I stole the title for this editorial from architectural historian Arnold Lewis’ excellent An Early Encounter with Tomorrow: Europeans, Chicago’s Loop, and the World’s Columbian Exposition (University of Illinois Press, 1997), which documents the shock of exposure to a metropolis that emerged seemingly overnight, and in the middle of nowhere. Chicago had 4,000 residents at the time of its incorporation in 1837 and a population of 1 million when the fair opened in 1893. What the city presented to wide-eyed visitors from the Old World was a vast alien landscape of railyards and stockyards, department stores and skyscrapers—a surreal commingling of brute force and technological sophistication.
More than a century later, I find myself similarly astounded by the urban explosion in East Asia. In July, The New York Times and other outlets reported that the Chinese capital of Beijing is going to absorb its two neighboring provinces, Tianjin and Hebei, into a megalopolis called Jing-Jin-Ji (“Jing” for Beijing, “Jin” for Tianjin, and “Ji” for Hebei). Administratively, it would be similar to the District of Columbia annexing Maryland and Virginia. Statistically, however, there’s no comparison. The commingled urban area of 83,400 square miles will be bigger than the state of Kansas, its population of 100 to 130 million potentially greater than Japan’s, and its annual economic output of nearly $1 trillion larger than the Netherlands’.
Of course, by all accounts Beijing is already overcrowded and polluted (though the crime rate is lower than in most Chinese cities). Since Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949, it’s been policy to concentrate development in the city center. No longer. Apparently, livability is the Politburo’s new watchword. While the plans for Jing-Jin-Ji remain something of a mystery, officials speak of capping the population of the city center at 23 million (it’s currently around 22 million), relocating the municipal government and other services to the perimeter, consolidating manufacturing, and building new infrastructure such as high-speed rail—all in short order. Eat your heart out, Robert Moses.
The changes are essential for China to thrive. The nation’s one-child policy has stalled overall population growth, but by 2025 some 250 million Chinese will have migrated from the countryside to cities and begun to join the middle class. The number of major urban agglomerations will have risen from three in 2000 to 13 in 2020. The social and environmental implications are staggering, and it’s in our own best interests to pay heed. Just as 19th century European architects adopted the steel frame and other innovations from their Chicago contemporaries, what we witness in cities like Jing-Jin-Ji could inform the future of architecture and urbanism in the United States.