The Wenlin Yuan urban renewal project gives us a clear insight into Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) vision for the city. The project will turn the site of 38 old houses in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) into a high-rise apartment complex, but it sparked a public outcry when the city last month razed the properties of a family that had refused to consent to the project.
Many of Taipei’s ongoing urban renewal projects have been subsidized by the city government as part of its Taipei Beautiful program, which is aimed at improving the city’s landscape and aesthetics. Hau says that Taipei, although known and liked for the friendliness of its residents and its tasty food, is an ugly city with only sporadic urban planning and poorly designed buildings. According to Hau, by demolishing more than 600 old or abandoned government-owned buildings and encouraging additional private urban renewal projects, the program will transform Taipei into a beautiful city.
Scrapping old buildings and replacing them with flashy, modern structures is apparently the mayor’s solution to making the city more attractive, but his approach raises concern that the push to “renew” the city will push aside the distinguishing features and unique charms that make Taipei special, especially given his administration’s mixed track record on some projects that have already been carried out.
Last year, the city government moved the Shilin Night Market from a temporary site to an underground space below a new structure, turning it into a sanitized space despite criticism that the food-court-like atmosphere would detract from the market’s charm. After transforming the Shilin Night Market into what it said was a modernized night market with a “clean and comfortable dining environment,” the Hau administration this year turned its attention to another popular tourist attraction: The Shida Night Market, located in the maze of small alleys behind National Taiwan Normal University. In response to local residents’ complaints about noise, garbage and air pollution from the market, the city government launched a crackdown on illegal businesses operating there, forcing many eateries and small shops out of the area.
The crackdown on the Shida market, the “sanitized” Shilin market and all the other urban redevelopment projects reflect Hau’s vision of shaping Taipei into a clean, organized city. There is nothing wrong with making Taipei clean, well-organized and modern, but the true beauty and uniqueness of a city often lies in the cracks, not in the shiny, new surfaces.
The city government’s urban renewal and planning projects have so far failed to reflect the city’s history or preserve its unique features. Taipei, like many other cities in Taiwan, is full of mixed residential and commercial areas, and has a so-called “alley culture,” with all kinds of eateries and shops hidden in nooks and crannies. The decrepit buildings and food carts make Taipei chaotic and messy, but the old buildings are riddled with traces of history and culture, and the hustle and bustle of the markets crammed into the small alleys lends to the unique charm and grit of the city.
As many cities around the world work to preserve their historic and cultural assets, Taipei is working to destroy its old buildings and knock down private houses to erect sanitized high-rise monoliths. If Hau and his administration continue to play this zero-sum game with their urban renewal policies and pursue the modernization of the city through demolitions rather than preservation, Taipei will gradually lose its uniqueness and become a sterile place without any distinguishing charm.