China, development, international, journalism

The International Suburban Style


A few days ago, the AP’s Daisy Nguyen published a report on the trend of building suburban-style developments around the world. Developers in China and India and Africa are looking to Southern California (pictured above, partially) for a growth model. While this should be alarming to anyone concerned about resources and climate change (and willing, if you’re an American, to adopt the do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do ethos), it’s a classic example of how growing middle class populations are importing elements of American life. The article describes, for example, a community outside of Shanghai:

Grassy front lawns and driveways lead to pastel-colored homes that mimic French, Italian or Spanish architectural styles. Customized kitchens, screening rooms and basement wine cellars are very different from Chairman Mao’s vision of communal living.

“It’s hard to tell you’re not in Southern California,” [Pasadena-based architect Andy] Feola said.

On the highways outside of cities like Beijing and Delhi, I zipped past billboards that advertised gated communities, some with McMansions and garages large enough for SUVs. They seemed out of place, but such are our preconceptions of places like China and India. (And, to an extent, disappointments–who travels around the globe to hang out in suburbs?) But they wouldn’t build them if there were no demand. As affluence increases, so does the market.

From the environmental perspective, one would hope sustainable design could mitigate the negative effects of such development. Whether that is being applied in a robust way remains to be seen. But for some, it seems, the prospect of mass suburbanization should go full steam ahead. In my favorite quote from the story, one American architecture professor said: “It’s too bad that we as Americans are turning away from suburban sprawl as Asia adopts it.”

Regarding green development–in China, anyway–an article last week in the Christian Science Monitor noted that one grand project has stumbled. The correspondent, Simon Montlake, describes the situation of Dongtan, a planned eco-city outside of Shanghai that was being designed by the engineering firm Arup. (A related article published in The Telegraph last October is well worth a read, too.)

Dongtan’s plan hits all the right sustainability buttons: energy from waste, recycling, limited carbon emissions, density, energy-efficient buildings, etc. You may have seen the feature on this project, “Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis”, in Wired last year. I’ve been in touch with Arup employees in the past and they seemed devoted to making this work, not just in terms of design, but socially and economically. It’s tough when, after a streak of good press, something comes along to trip up a project. (Last year, Conde Nast was particularly good to Arup, with the Wired feature and a New Yorker feature.)

One of the main sources for the Monitor article was Kira Gould, the communications director at William McDonough + Partners. Montlake briefly mentioned the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project:

On a more modest scale, William McDonough + Partners designed an ecovillage of 400 households in northeast China, of which 42 houses have been built. The plan called for affordable solar-powered bungalows using local materials in a bid to free more land for farming. Instead, the developer built suburban-style tract homes that most local families have shunned, according to a PBS documentary earlier this year.

Ms. Gould concedes that mistakes were made in the design and construction of Huangbaiyu, the village. One complaint was that it didn’t create enough jobs. But that was never part of the project, says Gould. “We came to learn that economic development and sustainable development were often being used interchangeably,” she says.

To give you an idea of what that looks like, we have this:
a view of the model village

I should remark on a couple of points here, especially the take-away from my PBS report, as described in the article. I wrote a comment on the Monitor’s site a couple of days ago. (Shannon May, who studied the village, also wrote an interesting comment on the selfish reasons that have motivated Western firms to attempt green development in China.) My comment hasn’t yet been published; I’d guess the comment moderators have been short-staffed due to the holidays. In the meantime, here it is:

I’d like to thank Simon Montlake and the Monitor for mentioning the investigative piece I completed for FRONTLINE/World (PBS) earlier this year. But I must clarify one point raised in this article about my story.

The residents of this farming village currently live spread out in a long valley, near their crops, with livestock on their property. The plan created by William McDonough and his partners on this project outlined a single, dense community for the entire village.

While it is the case that the local developer built suburban-style tract homes, it is fair to say he did so based on the plan he received. (His modifications of details of the design are a point to debate.)

The planners recognized, before construction began, that the yards of the new houses would be smaller than those that currently exist. As noted in the narrative that accompanied the master plan: “The yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” In practice, this meant the farmers could not keep their livestock–a major source of income–if they moved in.

And that, simply, is why no one wanted to. There was a fundamental flaw in the design: it neglected to account for this basic element of village life. The cause of this oversight is, to some extent, a mystery because no one from William McDonough + Partners would comment for my story. But the more important point to remember here is that villagers saw that this eco-village would require them to trade in their lives as farmers for lives in factories or offices or whatever would fit this suburban-style tract home design.

Who could blame the villagers, then, for hoping that some new jobs would come along with this high-profile international eco-village project, since participating in it would force them to give up their old ones?

Update: Nothing to update, which is my point. It is the 12th of January, and they’ve not included my comment. I have re-submitted.

Update: Comment now online at Monitor’s web site. 13 Jan 09.

Architecture, environment, international

Speaking in Boston, visiting NYC, NH, next month.

On November 18th, I’ll be one of the featured speakers at GreenBuild’s International Forum. GreenBuild is the US Green Building Council’s annual convention and expo. If you’ve heard of USGBC, it’s probably in relation to its work in administering LEED building standards for sustainable design. This year, Greenbuild is supposed to draw about 25,000 attendees to the Hub of the Universe.

I’ll be talking about my Frontline/World and Dwell pieces on Huangbaiyu, a Chinese village once slated to become a “Cradle to Cradle” village and a model of sustainable design. I’ll be on stage with the editor of Architectural Record and a developer who has created a green community in Victoria, B.C.

The conference is from the 18th to the 21st of November. Before that, I’m hoping to make it back to New Hampshire and Vermont, which I’ve not been to for many years. And after, I plan to head straight to New York City. If you’ll be in any of those places around then, let me know. That is, if you don’t hear from me first as I scrounge for spare rooms and open couches.

Here’s the schedule for the International Forum, which I think is $50 to attend.

Date: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 10:00am – 5:30pm
Location: Boston Convention & Exhibit Center
Theme: Building Tomorrow: New Communities and Cities

Building a sustainable community
Interact with international experts in sustainable development who will showcase projects from both developed and developing countries – from redevelopment of decaying urban areas to the creation of new cities in the desert. These experts will discuss their approaches and lessons learned in design, construction, and operation, in the context of climate change reduction strategies, resource conservation, and the rebuilding of the social fabric of communities.

Hosted by USGBC, WGBC, and iiSBE, the Greenbuild International Forum is a unique opportunity to join a group of international experts and delegates in a discussion of experience and lessons from around the globe and to build contacts for working together after Greenbuild.

Emcee: Tony Arnel, Chairman, World Green Building Council


10:00am – 10:15am: Intro: Rick Fedrizzi, CEO U.S. Green Building Council, and Tony Arnel,
Chairman, World Green Building Council

10:15am – 11:00am: Opening Keynote: Governor Christine Todd Whitman

11:00am – 12:00pm: Session 1, New Community Interview Panel
-Dockside Green, City of Victoria, Canada: Joe VanBelleghem
-Village of Huangbaiyu, China: Timothy Lesle
-Interviewer: Bob Ivy, Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record and GreenSource

12:00pm – 1:30pm: Lunch

1:30pm – 2:15pm: Session 2, New City Spotlight Interview
-New Songdo City, Korea: John Hynes, CEO Gale International
-Interviewer: Bob Ivy, Editor-In-Chief, Architectural Record and GreenSource

2:15pm – 4:00pm: Session 3, New Cities Panel Presentation
-Beijing Olympic Village, China: Ken Langer
-Nahkeel/Dubai: Dr. Rula Sadik
-Pedra Branca Community (Brazil): Valério Gomes
-Deutsche Bank (Germany): Holger Hagge

4:00pm – 4:30pm: Networking Tea and Coffee Break

4:30pm – 5:30pm: Closing

India, international, photography

Everyone Loves a Parade

A band pauses during a parade held during a Sikh holiday.

I’ve run into parades by chance in several places, including a Shriners parade in New Hampshire, a children’s parade through Quepos, Costa Rica, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City. In the picture above, a band pauses during a parade in New Delhi, held as part of the events observing the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh last January.

These aren’t the first musicians I’ve featured on this site, though probably the first marching band. A couple of years ago, I stumbled on a Chinese night market here in San Francisco. That’s where I saw this band. I’ve posted this photo before, but why not once more?

A band plays at a Chinatown night market in San Francisco.

India, international, journalism, movies

Golden Gate, Inc = Bollywood in Bay Area

Exterior shot of movie set in San Jose. 

Bollywood production with big Bollywood star comes to the Bay Area, and they wouldn’t let me take any photos. That’s the view toward their San Jose set yesterday. The city hall rotunda in San Jose was “Golden Gate, Inc.,” hence the sign outside. It is apparently also called “Golden Gate Engineering,” if the signs inside the rotunda were any indication. The discontinuity nerds will like that.

There’s nothing like a 600-word story with a three-person byline. But that’s what we got in the San Jose Mercury News today

Apparently, it is a bridge engineering firm. Hence the banners with the bridges in the windows of the rotunda, (barely) visible below.

 rotunda close-up with bridge banners

international, money

A Fistful of Freedom Currency

20 franc coinThe franc is back in France, at least in one little village. After switching to the euro in 2002, France’s franc became obsolete. (The Swiss continue to produce their own last francs of Europe.)

But some of the businesses in Collobrières are accepting the old francs in lieu of euros. According to the story in the International Herald Tribune, the villagers thought of this after hearing of a similar effort in a town called Le Blanc, which apparently did not merit international coverage.

The story reminds me of a professor of mine from college. We met up before I graduated in 2001, and I asked him what he was going to do over the summer. He and his family were going to Paris, he said. His daughter wanted to visit France before the franc disappeared.

[Image of 20 franc piece from Monnaie de Paris.]

history, ideas, international, journalism

Unfamiliar does not equal Improbable

Kaplan has a worthy review of Donald Rumsfeld’s strategic legacy in the Atlantic. I’ll comment more on it later. But for now, a provocative point that Kaplan introduces in the piece’s lede:

In 1962, a Harvard economics professor named Thomas C. Schelling wrote an introduction to Roberta Wohlstetter’s Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. In a few hundred words, Schelling, a future Nobel Prize winner, delivered a tour de force about the failure to anticipate events. “We were so busy thinking through some ‘obvious’ Japanese moves,” he writes,

that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made … There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable … Furthermore, we made the terrible mistake … of forgetting that a fine deterrent can make a superb target.

Schelling’s introduction so impressed Donald H. Rumsfeld that he memorized parts of it and, as others have reported, regularly handed it out before the Pearl Harbor–level attack of 9/11. In his subsequent planning for the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld took Schelling’s precepts to heart, thought pessimistically about all sorts of dire scenarios, and got the best possible result.

But only up to the point when organized Iraqi military resistance collapsed. In a tragic, latter-day extension of Schelling’s analysis, Rumsfeld was so busy thinking about the Iraqis’ “obvious” military moves—launching chemical weapons, making a last stand in Baghdad—that he neglected to hedge against what they actually did: melt away and return weeks later as small bands of insurgents. Because of the meager resistance to our interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the swiftness of our apparent victory in Afghanistan in 2001, which Rumsfeld had played a great part in orchestrating, by early 2003 the specter of a debilitating Vietnam-scale insurgency against the United States military had been sufficiently exorcised to seem “unfamiliar,” and therefore to be confused with “the improbable.” By the time Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, we had become too impressed with our own military to see it as a “superb target.”

China, international, journalism, really?, television

Young, Restless, China

The always worthy Frontline is airing a documentary tonight following young Chinese adapting to a changing urban environment:

No shortage of stories coming from the city in China. (No shortage of cities in China; something like 100–or more–cities with populations that exceed one million.) I chalk this up, in part, to a fascination with people who are becoming more like us Americans.

There is a nod to rural China, something like 800 million out of the 1.2 billion Chinese, in this documentary by looking at migrant workers. The migrant’s story is about the only vehicle through which the media looks at rural China, though rural China is where most of China remains. Probably the best comment I’ve encountered on how we see rural China comes from an expatriate American credit card marketer in this spring’s China issue of Good magazine (a magazine I like, and to which I subscribe):

What should people in America know about China?
Whenever people hype China, remember that China is still two-thirds farmers. That means there are roughly 800 million farmers here. That is the real China. Even I don’t go to those places.

Neither did Good–or most anybody else.

–Update: The Frontline doc did quite a good job with the rural angle. —

China, disaster, earth, environment, international, unfortunate

Heavy Weather in Sichuan

Gray skies are a common feature of many photos coming from Sichuan. Word is that it’s been raining.

The destruction that follows an earthquake’s shaking is often the result of fire. San Francisco in 1906 is the classic example: in much of the city, whatever the shaking didn’t break later went up in flames.  The risk exists today: imagine the consequences of dense development, broken gas mains, and exposed electrical lines or errant sparks (one of the 1906 fires was the “ham and eggs” fire, supposedly started by a family cooking breakfast). Then throw in some broken water mains and a dry season. That’s it.

Right now, it’s not a dry season in Sichuan, and no word of fire has come out. That’s a good thing. The steep-sided topography would tend to promote the spread of fires. If there were fires, it’s possible that the rain could be helpful.

But the rain can also be harmful in sloped regions like this one. An earthquake as large as this would shake a lot of stuff loose, creating landslides–and by all accounts it has. But this can be intensified if the ground is saturated rather than dry. If the rain continues, along with aftershocks, the people of Sichuan are in a precarious position–in danger both from shaking below and landslides above. David Petley, a geography professor at Durham University, predicts a bad landslide summer in Sichuan. He highlights the photo below, from Xinhua, as showing landslides. You can see the evidence, those patches of fresh earth on the mountain sides. More photos at his site.

Xinhua photos indicating extent of landslides.

And now there is talk of another cyclone hitting Burma.

China, corruption, crime, development, disaster, earth, environment, geography, international, life, lost, unfortunate

An Unquiet Earth

Hard times around the globe these days. Earthquake in China. Cyclone in Burma. Tornados in the U.S. An enormous volcano on the verge of collapse in Chile.

Over the past several months, I’ve been working on a story about a possible earthquake here in the Bay Area. One thing I’ve learned is starkly visible in Sichuan right now: When an earthquake strikes, it’s not the earth that kills you. It’s everything else around you.

In the short term, this typically means buildings.* In China, construction quality will be a part of the discussion about what happened. Corrupt developers, local officials, and cut corners should come as no surprise–I’ve seen alleged evidence of it firsthand. The Guardian covers that angle. As one angry parent told a reporter:

“These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn’t collapse – the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don’t have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster – this is done by humans.”

In China, some call it “tofu” building. Or, as Josh Chin notes:

“Toufu dregs”-style construction (豆腐渣工程) has long been a source of public anger in China, and a potent symbol of corruption at the local level. (Witness the fuming controversy over shoddy electric poles during this winter’s freak snow storms in the south.) And now it appears the widespread practice whereby officials and developers profit through architectural corner-cutting may have cost a few extra tens of thousands of lives.

An erupting volcano can kill–namely through a phenomenon known as a pyroclastic flow. Cyclone Nargis was accompanied by a storm surge–this is what caused much of the destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta. But that damage was magnified by the loss of mangrove forests, which provide some resistance to these forces. The mangroves have been cut away to make room for development. This time, the initial round of damage was increased not by what humans have built, but by what they’ve taken away. And in Burma, human intention contributes to the continued suffering.

Boulder in the city of Mianyang, Sichuan. Kyodo News.*Update: Robert Siegel reports that the village of Gui Xi, in a steep-sided valley, was heavily damaged by displaced boulders and large landslides. (The photo at left, by Kyodo News, is from the city of Mianyan, Sichuan.) The most vivid and gripping English-language reporting from Sichuan is coming from NPR. All Things Considered was originally planning to broadcast features from Chengdu next week. When the earthquake struck, they had many resources in place.

China, geography, history, international, irony, really?

A little torch history.

I’ve been throwing ideas around lately to all kinds of people. They haven’t stuck, which is too bad. But one of them was to look at the history of the torch relay after reports that the IOC and Britain may forgo the tradition in the runup to the 2012 games. I kind of knew the answer to the question about how the modern torch relay started, but the LA Times editorial page beat me to it:

The Olympic torch relay was invented by the Nazis. According to historians, Adolf Hitler wanted to promote his belief in an Aryan master race by symbolically linking the 1936 Berlin Games to the ancient Greek gods and rituals, hence the carrying of the flame from Olympia to Germany. The first relay was chronicled on film by Hitler’s propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl.

We bring you this brief history lesson because, as the Olympic torch makes its only North American appearance today in San Francisco, it will be met by thousands of protesters decrying China’s human rights record. In response to similar demonstrations Monday in Paris, the Chinese government complained that a “small group” of Tibetan activists was seeking to politicize an event that should have been a tribute to the love of sport.

Nonsense. From its very beginning, the torch relay has been deeply political, a promotional extravaganza for the Games’ host country. Chinese officials are well aware of this, having designed the longest relay in Olympic history — an 85,000-mile, six-continent tour, meant to highlight China’s vast economic and political might. The protests are a welcome reminder to Beijing that it can’t tailor public opinion in the rest of the world the way it can at home.

anticipation, China, consumption, development, environment, international, journalism, multimedia, really?

China: Green Dreams (Finally)

China Green Dreams

Last August I went to northeast China and for the following five months I’ve been putting together a story about an eco-village in China. Or, rather, an attempted eco-village.

Here’s how Frontline/World described it: “The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry. Frontline/World reporter Timothy Lesle traveled to the region to investigate.”

I’m glad I got to do this project and look forward to any responses it may get. No doubt they’ll range from positive to negative. Frontline does something different with this slideshow from a web-tech perspective, which is to stream the images and sound like video rather than through Flash.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think. And if you are inspired, let Frontline/World know what you think.