I’m active on the Q&A social media site Quora, where I often take on questions on urban planning and economics, transportation, technology and China. From time to time I will share answers here.
Answer by Don Johnson:
To the extent all cities around the world throughout history are similar, Chinese and American cities are similar. But in pretty much every other possible way, they are different. I’ll hit only the big differences.
China has a highly centralized governmental organization chart that cities fit into. Most cities are governed by provinces, and in turn administer districts and rural county centers. (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing are independent of provinces and are administered directly by the central government.) Chinese cities are geographically huge and most include large hinterlands around their urban areas, which gives them a level of administrative control most American cities only dream of. On the other hand, Chinese cities are subservient to provinces and must follow their policies.
Within the areas they have power over, American cities are independent – counties and states can’t tell them what to do. (This often surprises Chinese people, who take it for granted that higher jurisdictions rule lower ones, like the army.) It’s actually quite common for cities to have policies in direct conflict with those of the state they’re in. American cities tend to be geographically small, and it’s extremely common to have many cities making up a single metropolitan area – sometimes hundreds of cities (e.g. Los Angeles.) At the metropolitan level there is often only a very weak association of cities to try and coordinate regional policy. So American cities are often bad at addressing regional problems like housing, schools, environment, transportation, economic development…
Urban Design and Development
Chinese cities are dense and tall. Here’s Shenzhen:
American cities are ridiculously low density – from the air many of them look like a few blocks of skyscrapers surrounded by forest. I give you Minneapolis:
From a historical point of view, a lot of Chinese cities are very old (although a surprising number are not) but from a construction point of view they are very young. It’s ironic that in China, which tends to go on about its 5,000 years of history, it can be difficult to find a building that’s more than 30 years old, outside a few preserved areas in major cities. Buildings from the 1980s or early 1990s are considered old and crappy – and they often look it. By contrast, it’s quite common for American cities to have large areas dominated by buildings from the late nineteenth and early 20th century, and cities on the east coast have (a few) neighborhoods of buildings that are over 200 years old.
The density gives Chinese cities an urbanity and bustle that only the largest American cities (really, only New York) can rival. Chinese visitors to America invariably mention that American cities seem empty – where are all the people? (Hint: They’re in cars, driving around.) Americans conversely are often put off by the physical crush of people on the streets. Even on quiet side streets, you will always see people going about their daily business.
Downtown Philadelphia: Where is everybody?
It should surprise nobody that America is the land of the car. With the big exception of New York, travel in American cities is heavily dominated by people driving, even in cities that have decent bus and subway systems, bike lanes, and other alternatives. (See Transportation: Which North American cities are the least dependent upon car ownership?) An American city that can get 20% of people traveling to work in anything other than their own car, alone, is considered a model. Urban development is heavily shaped by the need to provide parking for all those people driving.
Downtown Lousiville, KY: More parking than city
Transportation in China can vary a lot between cities, but nowhere is driving the most common mode (although it often feels like it in Beijing.) Chinese cities, even small ones, have excellent bus systems, and many Chinese cities are now building metros. Depending on the city, lots of people bike or take scooters, and electric scooters are a common choice that’s almost completely absent in American cities.
Even within this enormous difference there are differences; American cities’ bike share is low but (in places) growing rapidly, while in Chinese cities it’s generally high – but falling rapidly.
Maybe, with Chinese cities modernizing and American cities urbanizing, these differences will be slightly less prominent in future years. There are surely more cars in Chinese cities now, and more people on downtown streets in the US. But I don’t think you’ll have trouble telling them apart for some time.