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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: We need a new paradigm for Western development

Newer homes on Spokane’s north side appear to be laid out like Monopoly houses on a street grid when seen from the air on Aug. 20, 2009. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Newer homes on Spokane’s north side appear to be laid out like Monopoly houses on a street grid when seen from the air on Aug. 20, 2009. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

What do a psychiatrist turned med school leader, rural American architecture professors, and a Chinese scholar from the walled megacity of Xi’an have in common with a Spokane urban infill debate? They were all guests of Washington State University and the University of Idaho this week for an interdisciplinary symposium headlined “Revitalizing Rural Environments.”

And it turns out historic development patterns in the rural west and rapidly urbanizing China offer insight into the conflict over Greenstone Homes’ proposed Garden District at 29th and Southeast Boulevard. It’s all about understanding the paradigms.

The symposium was spearheaded by the WSU School of Design and Construction working with the University of Idaho Department of Art and Architecture. Dr. John Tomkowiak, Dean at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd School of Medicine, also a symposium sponsor, kicked off the event with a conversation on what it means to be a vital community, rural or urban, and the paradigm shifts coming in health care.

Professor Wendy McClure, former chair of the UI architecture program, presented her research on Western urban planning in the brief window of opportunity for planting new towns at the end of the 19th century. Towns were surveyed at 10-mile intervals as the track moved west, all aspiring to be the next Chicago. Successful towns spilled past their original plats and sprawled into the frontier. Utilities came later.

The ideal railroad town plat laid out a simple grid of small blocks on one side of the tracks, leaving room for growth in three directions. City blocks were partitioned into narrow 25-foot lots to provide “an affordable commodity like a dollar bill,” according to McClure, allowing a town to be quickly developed by aspiring individual entrepreneurs. Larger parcels might be formed by several owners working together, but development didn’t rely on big developers or a master plan. Spokane’s original layout followed this block and lot pattern as it expanded. The small grid and an historic sense of unlimited land both reflect and has shaped expectations about development in Western communities.

The pattern in China is the superblock. Jeffrey Johnson from the University of Kentucky is the co-founder of the China Mega Cities Lab. China has 142 cities with a population of more than 1 million people and is urbanizing at an incredible rate. The United States has only nine cities over 1 million, depending on how suburbs are treated in the urban calculation. Ten Chinese cities already exceed 10 million. “Since 2001 the growth of urbanization has been equivalent to building a new Chicago each month for the past 12 years,” said Johnson.

Urban China has an ancient pattern of large grids within walled cities. Large blocks consisted of many small-scale buildings organized around courtyards, fronting on gated alleys. It was a pattern of relatively low-density walled villages within a walled city. Now these superblocks are being sold by the government to developers to create high-rise, high-density cities within cities. Each superblock houses 10,000 to 30,000 people and is nearly complete within itself with services, schools, health care and markets. The developer rather than the government pays for the infrastructure.

The focus of Dr. Liu Jiaping’s award-winning research at Xi’an University has been in revitalizing rural communities through sustainable design, but he also lives in a superblock in the historic walled city of Xi’an (population 5.74 million in 2016). China’s growth has been pressed into existing cities not because of a physical lack of land, but history. Dr. Liu Jiaping spent the first 30 years of his life worrying every day about food. China’s development patterns continue to be driven by ancient memories of famine, creating a hard edge between city and countryside. The superblock both reflects and has shaped development expectations in China.

Conflict over the Garden District is rooted in old paradigms. There’d be no outcry if lots were developed one by one, but we no longer wait to install utilities last. Private development is the only way to efficiently install infrastructure first. We don’t have collective memories of famine reminding us why urban infill development is preferable to converting fertile farmland. The conclusion of the symposium – we need a new paradigm for Western development, rural and urban.

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