late arrivals: thoughts on catch-up urbanism

I came to Shenzhen by way of Houston circa 1995. It was a time when the boom had fizzled and young developers were just rediscovering the downtown. The city I inhabited was proud to live like a suburb with its lamentable public transportation, its ethnic strip malls and its destination malls like the Galleria. For street life, most of us bypassed the Montrose area, choosing instead to drive to Austin or San Antonio, which were further along in their urban renewals.

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cold war guangming

Today, I am trying to figure how to think about a series of historically discrete events that in retrospect clearly aligned the landscapes of Hanoi, Houston, and Shenzhen. Continue reading

What is a boomtown?

Many readers are no doubt aware that Shenzhen’s sister cities are all (more or less) boomtowns. Two of the most famous are Brisbane, Australia and Houston, Texas. Both Brisbane and Houston, like Shenzhen have seen major demographic changes over the past thirty years, both have also profited from restructuring to the global economy.

To get a sense of the scale of Shenzhen’s population boom, I created the following chart, which compares census statistics from Brisbane, Houston and Shenzhen from 1980 through 2010.

What this simple chart clarifies is the extent to which we (westerners) need to reconceptualize “booms” in order to think about the kinds of demographic, social, and political change that is happening not only in Shenzhen, but throughout China. In a smaller nutshell than even an excell chart, what we see is that Shenzhen blew past Brisbane in 10 years and then past Houston in under 20. Final tally: Brisbane – 1,779,000; Houston (metropolitan area) – 5,946,800, and; Shenzhen – 10,357,900 (plus undocumented inhabitants), begging the question: how do we, who share the planet and this worldwide political economic system talk about and across disparate experiences of urbanization without giving over to either Chinese exceptionalism (as in, that’s just China) or ethnocentrism (as in, why is China acting like us?)

And yes, for practical purposes I’m still using 1 = 10,000 to count.