
In Hong Kong, where numerous exhibits at the Museum of History focus on the city’s urban history of the last couple of hundred years, something really struck me this time. In 1962, there was an inferno where a whole Hong Kong neighborhood was consumed by fire, some 59,000 dwellings lost in one fell swoop, probably several hundred thousand residents. That event kicked off a massive program of urban renewal in Hong Kong, and a number of exhibits in the Museum provide an examination of slum clearance and urban renewal in modern Hong Kong in response to that devastating fire.
Back to the face masks. Not only were these overcrowded unplanned cities and neighborhoods fire hazards, they were also breeding grounds for tuberculosis and other airborne diseases. And without getting into arguments on just how to calculate density (gross or net, count the parks, roads, or not), suffice it to say that Hong Kong is dense. Very dense. Chinese cities are very dense. Apartments, even new apartments, are small. Subways and busses, while providing a high level of service we can only dream about, are crowded. Sidewalks are crowded. Collective memories of pestilence are not so far in the past that a surgical mask might not seem unwarranted to local residents.
Which brings me back to urban renewal in America. It was five years ago this month that Governor Jerry Brown abolished redevelopment agencies in California. By that time, a program that began as a hopeful comprehensive plan for economic redevelopment of American cities, had few defenders among the day’s planners, sociologists, and citizenry. This attack on “obsolete” portions of American cities, replacing them with well-planned “modern” neighborhoods, had long since fallen into disrepute…scorched-earth clearance, displacement of poor people from inner cities, “negro removal,” anti-urban superblocks, Corbusier-style high rises unsuited to families, urban freeways splitting neighborhoods, and the like. While Jerry Brown’s motivations were something totally unconnected, for these reasons there were more detractors than supporters of urban renewal in 2012.
Today, places that were once seen by planners and architects as overcrowded and slum-like are now seen as pedestrian friendly urbane neighborhoods. We know that small pedestrian scale, complexity, mixed uses, and whimsy are all desirable parts of the urban experience.
But fifty years ago things looked different. Like Hong Kong in 1962, American cities at that time had neighborhoods that no one born since then can imagine. Tenements, deferred maintenance, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, ignorance or disregard of planning, zoning and housing codes, all contributed to vast areas of our cities that were hazards for TB and other contagious diseases, infested with rodents, and susceptible to fire and other hazards. Would that many residents were cognizant enough to wear face masks!
Urban renewal was promoted by the liberal heirs of the New Deal to provide safe, sanitary, and spacious housing for all, eliminating overwhelming fear of fire and disease. Unfortunately, our forbears in the profession were under the influence of the Bauhaus, LeCorbusier, and other thinkers who believed that cities should be open, airy, and green; that superblocks would provide pedestrian space formerly taken up by roads; and that towers in the park would create beautiful green cities. We now know the solutions were wrong, for whole hosts of reasons, but the problems they were attempting to address were real.
A few days in Asia and a few hours in the Hong Kong Museum of History reminded me that the issues urban renewal was addressing were also very real in America, as they were in Hong Kong. The problems with urban renewal cannot be dismissed as simply “racism” on the part of the elites or arrogance on the part of planning professionals. The problems they were addressing, including disinvestment and capital flight from cities, were difficult and complex. We don’t live in fear of massive urban fires or pestilence. It probably is really not necessary to wear a mask. But in the process, we destroyed vibrant communities and created a legacy of sorrow and dysfunction that permeates neighborhoods of our cities.
As we, as concerned community members, chart our next moves in an uncertain time in America, when funding for our cities and urban populations are being devalued, we need to heed the lessons of the past as we forge new solutions for the future – start with people, start with questions, and learn from the past with humility and wisdom.
Hong Kong Mongkok density, Carlos Felipe Pardo,
Fa Yuen Street, Michael Elleray, Flickr Creative Commons