Urban abandon: In China, deserting the megacities

untitled3A New York Times article has reported on a fascinating new trend in China which, while not a threat to the frenzied urbanization plans of the Chinese government, attests to the alienation that many feel with the urban model that this country has adopted.

They are advertising executives, fund managers, book translators and photographers, most in their 30’s and 40’s and all at the height of successful careers who would risk everything if they packed their bags and traded the lights of Shanghai or Beijing for the pastoral calm of say, Dali, in Yunnan province.

And yet they all did. They represent a growing tribe of “urban refugees” who express dissatisfaction at the life big cities afford.

While these urban-weary arrivals bemoan the rising living costs, pollution, traffic and stress that accompany city life, what they yearn for is shopping at small local markets, running along clear blue lakes, under blue skies and breathing clean air.

Describing Dali and its surrounding villages as a “cross between Provence and Haight-Ashbury”, author Edward Wong writes in the Times:

“They have staked out greener lives in small enclaves, from central Anhui Province to remote Tibet. Many are Chinese bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, and they say that besides escaping pollution and filth, they want to be unshackled from the material drives of the cities.”

Many have started new lives while giving up former careers, becoming entrepreneurs or farmers, or simply making ends meet as one can. They talk about freedom, ties to the earth, and wanting to raise their children in a clean environment. But what’s also evident is their desire to experience a sense of community where cafe terraces brim with friendly faces and children can grow up in the safety of protective neighbours.

In trading the close-knit communities of the Hutongs that still dot Beijing for high-rise, high density developments and massive expressways, Chinese megacities have become truly unsustainable in their approach to quality of life.


When redesigning our own cities for a more sustainable future, it would be wise to take lessons from the Chinese experience. Setting aside the obvious need for clean air and water, ensuring that cities have sufficient space devoted to “non-materialistic” pursuits (even to the point of curtailing or limiting materialistic ones – as in prioritizing parks over shopping centres) and that nature can easily be accessed (to the point of encouraging a sort of urban-nature-coexistence throughout a city) are goals that every sustainable city needs to make a priority.

Cities that already succeed in this to some degree might include Vancouver, Canada. Often cited as the city in the world with the highest quality of life (despite its sky-high property prices and high-rise condominium culture), Vancouver boasts old-growth cedars in a city park bigger than the city itself, a falling rate of private car ownership, and sandy beaches a short jaunt from the financial core.

To read the New York Times article, click here.


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This entry was posted on November 25, 2013 by in Ideas & Issues and tagged , , , , .

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