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New [Socialist] Village

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[Darryl Chen] ‘Caochangdi has a thriving mixed-income community making it an anomaly among the city’s mega-developments’

Darryl Chen studied Caochangdi, an atypical ‘new socialist village’ on Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road with a thriving, diverse mixed-income community. Among the city’s masterplanned mega-developments, Caochangdi is an anomaly. In the space created by the Chinese government’s evolving planning laws, the village’s growth is driven by the instincts of local peasants and the bohemian opportunism of artists who have established a set of unstated rules governing urban form. The UK’s Localism Act provides the biggest opportunity in decades to rethink the role of planning.

Chen argues that the time has come to breathe new life into the idea of the village by eliminating townscape sentimentalism and recovering economic growth as the primary driver of urban form. Chen’s project asks, what can China teach the UK about planning?

Where did your idea come from?

My idea sparked from frustration with the planning system and the arbitrary hurdles it makes you jump through. In the UK, I’ve noticed a kind of love of anomalous detail, which is both brilliantly distinctive and maddeningly frustrating. The Chinese, on the other hand, are able to unlock urban intensity and economic opportunism at a time when they’ve become more open
to new ways of doing things.

Most surprising thing you found out?

The nuances of the Chinese planning system surprised me. Don’t get me wrong - it is still a largely overbearing, top-down machine, and a real source of frustration for many architects I spoke with. But these days the top-down rule is guided more by pragmatism than by ideology. Under certain special situations, you can prise open that rigidity with solutions that work. In isolated but incredibly important cases like the one I researched, local noncompliant practice thrives when it dovetails with party objectives.

Most challenging part of your trip?

Because of the temperamental nature of the government - or rather, the way in which decisions are made and communicated - many of the villagers and professionals I spoke to were wary of offering a bare-faced critique on record. The government tries to keep a lid on this, not just because of the content of the critique, but to quell the idea that someone would want to upset the prevailing ‘peaceful order’. When we took photographs in the village we were viewed with suspicion. On a few occasions we were asked whether we were government representatives with new plans for demolition.

How do you plan to take this forward?

This project is a research-led design provocation. I think its propositions should apply at every level of the planning system. Urbanism needs to be done differently in this country - it’s time to shake things up. I think we should be exploring the potential for exploiting the Localism Act, particularly while it is relatively fresh.

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