Racing to Build Ugly Cities

There is a crisis in the architecture and urban development of many up and coming global cities. Globalization, new technologies, unprecedented competition and the current speed of development have placed urban development in an extreme state of flux. Global influences collide with local and regional culture and identity on an urban and architectural battleground. While local and regional identities are critical to the successful development of any city around the world, many governments are struggling with how best to sustain it, represent it and integrate it into their urban landscape. Unfortunately, the haste of modern day development has not allowed time for thoughtful planning and strategic reflection. Instead regional and local cultural identity in the urban environment go through cycles of being disregarded, trashed, diluted, then re-embraced, cartooned, and rebuilt. This is equally apparent in Chinese cities like Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Arab cities around the Persian Gulf like Dubai.
All of these up and coming global cities experience similar pressures on their path to become recognized and respected world players. For these cities, hundreds of years of urban and social development have been suddenly crammed into a couple decades. The sudden overwhelming exposure to numerous foreign cultures and standards has lead to some confusion for many governments as to how best to balance and combine all these influences in the urban environment. Lacking clear direction and the luxury of time and pressed by the unrelenting global economy, governments hastily turn to leading global cities such as New York, Tokyo, London and Hong Kong as role models for their own development. Almost overnight, cookie cutter skyscrapers are transplanted over the ruins of significant heritage sites. As many up and coming global cities view their own heritage as locking them in a backward past, they are only too hasty to dismiss and destroy it. They prefer instead to perpetuate unrestrained, extreme developments, surpassing any architectural or urban developments found New York or Hong Kong. All of which are clearly intended to make a mark on the world’s stage, to garner global attention. Repeatedly, local and regional cultural identity gives way to bizarre ostentatious offerings. The critical re-awakening and realization of the importance of local culture and regional identity often comes just a little too late and is then addressed reactively and superficially in the form of pastiche and Disney-like recreations.

For many of these cities which rely heavily on tourism as a critical revenue source, the importance of their own cultural heritage as a significant draw for wealthy tourists in search of unique experiences is often realized only after the destruction of many historic neighborhoods. In these cities, this awareness results in the immediate preservation and oftentimes recreation of historic buildings and neighborhoods. It is unfortunate however, that the initial drive to preserve and promote local culture and regional identity is compelled by the ‘commercialization of culture’ or the financial value of culture.
Much of these critical mistakes in urban planning are made by cities in a rush to reap the benefits of the global economy and not to be sidelined. These mistakes also arise from the inability and unwillingness of local governments to fully comprehend the significance of local and regional identity in developing a robust urban environment that is attractive and responsive to not only a global population but also the local population. There are however, alternatives to help such cities find a better balance. Technology and culture do not have to be an antithesis. Successful global cities that appeal to a local and global population must carefully combine global, local and regional influences in their urban development. This can only happen however, through open dialogue with all stakeholders. Urban development decisions and architectural commissions in cities in the United Arab Emirates and in China for example, are delivered from the top down. Local residents are often without a voice. The current speed of development requires better collaboration between global and local businesses, planners, architects, government and cultural institutions. The pace of the world is not slowing down and there are many lessons that can be shared between cities and countries across the globe such that the same mistakes will not to be made.

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