Opinion: Finding inspiration for transformation

For change agents and those involved in social transformation, lessons are to be found in history and guidance from China, writes Tim Williams.

I’ve been reading again. Two texts, and both made me stop and think, both about who I am but also where we should - as change agents or those involved in social transformation - turn for our inspiration. One text is about a communist society at its murderous peak, another produced by a communist society on its extraordinary journey to the market. 

The former is Stephen Kotkin’s second volume of his epic biography of Stalin at the height of the terror, when collectivization led to the starvation of millions and the subsequent killings on an industrial scale of over 800,000 people between 1936 and 1938. Stalin personally signed the death warrants of 44,000 individuals in this short period, but was responsible for all the bloodletting. Millions more were kept in prison camps in unspeakable conditions or forced to work as slaves on infrastructure projects like building the White Canal – a death warrant. 

Just reflect on this: I grew up in a South Wales mining community where in the 1940s a majority would definitely have preferred Stalin to Churchill, and where as late as the early 1980s a significant minority supported the Soviets against Polish Solidarity. I am hugely affectionate about this community and its decline has been painful to see. I’m glad the Russian delusion died. The only upside, I think, of the entire engagement of the Valleys with the Soviet myth was that it made the culture less provincial. It looked outward, if eastward.

So powerful was this pull that when I went to the University of Cambridge in the mid-1970s I felt the culture there much more introspective and less internationalist than the one in which I’d grown up. The collapse of that communist-led mining culture and leadership had a downside, which has left the Valleys in a weaker state, both economically and culturally, though it’s a shame that what underpinned it was endorsement of mass murder posing as the liberation of mankind. Still, my proudest possession is a letter from the secretary of the local Miners’ Union lodge saying how proud of me they were for getting into Cambridge. I must say I was pretty proud of them at the time, and remained so as they were tortured and destroyed between the lunacy of Arthur Scargill and the vengeance of Margaret Thatcher.

Placemaking lessons from China

The second text is an extraordinary byproduct of the afterlife of a communist society, and one that practitioners of urban regeneration and placemaking would seriously benefit from reading. Boy, do the Chinese know what they are doing. It is research, produced at the end of 2015, by China Development Bank Capital about its 12 green and smart urban development guidelines.

Based on exhaustive and exemplary case studies into the transformation of places like Hammarby in Sweden, Portland in the US and Vauban in Germany, these guidelines, meant really to inform Chinese developers on best practice, are really applicable anywhere. And boy, are they smart, suggesting as I am sure is true that the Chinese are looking now not just at the ‘quantity’ side of making cities  – their emphasis in the first Deng era of ‘opening to the market’ – but at the ‘quality’ side. The title of the report in itself speaks volumes, but the recommended guidelines are even more eloquent on the drive now to livable cities and placemaking – and relevant as much to the west as to the east.

And the 12 guidelines? Check this out: the need for an urban growth boundary; a preference for transit oriented development; mixed-use development; small blocks; public green space; non-motorised transit; public transit; limited car parking; green buildings; renewable and district energy; waste management; and water efficiency. What’s not to like from a sustainability or placemaking perspective?

While I do feel like adding a thirteenth guideline – democracy - I won’t, as it’s worth giving a big professional thumbs up to great work, despite its origins or limitations. More, reading this apparently modest and apolitical text suggests that there are serious forces in China, which as the country goes on its complex way to the market and to democracy, are looking to move beyond the poles of neo-liberalism and a kind of Stalinism mixed with modernism, to a more human and community oriented outcome. Further, we should pay attention to them – and learn from them. Now that’s what I call revisionism.

Tim Williams is cities lead at Arup and is its Australasian lead on urban renewal. He is also an adjunct professor at Western Sydney University.  

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