Changing Chinese Cities

Aerial of Puxi, the historic center of Shanghai, China.

Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design


Renee Chow, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, Andrew Ballard (M.Arch 2008), Kristi Dykema Cheramie (M.Arch 2006), Daniel Gasser (M.Arch 2011), Ben Golze (M.Arch 2013), Luis Jaggy (M.Arch 2013), Chelsea Johnson (M.Arch 2012), Chris Lesnett (BA 2012), Kate Lydon (M.Arch 2007), Adriana Navarro-Sertich (M.Arch/MCP 2011), Asa Prentice (M.Arch 2009),Gina Siciliano (M.Arch 2010),Melissa Smith (M.Arch/MCP 2011), Antje Steinmuller (M.Arch 2002) and Brian Washburn (M.Arch 2008).


Funding: Tianjin Urban Planning and Design Institute and the Department of Architecture, Eva Li Chair in Design Ethics.

Project Description

Renee Chow's new book, "Changing Chinese Cities: the Potentials of Field Urbanism", explores the continuous spatial relationships among buildings, streets, and open spaces — and how these shared conditions form the daily life and experiences of people in cities. While computation and big data are emerging as tools to model urban complexity, Chow contends they are based on a “too simple, bifurcated view of cities – inside or outside, built or unbuilt, public or private.”  China’s extreme, object-oriented urbanism, where disconnected iconic structures dominate the skyline, offers an ideal base to test potential solutions to the densification, diversification, and sustainability challenges facing major cities around the world. Chow states the effects of development and design strategies from the mid- to late-twentieth century are seen everywhere, but are being magnified by the ambitious transformation of Chinese cities in recent years.

Using three rapidly developing urban areas — Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin — to illustrate her approach, Chow offers case studies, essays, and design explorations to demonstrate how field urbanism can identify the inherent urban and architectural systems that differentiate cities and apply these across sites and individual buildings to maintain a region’s distinct recognizable character.

Chow, a founding principal of the Berkeley-based architecture firm Studio URBIS and associate dean for undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, conducted her first fieldwork in the canal villages outside Shanghai in 1980. After the Tiananmen protests, she turned her eye to U.S. suburbs.

Over the last decade, Chow has refocused on Chinese urbanism, researching and designing projects. Changing Chinese Cities is the culmination of her ongoing interest in China and theories on field urbanism, first explored in her earlier book, Suburban Space: The Fabric of Dwelling.

“While the book contains important insights for designers working anywhere in the world, it is also particularly relevant for designers working in China who must navigate the cultural differences and the underlying factors that incentivize speed, scale, and urban fragmentation,” says Chow.

“Renee Chow masterfully dissects the urbanistic challenges facing Chinese cities that struggle to modernize in ways that are both culturally recognizable and environmentally responsive,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Lawrence J. Vale. “In doing so, she provides important new directions for urban design and urban designers to inspire action.”