Weiwen Huang: More People Could Live in Moscow

PHOTO by vvoennyy / Depositphotos
How to make Moscow more compact? Why traffic problems are more important than plans for Greater Moscow and city embankments?

Strelka Magazine met up with one of the most important Chinese urbanists Weiwen Huang.

It’s impossible to talk about Shenzhen, a city located in the Guangdong province of People’s Republic of China, without mentioning the name of Weiwen Huang. His official accolades include Director of Shenzhen Center for Public Art and Shenzhen Center for Design, head of research group that is working on models for the development of young cities, founder of professional aide program Re-Tumu for post 2008 earthquake regeneration, author of many articles on urbanism, former vice chief urban planner at the Land Resource Commission of Shenzhen. It’s his contribution that allowed Shenzhen to transform into a young green city – a bright example for the rest of world of how a metropolis can become a comfortable space for living.

Huang started taking an active part in the development of Shenzhen in 1994: he is one of the shapers of Shenzhen’s image since its foundation in 1979. He also organised the Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture – an event considered prominent in the professional community.

The Shenzhen Effect or the Shenzhen Urban Miracle

The Shenzhen experience has become an essential part of the urban studies curriculum worldwide. The city was conceived as an economic rival to Hong-Kong – a former British colony that will continue to hold considerable autonomy until 2047. But if Hong-Kong will remain a burning point in China for a long time, Shenzhen is already a source of pride for the republic and for contemporary urbanism. Today it’s one of the five fastest growing metropolises in the world with a total population of 14 million people.

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Weiwen Huang

It’s an industrial, economic and financial centre of the region and the existing infrastructure allows for a lot of experimentation in urban planning despite the modest total area.

Weiwen Huang and other architects and urbanists in China aspire to create not just a visually impressive metropolis that will attract investment from around the world, but also a harmonious city. The greening of the main transport arteria, multi-storey houses on elevated piles to preserve the green areas, a concept for the multi-level city, Villages-in-the-City – these are some of the examples of innovative practices in Shenzhen that could form a manual for other countries.

Huang visited Moscow Urban Forum and presented a brief and convincing report. While Muscovites are discussing paid parking and pavement fencing, the Chinese are arguing about multi-level parks and building skyscrapers in highland areas.

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Shenzhen in 1980s

Strelka Magazine met up with the renown urbanist to find out how Moscow can benefit from the Chinese approach and experience.

Shenzhen is a very young city. In your opinion, how the strategy for the development of young cities differs from that of the old cities like Moscow?

I think age doesn’t play such a big role. We face similar challenges: transportation, environmental issues, the mobility of the city. So it’s more about philosophy and ideology. I think the main aim is the same for Moscow and Shenzhen: to create a friendly and comfortable city.

The age of nearly 40% of Shenzhen’s population is below 30. How to make a city appealing to the young people?

One of the ways is to involve the young people in urban planning process and discuss with them the future of the city.

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Modern-day Shenzhen

The decision makers must take into account the public needs and demands and propose various solutions for the future of the city. They must understand that they are building a city for real people, for users.

Shenzhen is sometimes called an “innovative city”. What are the next steps in its development?

I hope this city will form a cultural identity. For the past three decades the focus was on economic development and the industry. But now we should switch our priorities from economy to culture.

This is one of the reasons Shenzhen is so often compared to Hong-Kong. How much of your success is based on the ongoing competition with your neighbour?

This is a very sensitive question. Our growth was largely due to the investment and technology attracted from Hong Kong. As a result Shenzhen has grown into a fully-fledged competitor. We are now discussing collaborating with Hong-Kong on a new level culturally, financially, in terms of human capital. But we need to observe how this process goes, because with Hong-Kong a collaboration can easily turn into competition.

You have mentioned a few problems you noticed during your stay in Moscow. Do you think Shenzhen’s experience can be useful for our city?

In these two days I participated in the discussions about Moscow river embankments and the New Moscow. These are huge and important projects. But I think at first you need to face the challenge of the traffic congestion. Moscow is too car-oriented, that makes it monofunctional. The attitude towards car use must change: it should no longer be seen as a status symbol.

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Modern-day Shenzhen

It’s impossible for a city to accommodate so many drivers – this should be regulated. If you decrease the car use the city will become more livable, the quality of life will increase. Moscow should become more compact – right now you have so much free space that could be used for people and not for cars.

Another problem that Moscow and Shenzhen have in common is the environment. The density in Moscow is actually lower than in Shenzhen so this may not be such a big concern for you. The problem is that the growth of Shenzhen will not slow down in the nearest future, so we have no other choice but to expand and cut down forests. The coexistence of nature and of the metropolis is a very challenging balancing act.