Dr Shi Nan
Dr Shi Nan is the Executive Vice President and Secretary General of Urban Planning Society of China. You can listen to our conversation with Shi Nan in Episode 3 of The DNA of Cities podcast.
Photo credit: Ronni Kurtz via Unsplash.
In what sense do cities have a DNA? In your mind, is it literal or is it a metaphor?
I will say, it's quite broad, quite a bit. DNA, in what sense – I have to say, I like this concept, but I want to say this is some kind of scientific description of the city, as I said before. And also it is literal. It is some kind of metaphor. I say that because I think DNA is not something we see. It's not some basic sense. So I understand when we're talking about it literally, it's the first thing you saw. I see you and I get some sense, but at the end not. But DNA is basic. I want to say it's not only basic, it's fundamental. It will determine – because it's the Asian people, it's the European people. And they're going to decide that it's a people or it's a dog. So it's the most fundamental – I'm not saying I'm an expert in biology or biology engineering in this area, but I know DNA is one of the fundamental things to decide all these basics and all their appearances.
So it's not only literal, but I would say it's a very important metaphor for people to understand things. When we talk about a city as a living creature, people are not understanding what you are saying. But when you say that there is a DNA of a city, you have given us some kind of hint. And it helps them to answer, “oh, there is something similar between cities and there is something different, and what is it that's different from another one?” And there are reasons behind that. So it is some kind of metaphor to help people to understand what is a city, what is urbanisation, and what is a local or city identity and things.
So to this question, I generally agree with the concept of city DNA, but I'm also thinking about shall we call it a DNA or call it a city or urban gene, or some kind of cultural gene, or some kind of a special gene? Because when we're talking about cities, talking about – it's an agglomeration, it's physical on one hand, but also, it's a cultural phenomenon, it's a cultural information, it's a social community. So it would depend on what we are talking about or who we are talking to. And if we are talking to people like planners or some strategic scientist, there could be interest in the urban form, urban structure, urban corridor things. So if we're talking about a special gene instead of DNA, DNA is the future scene but there is other inside of that, there are structures like that. So a gene is one of the sections. So I'm not sure if you are looking for this section or instead of the whole DNA. And so it would depend if we are talking about urban growth, urban development, or it's just about urban structure, a distribution of the urban, of the city. So if we are talking about urban development means it's a history, it's evolution. It's the city of today and also a city in the future.
So what makes one city different from other ones, to my understanding, is not the whole DNA, it's a gene, the smarter part of that molecule. So you can say it's my personal answer, no, it's my suggestion that we could use a culture gene or special gene in the different scenarios, different situations where we talk about this part. So there are different purposes. And also if we are talking about the city in evolution in its lifecycle, and why cities are getting older, a senior person like me or a senior city like London or Paris or some of the new cities like Shenzhen. What makes it different? What makes development, instead of only thinking about a political institution or whatever else, there are some things at the bottom, fundamental elements. So it's only one of the ideas coming to my mind. So anyway, I agree with this beautiful concept. It's a very good word we can introduce into the urban studies, into the planning.
Shi Nan, this is a very helpful answer, and of course, Caitlin and I are delighted that you are enthusiastic about this idea. Maybe it will be helpful if you talk a little bit about some cities. So, for example, if you took Shenzhen or you took Shanghai and you were thinking about this idea of a DNA or even just to think about an urban gene, how would you describe the differences or the similarities between cities like those two where we know there are many differences?
Yeah, cities in China and in Europe, there are cities, but they're different. We can tell from the appearance, architecture of a street, and we can sense there are things behind that urban landscape or urban form. To say, like Beijing and Shanghai, I'm going to compare Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing is the capital, it's empire city, and it's very traditional Chinese way of arranging the layout. There is a strong axis from north to south, and this axis is right on the Forbidden City, which is the political centre of the heart of the capital city. So this is one of the things known in the building architecture design. There are similarities between building design, but this axis definitely is different from Shanghai.
And talking about Shanghai, Shanghai is built from The Bund, which is some colony district. And so there are more and more concepts from France, from England, and from European culture. So the planning for Shanghai is more like for business, for trade, but it's different in Beijing. Beijing is for empire, for the national administration.
So this is a big difference. So if you look at the map of Shanghai and you can see some kind of what I said is the axis from south to north. But in Shanghai, instead, the structure of the road could be more functional, more convenient for trades, more convenient for people's daily life. And also in Beijing, a city like Beijing, all these roads, trades, not only they have access, and also other streets like China Avenue, and it's very traditional Chinese and it’s organic. But in Shanghai, no, no such kind of a structure.
And also, another city, Suzhou, I don't know if you're familiar with Suzhou, one of the very famous in China. And there is a very interesting thing, and because of the natural conditions, the people in Suzhou have developed two parallel systems of communication. So there are a system of streets and also there is also a system of water, just Venice. So it's a parallel system. There are two parallel systems to serve the different purposes. So I would say this is a special or cultural gene, and even the city of Shanghai or Beijing or Suzhou is growing to such a global international arena, but you can still tell they're different.
Shi Nan, this is very helpful and very interesting, and in particular, you've said something about the spatial – the systems, the infrastructure, the different function they have, but also the different symbolic meanings that they have and the way they change the energy and the potential of the city. This we're going to write about, I think, a lot. Can you say something a little bit more about the social dimensions of this? Because I imagine, for example, in Shanghai, there is a long history, because it's a port city, of it also being open to international populations. In Beijing, because it's a capital city and an imperial city, there's a long tradition of it being a centre of Chinese thinking and heritage. In Shenzhen, because it's a new, very fast-growing city, it's a mix of Chinese people from many different parts of China. So here you have three very different social communities. How does this affect those cities and their character and what you can do with them?
Well, that's what I said. We should look further into DNA. And until that urban gene – if you look at Shenzhen, it's a new city, and there are very few native residents of Shenzhen. The majority, over 99% of the people, are coming from outside of the city. So it's totally a brand new city. And so Shenzhen you will feel what is called inclusiveness, and not in Beijing. Beijing is the capital. Beijing is some kind of respected political centre. But thinking about the social side or the general view of daily life, and you will feel it's not like that kind of inclusive to compare with Shanghai and with Shenzhen. And in Shanghai's history, it was a small port and it was a colony city. And also it has a very strong cultural identity, different from what the wider region. So there was a period they were not so inclusive. But there are other reasons, economic reasons, because the central government has taken too much from the local taxation. So there was a feeling in Shanghai, people are against, not so inclusive to the foreigners. I'm not talking about people like you, foreign people, but for the outside citizens, for migration from other provinces, they are not very comfortable in Shanghai, not at all in Beijing, but fairly, very comfortable in Shenzhen. So this is absolutely why I say we should look at a small section of DNA. The small section of DNA could be one of the other – one of the elements, whatever, I don't know. But for a city, we are talking about a city DNA, what is the urban gene, what is the most smallest fundamental part? That'll be people.
So when we're talking about urban DNA, it's not absolutely whole concept of the biological. It's about the society, it's about the social side. People are not the genes, a small section without any life, people is living. People move. People, they have their reading, they have their desire, people where if you like people, send him to New York, and if you don't like him, send him to New York. That's what I said. So the social side and also the people, the basic, the most smaller fundamental part is a living creature. So you cannot only treat that like a general concept of DNA. This is, I would say, the urban DNA is different from the biological concept.
Very interesting. I'm going to ask one more question, if I may. I know these are big general questions. But one of the reasons I wanted so much for us to speak to you, apart from that it's always a great pleasure to do so is, of course, that China is living a kind of global experiment in rapid mass urbanisation. And from this point of view, the whole world can learn a lot from China. If one billion people become urbanised in less than one hundred years, maybe in less than 50 years, we learn something about what the city is for. And you said earlier very intelligently, cities are agglomeration economies. They are cultural phenomena. They are systems and spaces. Their social communities are also, I suppose, decision-making centres, and they are also service hubs. So cities are all of these things at the same time.
So I suppose the question I wanted to ask is, when you look at China and the process of rapid urbanisation, do we understand how these things, these different functions of the city, do we see how they work together to reinforce one another? Does the social system support the cultural system or the agglomeration economy? Does it determine the infrastructure platform? These things are kind of a puzzle that has to work together. So what do we learn in general from Chinese cities about putting together these different aspects of the city? It's a big question.
Yeah, it's a big question. Thank you very much and thank you for your observation. I would say not every people like you from Europe or from North America would notice that. And China has experienced a huge challenge of such kind of organisation. And everything happened in that minute. And you have to solve this, all these questions, economy, social, political. And also, if you noticed during the past, the political system is changing itself. So not only the political system and also there are global warming, climate change, America First, all these things happening. So how to coordinate all these things together? It's really a big challenge for the decision-makers and also for the planners like, well, like me in China. And what we are doing, what we have done is learn from others, learn from Greg Clark, learn from other experts in this world.
So China has been – if you look at its history, and we have very strong planning history. I mean not the modern concept of planning, but the planning in the old age, in the past, was like how to live with people and how to deal with the hierarchy of the settlement. There was tremendous experience in ancient times. And then in the last decades, China was open door. It's a sad story. But anyway, it's an open door in the 19th century. And so there are inventions from other countries and also brought all this modern concept of civil society and engineering infrastructure, whatever. It's a kind of concept of modernization into China. So at that period, we are learning from the West.
And after New China that was founded in 1949, the Communist Party took the power, and then we learned from the Soviet Union, which is a planned economy. So the government will manipulate everything and then will provide anything literally you can think of, from that very early stage of you come into this world until you passed away. Everything has been planned by the government. And now it doesn't work. It's not a good idea. And so we open up again after Deng Xiaoping. And this time it's wide open, not only to the Soviet Union, to Europe, to all the world. We embrace, every country, all the experience, whatever it could be used for. It's quite apolitical and also practical, I think, at that stage. So we introduce all the concepts from Europe, from North America, from Japan, from Singapore, even from other countries. So at that stage, we're like a sponge, just absorb everything from other countries.
And then the political system is changing quickly, and I would say it's a kind of incentive for the urban organization. So at that period urban organisation is like that. It's very quickly growing. And then we realised there are some things which should be localised. And all this foreign experience, whatever it's about, you have to be fit into some kind of context. It was good because it's in London, not necessarily in Beijing. It was good because of the German legal system, but it's not happened, it doesn't work in Shanghai.
So we are thinking about how to integrate international theories, ideas for instruments, into the Chinese concept. And now we have today's cities, Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and so you will see this is today's city centre in China. Actually, it's a combination of all these cultures and it's also a hybrid of the tradition of Chinese tradition. So sometimes I would say China is like some kind of experiment for the whole world, how to deal with past urbanisation and how to merge all these different cultural experiences together into one single city and how to deal with the general citizens, their demands, and also how to manage that.
So this is really not good. I would say I'm very proud of that. It's not easy for a country, such a big country. So Chinese experience could provide some kind of sharing to other growing economies. Particularly in, well, South America, Asia and Africa, there are some similarities at that stage.
I completely agree with you, Shi Nan, and what's interesting when we talk about DNA is what makes something transferable or not transferable. For example, when we speak about urbanization in China and we speak about urbanization in India, one of the differences, of course, is the Chinese governmental system and the willingness of Chinese people to cooperate with systematic approaches. One of the differences is in the Indian system, there is less willingness to cooperate with systematic approaches. And so you end up with, in India, the unsystematic city; in China, you get the systematic city. And of course, there are cultural aspects to this as well. But I think this is fascinating.
Exactly. I agree with you, and not only the way our people are more cooperative. I think deep in the mind, there is a way of thinking. The Chinese thinking is more, and Chinese culture, is more cooperative with others or with the government. So this is a very modern science. It's about the general philosophy, the tradition.
Yes, I agree. Therefore part of the DNA of all Chinese cities is this Chinese philosophy. Maybe Confucius is a little bit there, maybe Tao is a little bit there. Maybe some of the systematic lessons from Chinese communism are there. Right? It's all there.
Sure. If you're very interested in that I can recommend some people, some professors in Chinese university who are specialising in the history and historical philosophy and yeah, exactly.
The question that I would like to ask you next, Shi Nan, is if cities can understand that DNA, what purpose can it serve?
I would say, how to use that, you have to know who will use that. There are different users, different people who could be interested in this. I would say the first bunch of people who are interested in that could be the decision-maker, the mayor or the other party leader, say, in China, and they want to be – their city could be more visible, more recognized. And because it's a competition world, even within China, there is strong competition between cities. So what they are doing – and they want to be more visible, more recognized, more competitive to compete with the other cities, so they will understand how cities will grow like that. And what part of the city we can check and what part, no, we can't do that. And it's about this city.
And if we have time the other day we can talk about a city like Wuhan, like other cities. There's research behind that. It's not strange to me. So a decision-maker will I first want to understand how to build the city or how to lead their city into a more prosperous, more competitive, more globalized, many people, many cities are talking about it, global city. So they want to try to use this tool to guide their city.
And also, number two, I have to say, the planners. For planners who are coordinating all these factors of the city, no matter is spatial or economic or social, and they want to understand what is fundamental for the city. What is really some kind of attention for their city. And some of the things we should keep, some of the things we inherited, and some of the things we should avoid – we don't want some kind of mutant. And if we're talking about gene editing or whatever, and there are other moral facts and also to the city there are aspects of value, how to value the city, and shall we have this new district or should we have renovation of the whole roads or infrastructure of the city?
So they should understand this is one of the very important ways to help them to understand what their tradition, what that possible vision of the future and what could be changed, what cannot be changed, what should be avoided. And also, I would say this is quite convenient for the general citizen to understand the city. And the people are complaining about their homeland, and every people are complaining about that, but every people loves their homeland. But I don't know why they like the city. So if we're talking about the gene or DNA, there are natural signs, as I said, like a bond, like at Suzhou, there are natural signs, river mountain or whatever, and there are social signs, there's a historical side, a cultural side.
So this will help people to understand and to more and more love their cities. This is, I would say, some kind of concept that it's a marriage of their city, the spirit of their city, to be appreciative of that. So it's good, it's good for good governance and it's good for people living with others to be more inclusive. And so if you're talking about how to use that, I would say you first have to know who will use that. And yeah.
Shi Nan, I want to comment very quickly, because you're saying something so important that it needs to be underlined a little bit, that if you like, one of the fears in 21st-century urbanism is that all cities begin to look the same, feel the same, appear the same, so that the cities can lose their individuality. The point you're making is it's very important to avoid that. And if you understand the DNA, you understand the unique ingredients socially, culturally, environmentally, geographically, you can organise the city around what makes the difference. And then we get cities that are increasingly distinctive, differentiated, unique, individual. I think that's right? That's what you're saying.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And for every city, you have to take this approach to make yourself different from others. But you have to understand. Say if you're a girl, go to the beauty salon, and you have to understand if you are an Asian or European girl and you have to understand what kind of experience people really appreciate? You probably notice some of the Chinese girls are appreciated by the European people and to the Chinese standard, they're not at all a beauty.
So it's a different sense. So for decision-makers or for planners, this is really important. We are not wanting you to have some kind of order. Every city looks the same. No, not at all. We want a city to be more identified, to be more differential to others.
So the final question that we had prepared for you is what you think the limitations of this idea are and what questions it might raise or what it might leave out about the way that cities evolve.
I don't have much, I think, about this question. As I said at the end, the concept of DNA, it's about one must be different from each other, and about one people from another family and the sole limitation or the consideration of this concept could be – I have to think about that. We have to think about the political side and think about our institutional alignment, because to my understanding it's the gene or the DNA, it's unnatural size. Or that it's a pesticide of the of the creature, but we are not talking about the institutional arrangements, but this is one of the very important facts which has important influence on urban growth, on urban pattern of urban form. So I don't think the DNA has anything to do with the political or institutional.
Yeah, we are talking about the people as a general element, that we don't think about the whole political system, the hierarchy of the administration, and also the legal part, which is a very important background or context for decision-makers. So that's – some of the city could be US. It's not a good idea, but it's a bad city, and you can think about that, like it's double reason or you're in some special cottony or some special political regime, so say, like a French city or German city, you can have such kinds of lessons and also in some Chinese cities as well.
So if we're talking about limitation, I will to say, because this is a biological concept, so it survives the creature, who doesn't survive. The whole context. But a city that is different from the animal. An animal could move, could immigrate from one place to another place, and even a smaller part of a huge animal, that could move, but not the city. The city has to be there. The location is the only thing you cannot change. So – which means if the political system has been changed, but you can't change the location of the city, and the city could be – in fact, could change, or could some kind of domestic change could happen. So this concept we're not, why is that? There has been, what I said, a mutant mutation. So, yeah, that's what comes to my mind so far.
This is a very interesting point, Shi Nan, because we have thought about the institutional, the legal and the fiscal framework as part of a kind of inherited gene, but maybe it's better to think about it as a kind of body system. It's a little bit like, you know, the brain perhaps is this system. And Caitlin and I will need to develop the metaphor intelligently because we agree the institutional, the legal, the fiscal and the political framework is a key variable in every city.
Good point. I think so. And so probably it’s not a gene, but it’s the brain or it’s the whole body. Yes, exactly.
And the final question that we have is, if we were to have asked you the right question, would there have been anything else that you would have wanted to say about the DNA of cities?
Well, I'm not such an expert in this regard, but I have been fascinated by this concept, so I will keep my eyes open and I'll think about that. And if I have any idea, I will come back to you. And I really want to know what is research going on and what's your finding, and I'm looking forward for your research.