The Maturation of Cities


This paper is in four parts;

  • The first presents cities in the context of social evolution as a movement toward the formation of a world civilization, the beginning of the maturation of humanity;
  • The second describes the supporting role of cities as nodes in a global infrastructure;
  • The third argues our material development has, for now, outpaced our social, institutional, and moral development; and
  • The fourth explores some possible lines of action to close this gap and foster the maturation of cities

1. The Maturation of Humanity

People cannot exist alone. Social organizations, including cities, are like bodies, every cell different but dependent upon the vitality of the whole. The relationship between the individual and a social unit is a reciprocal one.

"Because the members of the world of humanity are unable to exist without being banded together, cooperation and mutual helpfulness is the basis of human society. Without the realization of these two great principles no great movement is pressed forward. 1

"Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals, each one of whom is endowed with intelligence and will; nevertheless, the modes of operation that characterize man's biological nature illustrate fundamental principles of existence. Chief among these is that of unity in diversity. Paradoxically, it is precisely the wholeness and complexity of the order constituting the human body - and the perfect integration into it of the body's cells - that permit the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each of these component elements. No cell lives apart from the body, whether in contributing to its functioning or in deriving its share from the well-being of the whole. 2

If we see each other as cells in an organic social body, as partners in a social contract, and if we accept that individuals can benefit from the organization of the social whole; then it is logical that individual behavior that strengthens the whole will also, indirectly, strengthen the individual.

History records humanity's climb up a ladder of social evolution from family, to tribe, to city-state, and to nation, with the size of the social body expanding in size and complexity. Logically, the next stage should be a global social unit. The current globalization and convergence signal the arrival of this world community. Just as the individual grows from infancy to childhood, to adolescence, and adulthood; so too, has humanity. We could compare the end of the stage of nation-building and the beginning of a global society as a transition from our collective adolescence to our collective adulthood.

Fig. 1 Map of Human Maturation

" create a state of society in which the whole of mankind will be able to live together in harmony as members of a single all-inclusive family. This is, I believe, the goal at which all civilizations so far have been aiming unconsciously, if not consciously." 3

Just as each evolutionary social step did not extinguish the steps it built on - for example, cities retained families, and nations retained both the cities and the families in them - so too could a global culture, while emerging in its own right, retain the nations and cultural essences it encompasses and embraces. Just as each step in the social ladder led to greater freedom and wider horizons for individuals, so too, ideally, should a larger cultural interactive space lead to an even greater field of movement, creation, and service. Now that the boundaries of the social contract extend to the whole planet, we are challenged to stretch, as well, the boundaries of cooperation and mutual helpfulness. Furthermore, following the logic of integral wholes, now that we have the capacity to form a world community, the member components: nations, cities, families - will not survive unless the larger body is formed.

In Fig. 1, Map of Human Maturation, the various civilizations of the world appear as rivers flowing to a common sea. The many currents of civilization are now a common heritage for all of us to share. The resources we have to build a New World Order, in addition to the fruits of science and technology, include the wealth of experience gained by a multitude of civilizations over countless centuries.

“Much like the role played by the gene pool in the biological life of humankind and its environment, the immense wealth of cultural diversity achieved over thousands of years is vital to the social and economic development of a human race experiencing its collective coming-of-age. It represents a heritage that must be permitted to bear its fruit in a global civilization. On the one hand, cultural expressions need to be protected from suffocation by the materialistic influences currently holding sway. On the other, cultures must be enabled to interact with one another in ever-changing patterns of civilization. 4

"Today, humanity has entered on its collective coming-of-age, endowed with the capacity to see the entire panorama of its development as a single process. The challenge of maturity is to accept that we are one people, to free ourselves from the limited identities and creeds of the past, and to build together the foundations of global civilization. 5

2. Cities as Nodes in a Global Infrastructure

“What hath God wrought?” was the first message sent by Samuel Morse from the Supreme Court Room in Washington to a railway depot in Baltimore on May 24, 1844. From this key beginning, in an intense wave, especially in the 12 years from 1877 to 1889, the main technological components for the construction of modern cities all appeared. In Fig. 2 below we can see an outburst of invention in the latter half of the 19th century. Through them the city could expand horizontally and vertically; its time for work, recreation, and family life could extend more easily into the evening hours; and the speed and ease of mutual access, either within the city or from city to city was greatly enhanced.

Fig. 2 Inventions and their Date of Creation

Railway 1800
Telegraph 1844
Telephone 1877
Incandescent Lamp 1880
Skyscraper 1880
Electric Trolley Car 1885
Subway 1885
Subway 1886
Automobile 1889
Elevator 1889
Wireless Radio 1901
Flight 1908
TV 1920
Computers 1930
Internet 1980

Especially with the spread of international telecommunications, cities have a new dimension and purpose; they do not only have the capacity to express reciprocity within their immediate sphere of influence, or nation, but are becoming part of a network to perform this task on a planetary scale. They are becoming part of the infrastructure of a global civilization. Cities are bases from which individuals have access to the resources of the world and can participate in building “single all-inclusive family”. Theoretically, the more cities function in this role; the more their capacity will be nourished and released.

3. Balanced Inner and Outer Development

There is, however, a great challenge. Although the scientific and technical inventions necessary for the creation of an interconnected planet are virtually all in place, the instability and violence in the world around us indicate our material development has, for now, outpaced our social, institutional, and moral development.

"However thrilling the prospects (for globalization) may be, present patterns of behavior do not inspire confidence in the process. It is only natural to wonder whether globalization will, in fact, unify the human race without imposing uniformity or simply propel the universalization of the culture of consumerism. Is it the bearer of prosperity for the masses or the mere expression of the economic interests of a privileged few? Will it lead to the establishment of a just order or to the consolidation of existing structures of power? 6

Now that relative wealth has started to come to China there is a conflicting mix of values. It is acceptable for some to get rich first, but the value structure does not emphasize what to do with this wealth other than just to satisfy one's own material pleasure and needs.

"Work without social utility is intrinsically meaningless in any larger social or moral context and necessarily produces an alienation that is only partly eased by monetary rewards. Alienation from, and lack of participation in, a larger 'social ecology' characterized by 'civic friendship', results in meaningless work, restless competition, a self-centered life, a split between the ethos of family life and the brutally competitive work place, and education focused on careerism with neither 'personal meaning or civic virtue'." 7

The shadows that have appeared in China's modernization drive, such as corruption and environmental degradation, are an inverse prescription of the inner qualities we need, reminders that more mature standards and behavior are required.

“Human happiness, security and well-being, social cohesion, and economic justice are not mere by-products of material success. Rather, they emerge from a complex and dynamic interplay between the satisfaction of material and social needs and the spiritual fulfillment of the individual.

“Such qualities as trustworthiness, compassion, forbearance, fidelity, generosity, humility, courage, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good have constituted the invisible yet essential foundations of progressive community life. 8

Confucian and revolutionary virtues such as self-restraint, propriety, service to others, moderation, obedience, etc. easily suited a time of poverty and shortages. Poverty and a Spartan living pattern were related to the sacrifice needed fifty years ago to create New China. The older generation looks back with fondness to the early fifties when life was more difficult but more meaningful, the cause more clear. Without a place to serve beyond oneself, many channels for spiritual capacity are blocked, starving richer, and, finally, more productive sources of motivation.

……a paradigm of development that seeks to promote global prosperity must take into account both the spiritual and material natures of the individual and society, while responding to the increasing interdependence of the peoples and nations of the planet "as the regions of the world " unite to give each other what is lacking. This union will bring about a true civilization, where the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material. 9

If the maturation process of our global world has been uneven, namely, we are more advanced technically and less developed socially-spiritually, then what might be done in cities to help close the gap?

4. Lines of Action

In an organization as complex as a city there are many social, administrative, and physical aspects of urban life than can be considered in light of the coming of age of the human race. The following are some exploratory thoughts about just a few possible lines of action to enhance the city's role both as a community unto itself, and as a component of a larger global society.

  • Promote Citizenship Education
  • Develop Community Life
  • Increase the Influence of Women
  • Improve Physical Mutual Access
  • Build Civic Centers

Promote Citizenship Education

Citizenship, in a mature social contract means individuals act to satisfy, simultaneously, twin goals: to share and express our unique, individual capacities and talents, and to ensure the vitality of the larger society. Helping to create the latter furthers the development of the former.

“This relationship, so fundamental to the maintenance of civilized life, calls for the utmost degree of understanding and cooperation between society and the individual; and because the need to foster a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop, this relationship must allow "free scope" for "individuality to assert itself" through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.

While it will remain true that the individual will is subordinated to that of society, the individual should not be lost in the mass but rather become the focus of development.

“Let him or her find his own place in the flow of progress, and society as a whole may benefit from the accumulated talents and abilities of the individuals composing it. Such an individual finds fulfillment of his potential not merely in satisfying his own wants but in realizing his completeness in being at one with humanity and with the....purpose of creation.

It is in the area of the inner development of cities that China has, potentially, a great contribution to make. Until recently, the West has been setting the agenda for the global village. In recent years, distracted by Western superiority in science and technology and its consumer-oriented material development paradigm China's spiritual, philosophical, and artistic potential and resources are underestimated, even by China.

Reciprocity is the essence of Confucian philosophy, and a consciousness of our essential oneness has been imbedded in Chinese philosophy for centuries. The recognition that, for true modernization to go forward, there must be a stable, yet dynamic, balance of both inner and outer development, carries on the ancient Chinese awareness that "From the son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of their person as the root of everything besides."

John Fairbank, the noted Sinologist, in the introduction to his recent book, China: A New History, refers to China as a latecomer to modernity. He asks whether China has emerged from isolation just in time to participate in the demise of the world or, with millennia of survival experience, to rescue it.

The following words of Yan Yang Chu, a pioneer in rural development in China in the 1930s, give us a glimpse of why Mr. Fairbank might expect China to rescue the world. James Yen says,

".....through the last forty centuries China must have matured her thought and learned many lessons in the art of living. Maybe China has something to contribute. Surely there must be a better way, a more humane way of settling international disputes than just by cutting each other's throats. Surely, with China's four hundred million people (in 1930), four thousand years of culture and vast resources, she must have something to contribute to the peace and progress of mankind." 10

From Confucianism it has learned much regarding the application of spirituality to daily life; from Daoism, China derives capacity to merge opposites and resolve paradoxes, a capacity to see systems and “wholes“ more than dichotomies; and from Buddhism it has received high-minded spirituality and a keen sense of the coherence between the material and the spiritual.

When we look to China we see, for example:

  • Love of justice expressed in the words of China’s poets and philosophers; 11
  • Belief in harmony, unity of opposites, reciprocity;
  • Long Confucian tradition that a belief system is the foundation of social order;
  • Belief in "Tian Xia Yi Jia" (All under heaven is one family);
  • Love of perfection that generated so many centuries of civilized beauty;
  • Appetite for consensus-seeking, not litigation, to resolve conflicts;
  • Capacity for obedience; open-mindedness and lack of prejudice;
  • Desire to "seek truth from facts"
  • Love for practical application of knowledge; the admiration for deeds not words;
  • Importance given to family relationships, especially respect for parents.

China was not part of the colonization of the globe, but was colonized by others. It is a country where poets are greater heroes than military leaders.

“The Chinese are not militaristic by nature or by tradition or by philosophy. The Chinese people never exalted brute force,.....There is no military caste in China as there is in other nations. The heroes of the Chinese people are not the warriors, but sages, philosophers and preachers of peace and righteousness. 12

Bertrand Russell, while serving as a teacher in Beijing in the1920s, observed China's:

"production without possession, action without self-assertion, and development without domination". 13

The beauty of China's art, much of its poetry, and, in particular, its garden design, prefigure one of the essential concerns of sustainability, harmony between man and nature.

The above is but a tiny glimpse into the spiritual “inner” resources of China. Her appreciation of her transcendent understandings is inhibited by the emphasis on material development and further slowed by her own self-deprecating nature. "Yes, our country is backward," many Chinese people nod, reinforcing the West's sense of its own superiority. The more China "buys into" an exclusively material definition of modernization, the less stable the country will become; and the less it will recognize the valuable contributions it can make to the establishment of inner and outer balance.

The spiritual resources of China contribute much to defining the goals and curriculum of education for citizenship, not only for the city, but for the maturation of the individual as a citizen of the world.

Develop Community Life

China has a habit of group-consciousness called "Ji Ti" (togetherness). Although its origin precedes the entry of Buddhism to China, this concept was given a powerful boost by the Mahayana emphasis on salvation of the individual through salvation of the group. China’s Ji Ti sense and peaceful orientation are valuable foundations for community building.

While a thin social network has started to spread around the world, the social grain in cities remains quite coarse. There is a gap at the neighborhood-community level. The “Ji Ti” sense, the social ecology, is usually focused on family, friends, and the Chinese people as a whole. The work unit used to be a kind of community, but the social role of this institution is disappearing. There is a hierarchy of administrative units in the city, district government, street committee, etc, but they are more administrative than social.

Lin Yu Tang (1895-1976) pointed out in 1935 in his book, “My Country and My People” that the Confucian teaching, the Great Learning, moves through the levels of social organization and leaves out community. He says that the jump from State to family is indicative; it shows unity and loyalty are operative at these two levels, but this sense is weak in between. He even says of public spirit, civic consciousness, and social service, "There are no such commodities in China"

"The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the empire, first ordered well their own States.
Wishing to order well their own States, they first regulated their families.
Wishing to order well their families, they first cultivated their persons.
Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.
Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.
Wishing to be sincere in there thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.
Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
Their hearts being rectified their persons were cultivated.
Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.

Their States being rightly governed, the whole empire was made tranquil and happy." 14

One of the most visible characteristics of China since it opened up is the increased capacity of individuals both men and women. As China starts to mature beyond an authoritarian social structure, millions of people are deciding, on their own, how to channel their energy and talents. They are choosing their own education, careers, starting their own businesses, and traveling to other parts of the country and the world where there are work opportunities. A professional service attitude has started to replace paternalistic patterns. A vast pool of energy is emerging, ready to be tapped.

The city will be more effective and its life improved if there are social and administrative mechanisms at the community level to channel the increased latent capacity of individuals. A finer-grained, better managed exchange of resources and needs, at a local level, will enhance the growth and security of neighborhoods, and the individuals within them. The current condition of anonymity outside the circle of family and friends, with more and more sections of the city surrounded by walls and security guards, reflects a fear of strangers, and is a consequence of a lack of community.

Fig. 3 Social Layers

There is skepticism and caution about touching this social layer. Even people of good will hesitate. The desire for isolation and anonymity mainly comes from the fear of un-ending, unmanageable demand from people we don’t know; once you start helping someone there may be no end to the demand.

This fear is justified; there is no coordinating administrative layer at the neighborhood level to manage such an initiative. Such an extension of community cannot arise without a corresponding institutional development, and maturation in social qualities and skills. To share information, to channel the traffic between needs and service, to expand the boundaries of trust requires a new form of organization and leadership at the community level.

If social participation were a larger part of life, urban children, for example, could participate in community service as a vital part of the school curriculum. It would broaden their current activities of study-homework-computer games by exposing them more intimately and practically with the society around them. This in turn would give their studies a clearer sense of purpose. The children could more easily imagine how they might apply what they learn to the needs of the world around them. Placing value and importance on this kind of social education will also ameliorate the difficulties of the single-child family by giving children more surrogate brothers and sisters to interact with. The atmosphere of growth through service will reduce self-centeredness.

Youth can make valuable contributions to community-building. Currently, in China, most of their time is spent on academic achievement with an emphasis on numerical scores. This tends to isolate them from life and limit their s ocial growth. If youth were involved in the education of the younger ones, for example, they too would have a real service to perform and a level of responsibility that they are ready for but is never used. Involvement in community work would also give them a chance to get to know members of the opposite sex in ways other than dating. You know a person better when you see how they work, how they interact with other people, how they handle responsibility, etc.

"The creation of the institutions of a global society, a web of interconnected structures that hold society together at all levels, from local to international institutions that gradually become the patrimony of all the inhabitants of the planet is for me one of the major challenges of development planning and strategy. Without it, I fear, globalization will be synonymous with the marginalisation of the masses." 15

Increase the Influence of Women

If the city is half male and half female then women should be holding up half of the city. If community building is an i mportant aspect of city building and it is based on reciprocity and the consciousness of unity in diversity, then to whom do we turn for experience and skill? Women have practice from family life and are psychologically more suited. They have a greater recognition of the essential cooperative nature of human existence. One of the reason China has such a high rate of female suicide is the underutilization of this capacity.

The following brief compilation of quotes attempts to indicate the nature of the crucial, and mostly unrecognized, contribution of women.

"The world in the past has been ruled by force and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the scales are shifting, force is losing its weight, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which women is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideals, or to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more properly balanced." 16

"Given the vital role of economic activity in the advancement of civilization, visible evidence of the pace at which development is progressing will be the extent to which women gain access to all avenues of economic endeavor. This challenge goes beyond ensuring an equitable distribution of opportunity, important as that is. It calls for a fundamental rethinking of economic issues in a manner that will invite the full participation of a range of human experience and insight hitherto largely excluded from the discourse. The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice. Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise form a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community. Such an intellectual breakthrough - strongly altruistic rather than self-centered in focus - must draw heavily on both the spiritual and scientific sensibilities of the race, and millennia of experience have prepared women to make crucial contributions to the common effort." 17

"Despite the competitive aspects of any society, there must be a bedrock modicum of cooperation for society to exist at all. (I define cooperative as behavior that aids and enhances the development of other human beings while advancing one's own.) It is certainly clear we have not reached a very high level of cooperative living. To the extent that it exists, women have assumed the greater responsibility for providing it. Although they may not label it in large letters, women in families are constantly trying to work out some sort of cooperative system that attends to each person's needs. Their task is greatly impeded by the unequal premise on which our families are based, but it has been women who have practiced trying."
"...serving others is a basic principle around which women's lives are organized; it is far from such for men....Obviously people have to serve each other's needs, since human beings have needs. Who will serve them if not other people?"
".......until recently, few opportunities for simultaneous self-development and service to others have existed; there were virtually no social forms in which this combination could be put into operation.... For men the prospect of combining self-development with service to others seems an impossibly complex proposition. For women this complexity is not so great."

"Women do have a much greater and more refined ability to encompass others' needs and to do this with ease. By this I mean that women are better geared than men to first recognize others' needs and then to believe strongly that others' needs can be served - that they can respond to others' needs without feeling this is a detraction from their sense of identity." 18

"Men are more burdened with the more adolescent attitudes and habits of competition and control. Maturity for a man is autonomy and separation from others, independence and individual achievement. A concern with relationships, and co-operation appear as weaknesses." 19

"The assumption of superiority by man will continue to be depressing to the ambition of woman." 20

"The world that is outside one's door happens to be a world that is full of hardship, cruelty and competition. In order to survive in this world, a woman needs to incorporate a large dose of roughness into her character. I happen to think that this world outside of one's home is basically dictated and molded by men. It is a problem to put women in a position where they have to adapt to this man's world." 21

"The cause of universal education, which has already enlisted in its service an army of dedicated people from every faith and nation, deserves the utmost support that the governments of the world can lend it. For ignorance is indisputably the principle reason for the decline and fall of peoples and the perpetration of prejudice. No nation can achieve success unless education is accorded all its citizens. Lack of resources limits the ability of many nations to fulfill this necessity, i mposing a certain ordering of priorities. The decision-making agencies involved would do well to consider giving first priority to the education of women and girls, since it is through educated mothers that the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused through out society. In keeping with the requirements of the times, consideration should also be given to the concept of world citizenship as part of the standard education of every child." 22

"....strive to show in the human world that women are most capable and efficient, that their hearts are more tender and susceptible than the hearts of men, that they are more philanthropic and responsive toward the needy and suffering, that they are inflexibly opposed to war and are lovers of peace. Strive that the ideal of international peace may become realized through the efforts of womankind, for man is more inclined to war than woman, and a real evidence of woman's superiority will be her service and efficiency in the establishment of universal peace." 23

Optimize Mutual Physical Access

If we need social structures and institutions scaled to the individual and community, do we not also need physical spaces scaled the same way? If mutual service and reciprocity could be enhanced by optimum physical access to each other, then what spatial arrangements and conditions might be helpful? The vast increase in mutual access due to the proliferation of technologies such as mobile phones, the internet and jet travel augment the oldest form of mutual access, namely, face-to-face communication and walking.

The new communication technology has no scale; time and distance are compressed to zero. The scale of personal communication is measurable. At one meter we can read the smile in someone's eyes; after 25 meters we cannot read the expression on someone's face. Transportation now allows any two people on earth to meet almost within hours. Pedestrians take 10 to 15 minutes to walk a kilometer.

It is probably more valuable to have a multiplicity of forms of access and movement rather than thinking the older ones are obsolete.

We could start by looking at conditions that reduce mutual access. Some examples include:

  • Excessive separation of work and home reduces our access to each other.
  • Excessive separation according to income reduces access between social strata.
  • Walled residential compounds, islands of fear, separate group from group;
  • Over-crowding is too much access.
  • Diffusion and too-low density is not enough access.
  • Overly-large city-block size reduces flow through its territory.
  • Over-reliance on cars, and extra-wide roads for car traffic, reduces access between people and between blocks.

What adjustments can be made? What are the optimums? The following is a brief look at some parameters to work with. These include: the street, the city block, units of growth, and density.

The Street

Throughout history, a space common to every city has been the street. The street offers a series of doors to private spaces accessible from a flowing public space. In the city, streets and plazas are the primary containers and conduits for reciprocity. If at street widths under 25 meters, we can take the pulse, and know the condition of our neighbor, then this is an important unit of urban scale. The ideal maximum cross-section width of a street in “ReciproCity” is 25 meters. The most beautiful condition, in the summer, for seeing each other in the street, is under a canopy of trees. If the rows of trees on either side of a street are 15 meters apart, or less, there is a shady roof canopy. When the distance between the rows exceeds 15 meters the hot sun gets in. We can further define this ideal cross section as 5 meters of sidewalk, 15 meters of road, and another 5 meters of sidewalk.

Block Size

Before the explosion of technology, when they were more pedestrian-oriented, cities had small city blocks, from 0.5 to 1.5 hectares in size. If we looked from the air we would see a finely-grained urban pattern. The parts of cites around the world that people like to visit are these very fine-grained older urban districts. A little larger is the typical Manhattan city-block at about 80 x 270 m, just over two hectares. The blocks in old Beijing are defined by east-west hutongs spaced about 75 meters apart. Even a long block length, say 450 meters, still only created a block size of less than 4.0 hectares. On these relatively small city blocks, there are several owners and residents, and often several builder/developers. The density of diversity is high.

In most cities, as we scan their newer parts, the grain gets coarser and coarser. As the block gets bigger, the area within has a lower and lower amount of contact with its perimeter. For example, a one h ectare, square block has a 400 meter perimeter, and a four hectare block has 800 meters of perimeter. The ratio of the former is 400 meters of street perimeter to one hectare of land, or 400:1. The ratio of the latter is 800 meters to four hectares or 200:1. The small block’s relation to the street is twice that of the larger. If mutual access enhances opportunities for mutual support, there should be an optimum relationship.

Fig. 4 City Form and Access 24

Recently, for security reasons and to obtain more protected green space for residents, there are many new residential developments in Chinese cities that are ten-hectares and up in size. They tend to be "gated c ommunities" with no public through-streets.

These “super blocks” are bound by six-lane roads with fences down the middle to restrict the movement of pedestrians.

Some developments reduce reciprocal access even more by constructing walls around their perimeter and setting up guarded gates. In some cases this can be very beautiful, such as the shadows of long rows of trees swaying and dancing on the walls of the Forbidden City. But, a whole city built this way implies an inner life of fear with a response of defense and control. The walls provide security, but inhibit reciprocity. Walls that keep people out also keep people in. The more you fear the outside the more you live in a prison. Pedestrians have to walk long distances to get around these walled compounds. Perhaps Zhu Ge Liang 25 had a useful strategy; just leave the door open and conquer the enemy with confidence.

There are very few secondary roads, so traffic is concentrated on the perimeter of the blocks, further isolating them from each other. Moving around requires traveling by taxi from one large project to another. In suburban gated-communities the occupied land can be as large as 50 and even 100 hectares in size. These relatively large city blocks may have one owner, are developed by one company and designed by one architect. The density of diversity is low.

Cliff Moughtin, Emeritus Professor of Planning at the University of Nottingham, believes too large a block destroys city life.

"The larger and more homogenous the street block the greater will be its power to destroy the social, economic, and physical networks of the city. The large-scale single-use, single-ownership street block is the instrument most influential in the decline of the city: its effect, together with that of its partner the motorcar, are among the real causes of the death of the great city." 26

Units of Growth

Christopher Alexander, a renowned American researcher into urban form, says healthy, organic growth should be piecemeal, in sizes small, medium, and large in equal numbers, with an upper limit of about 10,000 m2 per piece. In urban China, a ten-hectare site, with a Plot Ratio of 2.0 has 200,000 m2 of buildings, twenty times Alexander's upper limit, and is not considered a very large-scale development. There is a variety in the scale of developments in China but they are all above 10,000m2. What is optimum in the China context?


There are two important measures; one is the number of people per unit of land; and the other is the amount of indoor living-space per person. If we take the cities of Ottawa and Montreal, Canada, as examples of typical North American cities, we find an average of 40 people/hectare based on the gross built-up area of the city, and about 30m2 of living space per person. In a typical Chinese city we find an average of 100 people/hectare and about 20m of living space per person. If all are to be served with water, sewers, electricity, and transportation, then the more compact city is more economical, more energy-saving, and more sustainable.

"The team found research on energy consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to population density. Up to about 120 residents per hectare, roughly equivalent to Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 300 people per hectare, like Singapore, or 750 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings are negligible. Dongtan, the team decided, should try to hit that sweet spot around Stockholm." 27

The current Chinese urban density levels may be nearer to optimum.

Fig. 5 Urban Density

Build Civic Centers

"When words and action are not directed by a moral force, scientific knowledge and technical know-how conduce as readily to misery as they do to prosperity and happiness."" 28

"...the insights and skills that represent (material) scientific accomplishment must look to the force of spiritual commitment and moral principle to ensure their appropriate application." 29

"The empowerment of humankind through a vast increase in access to science and technology requires a strategy for development which is centered around an ongoing and intensifying dialogue between scientific and spiritual knowledge." 30

"Wo bu pa ben, wo pa hui” (I don't fear stupidity, I fear bad behaviour.)" 31

Although a dialogue between scientific and spiritual knowledge can occur anywhere and anytime, its importance in the functioning of any human settlement requires a more visible presence.

In older, western cities the most obvious expression of the spiritual center is the church; and the scientific center is the school or university. Pictures of urban development around the 1880s in North America, for example, often show the church spire as the dominant feature of the city skyline. Another center is “City Hall”. Government administration buildings represent civic authority, often located at prominent public squares. The dialogue between these various centers was not expressed in a conscious way.

Fig. 6 Zhou Dynasty Ideal City Plan (Zhou Li: Kao Gong Ji)

The Forbidden City in Beijing combined both spiritual and government centers. The Emperor was the representative, the Son of Heaven responsible for administration on earth. Beijing is like a big temple surrounded by altars where the emperor prayed for good harvests. In Changan, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, or in old Beijing, many local Buddhist temples were found in every neighborhood functioning as guesthouses, hospitals and orphanages for travelers and refugees. 32 The Chinese examples of centers were more integrated. They never went through the rigorous separation of “Church and State”, of science and religion. These cleavages, however justifiable in Western history, at the time they occurred, leave vast disconnects between action and purpose.

If humanity's maturity requires a more intense dialogue between our inner and outer lives, then we could consider the creation of a place where the spiritual, scientific and administrative knowledge all meet, a new form of Civic Center. In contrast to the CBD, a place for commercial exchange, the Civic Center is a place for knowledge exchange, meditation, and decision-making through consultation.

The Civic Center would combine government offices, social, educational, and cultural institutions (schools, hospitals, theaters, conference centers, etc.) arranged in a circle around a park-like open space. The center of the space is a Place of Stillness, a Place of Beauty, a quiet place for inspiration, contemplation, meditation, and abstract thought. A structure at the center of this space could be round, open on all sides, receiving and giving in all directions. Here gather the citizens, the learned, and the leaders surrounded by institutions of social benefit to engage in the conscious design of the future based on the widest possible breadth of insights. Individuals and institutions all have easy access to each other, access to knowledge and decision-making; a decentralized system starting at the grassroots but with links to the whole globe.

There could be one large central Civic Center for the whole city and other scaled for city districts and neighborhoods. The creation of Civic Centers can accumulate over time as part of an existing city design, or be built in its entirety in a new town.

The center would strengthen community development. Currently, most cities separate spiritual, educational, administrative, and social activity. We go to the church, temple or mosque for spiritual activity; schools for education, government buildings for administrative activities; and to each others homes, or parks, clubs, restaurants and theaters for social-recreational activity. These could be augmented by a regular integrated activity at the Civic Center. One part of the event would be spiritual to awaken and stimulate our inner being. This could be followed by a part for discussion of local affairs with government representatives present. Finally, the event closes with a socializing-networking activity so we can enjoy old friends, make new ones, and have a finer-grained knowledge of the needs and resources in the community around us. This would help:

  • Develop the institutional framework for community development.
  • Give a venue to exercise the principles of consultation, participation, and the equality of men and women
  • Provide a way to appreciate more deeply the cultural diversity within the community.
  • Illustrate the importance to social well-being of the community and the family.
  • Increase awareness of opportunities for service.
  • Provide a forum and an institutional framework to achieve the transition to sustainability.

* * *

The theme of the maturation of humanity and its implications for the building up of cities can be the source of volumes of research and effort. It is hoped this brief paper will find its way to others pursuing similar lines of thought.

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  11. The Chinese word for city is 'cheng shi' which literally means 'walled market'. "The pattern of 'shi' (market) first evolved in the Metal Script arising from the character 'ping' meaning 'equal' or 'fair'. Its early meaning was, of course, a place where people assemble to carry out fair barter transactions.
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