The man who built the world…

… or a large part of it!

– An interview with Lin Ji by Jiang Hao –

It is not often that a working urban planner gets a retrospective show in a major national arts venue. But Lin ji is no ordinary planner. This is the man who is reputed to have designed over 100 cities.

When MPTF saw that the exhibition was on, we had no hesitation in talking to him directly to get the benefit of his 30 years’ experience of urban transformation. His work is showing at Beijing’s 798 art zone. Jiang Hao spoke with him on 13 September 2015.

 

Jiang Hao: It is reported that you have designed – or redesigned – over 100 cities in your career. Is that correct?

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Lin Ji: Yes. Over the 30 years of my career, I worked on nearly 100 projects in different places in China. And last year, we had a project in Cambodia. This is the Cambodia’s Dara Sakor seashore resort (leased to China for 99 years).

 

 

Jiang Hao: Urban Planning is a relatively new profession in China… or at least, like architecture, the subject has not been taught at many universities until recently. Where did you study?

Lin Ji: In fact, urban planning became a profession in China in 1960s. But when the very first group of people studying this subject graduated, the Cultural Revolution began. As a result, from 1960s to the end of 1970s, there were no relevant projects going on. However, this situation changed because Xiaoping Deng set Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Xiamen and Shantou as special districts in early 1980s.

I took my undergraduate degree (Urban Planning) and master degree (Landscape) in ChongqingUniversity in 1980s. In 1987, I was appointed to work in China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. I worked there until 2013 at which point, I began another job in National Development and Reform Commission. Meanwhile, I got my doctor degree of Urban Design in TsinghuaUniversity in 2001.

 

xiamen islandJiang Hao: What city – or urban design – are you most proud of (… and why)?

Lin Ji: I am very pleased with the Special Districts such as Shenzhen and Xiamen, for example. I helped finish the project in Shenzhen, building the airport and the 180m2 Nanshan district. We also made general plans for Shantou and Xiamen. The Bai Lu Zhou Park in the centre of the YundangLake in Xiamen is constructed beautifully according to our plan.

 

 

Jiang Hao: What do you think is the best city in China? (… and maybe what is the worst?). Can you also explain why?

Lin Ji: Looking back on the past three decades in China, speaking of urban planning, I think Shenzhen is the best. Because unlike other cities that had their original city plans, there was no such thing called an “urban plan” in Shenzhen before the 1970s. As we know, Shenzhen used to be a small village where 10,000 to 20,000 fishermen lived before the transformation started. We can say that the development of Shenzhen is a miracle in China… and even in the whole world.

 

Jiang Hao: In an interview, you said: “I must be quick… China needs speed in reinventing its cities.” Would you have preferred more time for even greater consideration of urban issues?

Lin Ji: There might be some misunderstanding here. What I said was that in the last 30 years, the rapid development of cities and urban planning has been quite exciting and rousing, but clearly some problems have occurred. My point is that in the future, we need to focus on the renovation of old towns and make more accurate plans. There will be fewer and fewer urban plans aiming at expanding cities. Instead, plans to help cities develop well in all aspects such as their culture and ecology. To be frank, planners have to meet the requirements set by government officials who themselves need to accomplish achievements in their career. As a result, there is an intense pressure to make plans within limited time. But whatever the restrictions and the deadlines, the urban plans clearly have to be as good as possible.

 

Jiang Hao: Many people say that China has been building too fast? But if, as Premier Li Keqiang has said “cities are the engine of growth” (国务院副总理李克强曾多次强调城镇化是未来中国经济增长的动力) is this slowdown a good thing – or a problem?

Lin Ji: We all know that the urbanization rate in China is 53%-54%. However, if counted by hukou-registered residences in China, the real urbanization rate in China is about 40%. That’s to say, urbanization still needs decades to be finished. Recently, President Xi brought a new phrase to the discussion, he called for a “New Normal” (speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Beijing: 2014).* This means a requirement for quality instead of speed. I think that is what China needs now, a middle-high speed development with a focus towards culture, social and ecology.

 

Jiang Hao: What are the main problems remaining for Chinese cities?

Lin Ji: The main problem is that industrial structural transformation in China is lagging. In many big cities like Beijing nd Tianjin, the industrial infrastructure may not be of efficient or well placed. We have been chasing GDP and industrial development at the same time but now we have to work out how to manage development in a city. Continuing to chase just growth may be a big problem for certain areas. Unless there is a more rounded approach to design – a desire to do it properly – there may be problems in future.

 

Jiang Hao: What do you think about architecture in Chinese cities? Do we still need foreign architects or are Chinese architects improving?

Lin Ji: In my personal experience, architecture in China was always just ahead of urban planning in 1980s. However, now urban planning is way ahead of architecture in China. For the last 30 years, I would say that architecture has not improved that much in China, it is certainly not ahead of international world-class designers. Meanwhile, urban planning has improved significantly during the last 30 years especially in solving some special problems.

To me, each piece of architecture is a single entity without national boundaries. Architecture, or even urban planning in China should be open instead of a secluded activity. However, to do that, I would suggest that there should be increased communication between professionals and with the public, rather than forcing connections to be made.

 

National Gallery East Hall in Washington by I.M. PeiJiang Hao: Do you have a favorite building?

Lin Ji: The National Gallery East Hall in Washington by I.M. Pei.

 

 

Jiang Hao: Does China need MORE new cities? Where? And are you involved in any of them?

Lin Ji: It’s hard to say if there need more or not. There is still some need in China for new… or we can meet those needs by making existing cities bigger. For instance, third and fourth-tier cities in China are far from developed. Even prefecture level city like Suzhou or Wuxi are not good enough. Meanwhile, those areas with poor resources (western China, in particular) shall be taken care of in careful, new urban development. I am currently working on a project in Shangri-La, for example. The project is not big, but the views there are extremely beautifully. All of my colleagues enjoy working there.

 

Tianjin eco cityJiang Hao: What do you think about the rise of Eco-Cities (生态城市) in China? Are they the future? (… and are some cities really Eco-cities, or just pretending?)

Lin Ji: Definitely, it is the correct future direction. However, the way it has been done up til now cannot be right. For instance, TianjinEcoCity doesn’t seem to be sufficiently mature at present. The original vision is very fine but the level of public services, industry and social opportunities no longer correspond with such an ideal eco city’s vision.

 

 

head-longJiang Hao: You have just had a celebration in Beijing’s Art District 798. Congratulations. What are your remaining ambitions?

Lin Ji: My ambitions correspond with the ‘The Belt and Road Initiative’ proposed by President Xi. In this way, our urban planners have a high ambition: just like Chinese enterprises or the country’s High-Speed railway network, the intention is to serve the world.

 

Jiang Hao: Lin Ji, many thanks indeed for talking with Masterplanning the Future

 

NOTE:  Lin Ji is deputy chief planner at the China City Development Academy

 

 

 

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