Urban growth meets the 'Nail House'

While a new "Shanghai Declaration" sets for principles for sustainable urban development, you can see shades of Ballard in China as individuals stand up to developers.

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The "Nail House" in China

While a new "Shanghai Declaration" sets for principles for sustainable urban development, you can see shades of Ballard in China as individuals stand up to developers.

I just returned from Shanghai, China where I attended a global summit on sustainable urban development held in conjunction with the closing of Expo 2010. The Chinese are wrestling with massive urban growth with cities growing both up and out. And they are committed to an urban future.

But there seems to be growing sensitivity to the disruption of urban transformation: One of the key conclusions of the summit was that urban development around the world has to pay better attention to the preservation of local heritage and livability, as well as the environment.

That's in part due to growing resistance to the heavy-handed ways of many developers who have not only been turning rice paddies into dense urban communities, but remaking neighborhoods with the bulldozer. A symbol of what's going on was getting national publicity in the Chinese press this week: an apartment house in Kunming (pop. 5.7 million) in southwestern China that residents refuse to vacate. It has become known as the Kunming "Nail House," which is what the Chinese call a place that residents refuse to vacate, like " a nail that cannot be pulled out." It is not the first in China.

The local developer, to push them out, has flattened the surrounding neighborhood and encircled the apartment house with a water-filled moat (talk about urban medievalism!). The residents have had their water, sewer and electricity cut off, and have been subjected to harassment and even gunfire. The authorities are investigating.

The issue in this case appears to be compensation, how much residents are paid to move elsewhere. But the stark symbol of the little guy under siege from massive change also seems to be resonating. The moat house is a bit like a Chinese version of Ballard's Edith Macefield House, the small bungalow that was surrounded by a condo development in Ballard when its elderly resident refused to sell or move out. The Macefield House became a potent symbol of rapid change, urban transformation, and a reminder that any city is made up of real individuals, not statistics or density formulations.

The summit produced the Shanghai Declaration on urban development (see full text here), setting forth principles for improving urban growth patterns. Among these was sensitivity to the on-the-ground culture and diversity of city life, often the victim of development. As the declaration states: "Cities should endeavor to protect tangible and intangible cultural heritage and encourage the development of multicultural society. Like the ocean that embraces all rivers, cities should keep an open spirit and actively engage in intercultural exchanges and interactions."

Rivers and oceans are the new urban pattern; I doubt building moats meets the new criteria.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.