The impossible city

Edward Burtynsky is based in Toronto. He photographs global industrial landscapes exploring the links between industry and nature. His work is in major museum collections around the world. His latest book China is published by Steidl.

The new urban China

Urban Renewal #6, Medium-Density Suburb, Zeguo, Zhejiang Province. 2004.

Edward Burtynsky's images of Chinese inner cities reflect a predominant theme in his work; that of nature transformed through industry. From his perspective we are drawn by desire - a chance at good living - yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction.

Under Mao Zedong's government, from 1949 for nearly three decades, population growth was encouraged as it was considered an asset to long-term development. The population of China in 1950 was 550 million. Today it stands at 1.3 billion. In 1952, urban dwellers numbered 72 million. By 2003 that number rose to almost 524 million. If economic development and the resulting annexation of outlying rural areas continue at current rates, China's urban populace will double over the next 40 years, to over one billion city dwellers. This is the equivalent of the combined population of today's North and South American continents as well as the entire European Union.

During the 1960s and 1970s, China imposed very strict limits on migration as a way to maintain reasonable living standards in the cities. Today, however, China is experiencing the largest country-to-city migration in history. Millions are leaving their farms for urban centres. Huge cities like Beijing and Shanghai attract peasants from the countryside who search for opportunities to participate in the new economy. Accommodation for these new city-folk will require a feat of urban planning and governance on a scale the world has never seen.

It is estimated that from 80 to 120 million migrant labourers are working, or looking for work in China's booming cities. Most find jobs in the construction industry and the rapidly expanding service sector. Because they work outside China's strict urban work-permit system, these migrant workers are dubbed "The Floating Population" and are, in some regards, illegally working in their own country. Beijing and Shanghai each have floating populations of between 2 and 4 million people. Once a generally ignored problem, these cities are now attempting to assist many of the newcomers as they provide labour for a rapidly growing service industry.

The government owns all land in China, but people have the right to use or occupy the land. Shanghai City's plan to modernize has developers from around the world eager to jump into the game. Many of central Shanghai's old houses sit on the most desirable parcels of land. Often citizens will be notified of their residential termination by the sudden appearance of the (now ubiquitous) Chinese character, Chai - "demolish" - painted on the outside of their building.

Scattered all over Shanghai today one can see lone houses or parts of larger buildings surrounded by rubble where a neighbourhood once stood. It's here where maverick residents decide to make
a last stand to preserve their lifestyle and dignity. Developers are now frequently accused of using heavy-handed tactics to edge the older residents out. This forcible eviction of millions from their own city has become a fast-growing source of protest.



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