The Weatherhead East Asian Institute welcomes Weiping Wu, Professor of Urban Planning at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and Director of the M.S. in Urban Planning Program, to the WEAI faculty. Before joining Columbia in 2016, Professor Wu was Professor and Chair in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. In the following Q&A, Professor Wu discusses her scholarship and teaching interests.
What experiences led you to professionally study urban planning–and, particularly, urban planning in China?
I grew up in China, and earned both my Bachelor of Engineering degree in architecture and a Master of Engineering degree in urban planning at the Tsinghua University in Beijing. The choice to major in architecture was accidental–well actually not quite so–as it was the choice of my parents who were both civil engineers and aspiring architects at the time. After five years of architectural studios in the undergraduate program, I came to appreciate the grounded analysis of socioeconomic and political conditions far more than designing the built environment itself. Architecture and urban planning are often academic neighbors, so the transition happened naturally. Around the time of my doctoral studies, urbanization took off in China, with astonishing pace and unprecedented scope. That urban transformation has been the main subject of my work ever since.
Can you tell us about your recent book The Chinese City and explain how Chinese cities may not necessarily conform to conventional urbanization theories?
My recent book, The Chinese City, as well as my accumulated expertise in China’s urbanization, has become a vehicle with which I reach out to a public audience. While ideas like “the Chinese city” may be somewhat stylized now, parts of its trajectory clearly push the limits of contemporary urban theories and realities. Many large cities in China have transformed from relatively compact, low-rise places to sprawling metropolises surrounded by suburban-style developments with mega-malls like in the American model. Continued preference for the downtown, on the other hand, has left a social-spatial pattern similar to what we see in European cities. China’s hybrid trajectory and landscape make studying urban China intriguing and a challenging undertaking. It also calls for robust analyses to give synthetic overviews and highlight the particularities of Chinese cities.
What challenges are Chinese cities currently facing as urbanization continues to increase?
The strong guidance of a developmental state accompanied by competition among entrepreneurial local governments has produced spectacular results in Chinese urban development—if judging the physicality of transformation alone. Nonetheless, unforeseen or irreconcilable consequences of the processes of urbanization have arisen. Urban transformation and its socio-spatial manifestations have created a set of conditions that complicate the path to a more inclusive and sustainable urban future. First, while the built environment and urban economy have been modernized, in no small part due to the contribution of migrant workers, the majority of them are not integrated into the urban society, and are experiencing incomplete urbanization. Second, uncoordinated and fragmented growth of urban areas has intensified the depletion of arable land, water, and other resources. At the same time, land lease practices have become intertwined with means of municipal finance. Third, urban inhabitants, encouraged by a multitude of factors including rising income and the disappearance of work unit based job-housing balance, have left behind sustainable modes of habitation and transport. And lastly, the urban built environment increasingly manifests social and economic inequalities—regarding the presence of rural migrants—and bifurcates space and exchange, thereby, marginalizing significant portions of the population.
As the President of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning as well as the Director of the Urban Planning Program at Columbia GSAPP, how would you like to influence the study of urban planning at Columbia and around the world? Are there certain questions or concerns that you would like today’s urban planning programs to better address?
My commitment, both here in Columbia’s Urban Planning Program and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, is to elevate and connect our understandings of urban complexities in the context of globalization and technological change. I want to advance dialogue on the creation and management of equitable and sustainable cities. By expanding educational opportunities about (re)emerging forms of urbanism such as sharing cities and circular economy, we can expand the exploration of (re)building and (re)designing urban communities committed to healthy and sustainable living, social representation and inclusion, and environmental stewardship. This broadened knowledge base will prepare students for work in a large range of settings, such as the corporate sector, multilateral organizations, and countries with a nascent planning culture.
What are your current research projects?
A key impetus for my work has always been to understand in a comparative context how the changing character and complexity of cities is intertwined with larger societal and external forces, and how research can inform professionals in both the public and corporate sectors by bridging theory and practice. My ongoing research is in two areas: shifting socio-spatial relations and transition to urbanism within resettled rural communities, and infrastructure financing strategies for cities in China and other emerging economies with particular attention to the role of private participation and investment. In an effort to raise the visibility of urbanization issues in China Studies and in a multidisciplinary context, I am also completing a large collaboration project on a handbook that investigates how we can best study China, and explores the future directions for China Studies.
What courses are you planning to teach at Columbia in the coming semesters?
Every year in the Fall I teach a graduate seminar on Chinese Urbanism in Global Context, in which we explore institutional settings, policy interventions, and urban realities. Each semester we focus on a somewhat different set of broad topic clusters and explicitly compare with practices in other countries; this year they include urbanization path and growth patterns, migration and socio-spatial inequalities, land management and financing urban development, and the role and practice of planning. In Spring 2018, I will be teaching an Urban Planning Studio, titled “Hong Kong as a Palimpsest: Transit-Induced Redevelopment.” We will travel to Hong Kong and collaborate with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to study a community called To Kaw Wan that is slated to house a new station along the new transit line Shatin to Central Link. We will try to prepare a more inclusive vision of redevelopment.