On May 12, 2008, Chinese architect Stepp Lin was focusing intensely on his professional licensing exam in a testing center in central Chengdu when suddenly he felt someone bumping his desk. By the time he looked up to see what it was, most of the other exam takers were frantically fleeing for the exit. It turns out that what he was feeling were the tremors of what was to be the most devastating earthquake to hit China in recent memory.
China’s heartland province of Sichuan was overtaken by an 8.0 earthquake that rocked the region that day. The quake was so powerful that it was felt as far away as Beijing. Graphic images broadcast around the world showed the devastation caused by the powerful tremor. All in all, it is estimated that more than 60,000 people perished in the Sichuan earthquake.
During the aftermath, the response from both within China and abroad in terms of aid was highly encouraging. Unfortunately, the footage of primary schools reduced to rubble resulting in the deaths of thousands of children and the subsequent scandals regarding culpability denial and cover-up did not bode well for China’s new image.
Surprisingly, Sichuan’s capital and largest city, Chengdu, escaped from the earthquake largely unscathed. Most of the serious damage took place in rural areas where buildings, due to lack of sufficient funding and regulation, had not been constructed to safety standards. Building safety codes have since been updated and are now rigorously enforced.
Perhaps more importantly, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake managed to highlight the growing disparity between the rich and poor, urban and rural areas of China.
Unlike the United States, where suburbanization has managed to blur the line between rural and urban, the contrast remains stark in the Middle Kingdom.
It is no secret that within the framework of rapid development, China is urbanizing at unprecedented rates. Beijing and Shanghai continue to lead the country politically and economically, but a group of ‘second tier’ cities is now being targeted by China’s planners for increased new investment. Included in this group are up-and-coming cities like Nanjing, Dalian, Tianjin and Chongqing.
Yet perhaps no other second tier city represents the future of China more than Chengdu (pronounced chung-doo). Strategically located at the geographic heart of China, Chengdu bridges the gap between the country’s booming eastern seaboard and the still largely mysterious far west.
Chengdu is one of China’s oldest cities, with continuous settlement dating back to the ancient Kingdom of Shu. Today, the city is renowned for its local spicy cuisine and famous Panda Breeding Center. It is also a popular launching-off point for international trekkers heading onto Tibet. Within China, Chengdu is reputed for its leisurely atmosphere where friendly locals often take off work early to sip tea and relax over a game of mahjong.
Sitting at an elevation of about 1,600 feet on the western portion of the Sichuan Basin, Chengdu’s climate is mildly humid-neither too hot in the summer nor too cold in the winter. Yet one drawback is the presence of the pervasive fog that hovers low in the sky year-round, making Chengdu one of least-sunny cities in China.
Similar to Beijing, Chengdu is concentrically organized with ring roads circling the city. At the center of the city is Tianfu Square-a pleasant public space featuring larger-than-life water fountains and a large statue of Chairman Mao. Nearby is the Jin River, which flows through the middle of the city, dividing it in half.
Despite the slower pace of life, at least in comparison with the rest of China’s hyper urbanity, the Central Government has recognized the city’s advantages. Being the western-most big city in China, Chengdu is China’s gateway to central Asia. As such, the city has been identified as an air traffic hub. Already, Chengdu International airport is one of the busiest in the mainland. Next year, Air China inaugurates its new Chengdu-Los Angeles route: the first direct flight from the city to the United States.
The new Air China route to LA reflects the growing presence of U.S. firms in the area. Technology companies like Microsoft and Intel have realized the competitive advantages of opening research and development facilities in an area of the country where the cost of doing business is still relatively low. These firms have located their offices in an area in the south of Chengdu that has been designated as the ‘Hi-Tech Zone’ by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.
Along with becoming western China’s high tech center, the city is grabbing a foothold on the country’s aviation industry. Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group (CAC), which was contracted out by Dallas-based Vought Aircraft, supplied the rudder for Boeing’s new 787 ‘Dreamliner’ jet. CAC also supplies parts for Boeing’s 757 series.
To accommodate the new business, the city is going through a construction boom. Although Chengdu had a late start on its eastern counterparts, the city is attracting high-profile developers like New York-based Tishman Speyer and Singapore’s CapitaLand – both of whom currently have large-scale commercial and retail projects being built in the city. Chengdu has even recruited Hong Kong businessman Allan Zeman to develop a version of Hong Kong’s popular nightlife district, Lan Kwai Fong, scheduled to open in March.
The city’s development would not be complete without an overhaul of its transportation system. One word summarizes the current state of Chengdu’s roads: chaos. The traffic on the streets remains an assortment of bicycles, motorbikes, automobiles and buses. Yet, as incomes rise and more people purchase cars, the congestion on the streets is becoming unbearable. Furthermore, the fact that the streets do not follow a formal grid pattern, but rather array out from the center of the city, adds another degree of complexity to Chengdu’s traffic dilemma.
Thankfully, the city’s first subway line is slated to open in 2010. As additional underground lines become operable, it will also give the city a better sense of cohesiveness as the limited number of surface level crossings of the Jin River currently contributes to both a physical and psychological divisiveness.
In discussing the rise of Chengdu as a hotbed of economic activity, it is worth mentioning the city’s relationship with its closest rival, Chongqing. Chongqing, which was separated from Sichuan Province in 1997 to become an autonomous provincial-level municipality, lies just over 200 miles to the east. The city has the advantage of direct access to the Yangtze River, providing a strategic connection to the river’s terminus of Shanghai.
Chongqing’s urban development is limited by the surrounding mountainous terrain-thus the reason for the dense high-rise jungle rising in the skyline. Chengdu, in contrast, has an abundance of land for growth and is more likely to sustain long-term development. Also, the fact that Chongqing has been plagued by corruption and local mafia activity in recent years means that foreign firms may be more attracted to safer Chengdu.
That is not to say that there is not room for both cities in China’s future. In fact, the two cities are likely to form what will become the Chengdu-Chongqing mega-region – the economic powerhouse of western China. Already, other mega-regions in China like the Bohai Bay Rim (Beijing, Tianjin and Dalian), the Yangtze River Delta (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Suzhou) and the Pearl River Delta (Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong) are setting groundbreaking standards in the history of global urbanization.
The Sichuan earthquake of 2008 managed to bring about an awareness of the major issues still facing China. In stark contrast to the days of the Cultural Revolution when urban areas were viewed as pariahs, the Sichuan quake solidified the triumph of the city over the countryside. As the city on the frontier, Chengdu is likely to become a key player as thousands of migrants arrive from Sichuan and adjacent provinces. How these newcomers are incorporated represents a great challenge for China as it shifts from a largely rural to a predominately urban country.
Adam Nathaniel Mayer is a native of California. Raised in Silicon Valley, he developed a keen interest in the importance of place within the framework of a highly globalized economy. Adam attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He currently lives in China where he works in the architecture profession.