Thinking conservation: whose lives matter?

Thursday last (Feb 16), the Hong Kong version of the bi-city biennale opened and then on Friday afternoon, Shenzhen began its closing events with a series of roundtable panels. Along with moderator Juan DU, architect Ben Wood, and urban planner Michael Gallagher, I participated in panel #2, contemporary perspectives on preservation.

We agreed that history should serve living people and thus conservation was not a question of saving old buildings for their own sake. Rather, what is conserved are patterns of human relation and environments that support those relationships. In this sense, any act of conservation entails a value judgment; whose lives do we wish to strengthen and deepen by creating sites that reference the past?

Not unexpectedly, it was at this moment of making value judgements that our differences became clear precisely because history serves different purposes in different social groups. Ben Wood, for example, is the principal at Studio Shanghai and the creative force behind Shanghai’s Xintiandi, a car-free zone of leisure consumption. Over the course of the roundtable, I realized that for him, renovation was not about conserving the past, but rather about adapting suitable old spaces to contemporary needs. Crucially, in Ben’s version of the contemporary, economic viability confirmed the value of a project, straightforwardly neoliberal in his understanding that free marketing was the most desirable and beneficial form of social relationship. Thus, Xintiandi had been designed to do what it was doing — generating income for the area shops by providing a pleasant environment for consumption.

To my ears, the rationale for Xintiandi echoed the conservation ethos I had heard about the Tianjin concessions — 疼笼换鸟, or love the cage, change the bird. This form of conservation enables the conservation or reproduction of market relationships. The fact that older neighborhoods may be more pleasant than many recent developments (Ben was vehemently anti-car, stating that cars killed cities) was the reason that the buildings and layout of Xintiandi had been preserved.

In contrast, Michael advocated renovating areas such as Huaqiangbei not as an area of high-end consumption, but in such a way as to preserve the networks of producers and shopkeepers that have developed there over the past thirty years. One of the first areas developed in Shenzhen, first as an industrial park for consumer electronics and then to include shopping areas for both electronics and other consumer goods, Huaqiangbei developed into a dense neighborhood that supported entrepreneurial production, both retail and wholesale shops, and affordable housing (relative to the surrounding area).

All this to say, the layout and buildings of Huaqiangbei conform to what Ben identified as  human scale. Two-lane roads made it easy to cross the street, the sidewalks were lined with trees, and even the tallest buildings in the area were under 12 stories high. Michael advocated a model urban rejuvenation that improved the cage for its current birds. The area “facelift“, which began in 2009, however, has included much higher buildings, razing older areas, including low-income housing to make room for iconic towers, such as the new CATIC building and bringing in more multi-national companies, including Wallmart. In other words, Shenzhen has intervened in Huaqiangbei in order to strengthen and deepen international economic chains of production and consumption, rather than to strengthen and deepen local market autonomy.

Thus, when asked, as a cultural anthropologist what values I thought should be pursued through urban conservation projects, I mentioned three: children should be safe to play there no matter what the final form, no one’s life should be harmed or lost during the project, and once completed it should be easily dismantled. These values seem to me basic to understanding a community in terms of whose lives matter — children’s lives matter, workers’ lives matter, and the relative lightness of the human footprint matters.

Unsurprisingly, my comments seemed naive in a context where we were discussing important matters of which birds get to profit from upgraded cages. But that’s my point. Discussions of urban conservation consistently neglect the place of non-productive (in a strong economic sense of the word) lives in their visions of the contemporary moment and its relation to history.

Yes, neighborhoods matter. But the primary value of a neighborhood is not that it facilitates the growth of business — local or neoliberal global. But rather, the primary value of a neighborhood is the cultivation of society. A neighborhood is the immediate context of social relationships and thus, a neighborhood is one form through which we express and confirm whose lives matter and, by extension, whose lives do not. Full stop. I believe the lives of children and workers and actual birds are as important as the lives of high ranking officials, bankers, real estate developers, and leisure shoppers. And I want those lives to be taken into account (and yes its a dangerous phrasing) when we consider what to preserve and what to raze.

5 thoughts on “Thinking conservation: whose lives matter?

  1. I believe the neighborhood is the pulse of the city. And safety of its inhabitants are cruicial. Without people ( lives) you do not have a neighborhood or a city!!!
    Ask someone who has lost a loved one if a life matters!

  2. Yes, you saw that part of the rationale for saving some of the older buildings in Huaqiangbei was not just for the sake of those shopkeepers within Huaqiangbei, but the role that they play within the agglomeration economics of the entire area, and thus within Shenzhen’s wider economy.
    Saving buildings to save networks to develop economy.

    As a side note, I think that preservation/redevelopment here needs to find ways to appropriately insert density. Otherwise problems such as sprawl) get shifted elsewhere and the social networks eventually disappear because that area becomes too expensive.

    • If given the choice, I vote with you to nourish embedded economies. My issue with the form of the debate on preservation, however, is that economic development remains the higher public good to which the conversation constantly refers. At stake in this form of the debate is the question, what is the best city for economic development? In turn, this means that we’re looking at developing/ renovating/ rejuvenating cities for property owners and financiers. Instead, I’d like to begin from questions such as: what is the best city in which to raise children or grow flowers or help the elderly die with dignity?

  3. Pingback: been there, but not here–dalang | Shenzhen Noted

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