Taiwan is one of the original Asian tiger economies. Having suffered in the Second World War, manufacturing prospered in the 1960s and 1970s, and Taiwan is now successfully transitioning into a modern high tech- and finance-based economy. New Taipei City is an exemplar of its success: prosperous, entrepreneurial, densely populated, safe and well provided for in terms of public facilities, including shops and parks.
Although New Taipei City has some characteristics of a suburb—it consists of the 30 municipalities around Taipei city—it has grown and prospered into an ‘edge city’ of 3.6 million people. The most densely populated area of New Taipei City and the centre of its administration is Banqiao (pronounced Banchow). With more than 40,000 people per square kilometer, it is one of the 25 most densely populated places on Earth.
For all its easy-going modernity, as you move around Banqiao, past the modern high-rise developments and into the older suburbs, you’ll come to shabbier areas, with older, medium-density residential buildings covered in faded or grubby render, neon signs, balconies enclosed by metal grills and electrical wires.
At street level, shops of every conceivable type sprawl on to the “sidewalk.” The air is occasionally pungent, and one has to be careful not to trip over the crazily pot-holed paving and low concrete obstacles that have resulted from decades of jerry-building.
The neighborhood is not very pretty by the gleaming glass and steel standards of modern Asia. In fact, at first sight, it is not what you would typically consider a great place. You could be forgiven for thinking it is a marginal area dangerously close to full-scale decline. But if you spend a little time there, you’ll discover how wrong you are. It’s a place of vibrancy: a self-policing area of safe and secure urban living that seems to contain something from an “older Asia” with its roots in the countryside and mid-rise urban living (at six or seven stories, max). Scruffy for sure, it is as far as is possible from being a marginal area. Banqiao is a compact, efficient engine for meeting human need.
You could be forgiven for thinking it is a marginal area dangerously close to full-scale decline.
For a start, there is an abundance of street food, inexpensive and delicious, that the locals eat regularly for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The apartments are tiny and often occupied by families of four or five, so cooking and laundry are difficult. Residents externalize their needs, and a huge family market supports the neighborhood’s small shops, eating places, market stalls and convenience stores, which are crammed into nearly every available street-level nook and cranny. Fruit and freshly slaughtered meat is available from open-air stalls, and you can purchase living fish from rows of tanks. After sundown, the night markets open up, offering an entirely different variety of food and other essentials like clothes.
The green leaves that project from almost every balcony provide unexpected rest for the eye, and speak of the care people have for their properties despite their age and battered appearance. The endless washing hung from the balcony also signifies pride and inherent self-respect, as do the ever-fashionable inhabitants.
People think cities are based on the cost advantages that businesses gain from clustering together. But there are also social agglomeration economies as well—the cost and convenience benefits people and families get from living in close proximity. By living together, at relatively high densities, the market is able to provide a broad range of essential goods and services at affordable prices.
Banqiao has the kind of dynamic and informal economy one might have observed walking through Victorian London: outdoor markets, single-proprietor shops operating from adapted front rooms, workshops, repair yards, builders merchants, coal yards and the general clutter and clatter of high density living. Dickens, perhaps the most famous observer of 19th century urban life, was famous for his love of London because it offered everything a sensible middle- or lower-class person in England could ever want or imagine wanting. And, as Dickens’s novels show, it also facilitated a close-knit, diverse and supportive human community. One of my Taiwanese friends regularly blogs about “lively alleys,” and Banqiao has these in abundance.
In Banqiao, all the older buildings have shops, workshops and temples and other religious outlets at street level. These range from rickety to sturdy, but the net effect is a pervasive sense that friendly, albeit commercial, human interaction is never far away. Even the lone female feels safe in Banqiao at almost any hour of the day or night, because something is always open. The streets are lively and inclusive. Moreover, you can always get what you need—laundry, bespoke clothing repair, food—quickly, cheaply and in a small enough quantity for those who don’t have too much money.
I suspect that the tightly woven social and economic life of Banqiao and places like it are like natural ecosystems.
I suspect that the tightly woven social and economic life of Banqiao and places like it are like natural ecosystems. They can be designed, but they also have to have a life of their own which evolves over decades. They also exert a humanizing effect on the sterile modern developments. Like natural ecosystems, however, I suspect they are quite susceptible to disruption. In Asia especially, the challenge is to manage explosive economic growth with all of its development pressures without sacrificing the efficiency and vibrancy of street-level communities and economies.
The big, gleaming residential towers going up at the borders of Banqiao threaten to bring with them an occlusion of communal activity as the price for providing upgraded building stock. The challenge for planners and developers is to keep visible and preserve the human networks of neighborhoods like Banqiao while building their residents sturdier, more spacious and more attractive places to live and work. This is not easy to do. Many Western cities were blighted for 50 years or more by ill-conceived “modernist” high-rise development.
The architect Jan Gehl, a world authority on placemaking says: “Cities must urge urban planners and architects to reinforce pedestrianism as an integrated city policy to develop lively, safe, sustainable and healthy cities. It is equally urgent to strengthen the social function of city space as a meeting place that contributes toward the aims of social sustainability.” All the better if existing communities based around street life are preserved.
In any case, Banqiao does not always look great, but it is a great place to be and an easy and supportive place to live, particularly if you have a modest income. I hope the new high-rise developments are not about to destroy this vital urban ecosystem, but I fear that they are.