Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chatting with Somebody: Professor Thomas Liou

With this post I'm initiating what I hope will become a regular feature on the blog every couple of weeks: Chatting with Somebody -- chats and interviews with local people who are involved in interesting things. This first one is with Professor Thomas Liou, Chairman of the Urban Planning Department at Fengchia University (pic, left). Hope you enjoy....


TURTON....I have my casino development project, it's an urban planning project, and I run it past the Economic Development Commission first.

LIOU: Yes, you see it is just like the States. Within the government structures, each department actually is fighting against each other, because they have conflicting goals. If you have a project that is going to help the economy, like you might claim, you might want to go to the Economic Development Department first, to be recognized by them, so they will help you to fight against other bureaucracies to the permission you need. That's their job, right? And it's the same here. Within the city, if you want to build a go to the Economic Development Department and say "I have lots of capital, and I want to build a casino with all the attachments -- convention centers and whatever...once they recognize you as a big investor who is going to help Taichung's economy, it is their job to help you. They will even help you get through the environmental impact review process.

TURTON: But the environmental impact review process has never stopped a project in Taiwan, has it?

LIOU: No. Always, all the projects are approved, with conditions.

TURTON: But there is no oversight over whether the conditions are fulfilled....

LIOU: Exactly. I mean, I think this is a worldwide phenomenon.... And we are getting there, where we have civic actions, meaning that we have civic groups that are capable of monitoring the side effects of pollution. For example, here in Taichung, the Taichung thermal generation plant, when they built it -- ten or eleven years ago -- because of the resistance organized by civic groups, they have a so-called parallel monitoring system, meaning that the powerplant will issue their internal assessment report every year, and also, they will provide funding, $5-6 million each year, to outside groups, to have a parallel assessment. Those outside groups will hire professors from local universities in rotation -- Donghai University, Chunghsing University, Fengchia University -- they all have departments of environmental science. They will help the citizen groups to do assessment, and then every year they will have a big meeting where the internal assessment report will be compared to the outside assessment report to see whether there is any glitch in terms of impact on the environment. That's a very good system, functioning for more than ten years. But the key is: they provide the funding. That's a big corporation, Taiwan power company, they provide -- not a lot -- but at least sufficient, $5-6 million annually, so they can support the projects.

TURTON: What about a development like the one down in Mailiao. Is that one providing funding for a similar system?

LIOU: (shakes head). I just wrote an editorial last night on the Taoyuan Free Trade Zone. You see, in the past, Taiwan, when people heard about Keelung Harbor, Taichung Harbor, Kaohsiung Harbor, those areas were seen by most Taiwanese as "rentier" -- an area that was forbidden. And also, the science park, used to be like a special district, with no contact with the outside world. However in recent years, at least after 2000, we have seen the harbor authority, the science park authority, opening up.

TURTON: In the last how long? Ten years?

LIOU: the last seven-eight years, only after the DPP was in power. You see, they forced them to open up. For example, here in Taichung Harbor, I was put on the management board -- for like, three months only -- to actually hear the report from the port authority. They had to report their revenue to us. They were very nervous, reporting their revenue! (laughter). We did see the opening up of the so-called "rentiers". But now we'll see the building up of brand new rentiers. People argue that, for efficiency's sake, for whatever reasons, for competitiveness, we have to have a streamlined process, so all the capital will come in. Well, I agree with that. We do need some streamlining process in order to accomplish better economic performance. But, the way they phrase the legislation, I see it more for land speculation than for economic performance.

TURTON: It seems a lot of development decisions are....driven by land speculation.

LIOU: (nods) It is not for industry per se, say for streamlining all the bureaucracy and regulations, so that the productivity of specific industry will increase. I don't see that -- only part of it. Mostly it is to take undeveloped area and make it developable.

TURTON: the new free trade zone takes in a lot of undeveloped area...

LIOU:'s a combination of urban planning zone and free trade zone. So it is more powerful. Not just free trade, but urban planning district. Land for further development.

TURTON: So they expect to put in a residential area in the zone?

LIOU: Convention, residential, commercial, that's why people say, if this special legislation passes, you're going to see a casino! Under the special legislation, it's doable. It's doable! They have the authority.

TURTON: Then everyone's going to want a free trade zone in their county, the Nantou free trade zone, the Hualian free trade zone....

LIOU: (chuckles) That's the ending of my editorial. If you really want to pass the special legislation for the airport district, ok, give every county one.

TURTON: How is the administration of that district going to be carried out?

LIOU: By a public entity.

TURTON: An elected entity?

LIOU: No. It's going to be an appointed entity, like a board. It's like, something more powerful than the state corporations like Taipower. It's going to be more powerful.

TURTON: A national-level geographic entity with an appointed board and an appointed supervisor....

LIOU:..and with some authority that allows them to be immune from 16 existing legislations. They are immune from the national property act, the urban planning act, even medical doctors...they can have their hired doctors from outside practicing medicine, legally.

TURTON: How are they fitting this into the existing framework of city/county/town/township?

LIOU: It is under the direct control of the Executive Yuan. It's a special zone.

TURTON: So it is like a cabinet-level zone.

LIOU: Exactly. You could say that. Roughly 6500 hectares. It's a bit larger than Beitun, about twice the size of Hsitun.[two areas in Taichung]. They are asking for 1200 hectares of land from the National Property Bureau -- they manage all the public lands -- they are asking for free use, the right to use the land to generate revenues without cost. 1200 hectares.

TURTON: Where are the revenues going to go?

LIOU: To the entity they are going to create. It's a no-cost operation. They want to set up a corporation with a huge base of land donated by the national government, and it will be semi-controlled by the national government, with the board members appointed by people from the same party. And they are going to lease all the land for all kind of development and receive revenues. The corporation manages the land, but ownership remains with the government. They have to hand in a certain percentage of the revenue to the central government. Working for the public good. It's still not clear, but they will probably pass it today. It's a joint committee, of transportation and interiors. Once they pass the joint committee, the draft proposal will be sent to the assembly for the second, third reading. They are going to pass it before May 20.

TURTON: Ooohhh. A gift to the incoming president.

TURTON: What kinds of laws will need changing for the massive foreign investment in land we're supposed to be getting?

LIOU: It's a given that you have to hand out incentives in order to attract's hard to disprove the idea that without incentives, no one will come. Business ask "give me the incentive, give me the special privilege." But...who are they? Are they the same kind of groups in the past? In the past we gave out incentives, and they did come, and they made a profit. When you tighten regulations, they decide they will move. That's how the system worked in the past. I think this society has come the point where we have to question the logic of that. Is that the only solution? Giving out more incentives? Do we have a choice about what kind of capital we prefer? Or we don't have a choice -- we're so dependent on capitalists. That's what puzzles me....for me it is more important to focus on: do we have a choice? Who is more qualified, more suitable, to receive the kind of incentives we are handing out now. I just don't buy the argument that we have to relax all the regulations for all kind of capitalists.

TURTON: Last time I was here you told me there were three urban planning departments in Taiwan....?

LIOU: That's a long story. You have to go back into the postwar history of Taiwan, when Taiwan was still a member of the United Nations. We got support from the United States first, but then after 1965, the Taiwan government tried to get funding from the UN for development projects. So we got consultants from the States. Actually, they were stationed in Thailand, but they were sent to Taipei to advise our government on the importance of urban planning. You see, you needed urban planning at the time to get land from the private sector to build public projects. So at least you have to pretend that you are going to build something so you have to come up with some kind of zoning map, so the government can tell the private sector "we have to acquire your land." So we got help from the UN, essentially a guy from Columbia [Donald Monson], and they advised the government: you need a planning school, you need to have some kind of educational institution to train some planners. In 1968 they set up a grad school in Taipei, at National Chunghsing University. That was the first planning school, at the graduate level. Then National Taiwan University got interested in the idea -- they wanted to set up a department of urban planning. So they submitted an application to the United Nations for funding support. At that time we were still a member. But something lousy happened in 1971! [Taiwan’s UN membership was handed over to China] So the funding was taken away. But, on the other hand, National Chengkung University submitted an application to the government for the same purpose, to set up a department of urban planning under Wang Chi-cheng -- he was also the professor of architectural program there. He got his first masters from Rice in architecture and got his second masters in urban planning from U of BC. He was charged with setting up the new department urban planning at Chengkung. So you had a grad school in Taipei, one brand new department in Tainan. A year later the Board of Fengchia asked Professor Wang to come to Fengchia to set up a program. Fengchia was interested in getting the third one here in central Taiwan. In 1973 he came up. So that's why we call the planning program at Chengkung "our brother." So by 1973 we have a system, a planning education system whereby we can produce 100 planners per year.

TURTON: In total?

LIOU: National Chunghsing takes 20-30 grad students annually, and Fengchia and Chengkung annually produce 40-50 undergrads.

TURTON: They all go into the government?

LIOU: Before 1981, yes. In 1981 something happened. Before 1981 all the planning documents were produced by the government. They are the only authority allowed and charged with the mission producing urban planning documents. But somebody challenged that: why can't the private sector prepare the plans, and let the government review them? Why should the government be both the referee and the player.. So in 1981 the private sector was given the partial right to assist local government to take part in the system of local urban planning. So job opportunities opened up in the private sector. Before that it was either into the government or career change.

TURTON: So what kind of organizations are involved in urban planning?

LIOU: There is the Republic of China Urban Planning Institute that was established around 1968 that was initiated by members of the Legislative Yuan. So they do have a professional institute. Originally it was a small, one-man, two-man show. But nowadays it is a fair size, a couple of hundred members.

TURTON: They do standards development, stuff like that?

LIOU: They don't do that. They participate in hearings, research, membership and policy advisory.

TURTON: Think tank?

LIOU: Think tank? They don't have any permanent staff. If you want to call yourself a think tank, you must at least have some permanent staff! (laughter)

TURTON: Do they produce White Papers?

LIOU: They don't do that. They should, but they will not. The American Planning Association does do that. One thing they do which I admire the most -- they will provide lists of expert witnesses to speak on issues inside the court. They will ask members to speak as expert witnesses, sometimes free of charge. They will make a stand on specific issues, and they are very strong on that.

TURTON: In land cases they don't call on expert witnesses here?

LIOU: Sometimes they do, but very few. We don't have any professional court that specializes in land use conflict yet. You keep using 'land' but whenever you talk about land here in Taiwan, it's a different issue. Because the land office in Taiwan is very powerful. We do have a department of land management at National Chengchi University. They are the godfather of L-A-N-D. They existed from 1945. They have close ties, at first, with the sponsorship of the Land Bank. Those faculty are in the department of land management at National Chengchi University are the figures who -- in land use, land taxation, eminent domain...

TURTON: So any plan that you come up with has to go by them?

LIOU: Within the urban planning districts. We have 435 urban planning districts in Taiwan which account for 13% of the total land area of Taiwan. So 87% is non-urban land. Inside the 13%, it is mostly the jurisdiction of urban planning officers and authorities.

TURTON: Who are under local government?

LIOU: All of them are under local government, but local government cannot make the final decisions. Central government does. Within the ministry of the interior, they have the planning commission who makes the final decisions. You see, the local government is responsible for preparation and modification of the plans. They do have a planning commission, but they are not the entities that make the final decision. The national government, that's the final call. So it is very centralized.

TURTON: Tomorrow, I am elected mayor of Taichung. I look at the rivers that run through my city and I want to put in a whole plan -- boardwalks, cafes...

LIOU: then you don't have to go through the central government. That would be a minor modification, just decoration. Local government can decide to do that and the mayor can make the final call, but he is running the risk....that kind of work does not need permits -- but actually they do. Any alteration of the landform or landscape needs a permit. But in the last ten years, the beautification projects, pedestrian projects. Actually, those projects all need permits. But because they were all done by the local governments, they didn't ask themselves for the permits. The permitting process was never engaged. They should have engaged the Permit Office to give them the permits. You see, they added to and altered the landform....

TURTON: So what kind of changes can we expect in Taichung then? Are we going to get massive investment and development here?

LIOU: I never expect that. Projects and fantasies. I think we are seeing changes at the grass roots level. We are seeing more and more communities willing to stand up for their identities, to fight for their rights. So we are going to get better. But if you focus on big projects, big casinos, big investment, well, I just don't see that. For example, we've been talking about the mass transit system for ten years, and we are still talking.

TURTON: Why are we still talking? We could have completed it by now.

LIOU: Yeah! You see, for those who speculate on the transit station areas....the longer you speculate: they are going to break the ground! (hand makes rising gesture). They have passed the environmental impact report! (hand rises higher). The line is going to be built! (hand rises still higher). They have approved the budget! The line is going to be opened by 2012 (hand rises higher). Pieces and pieces of news, they just keep adding up.... But when the race was over, when Ma was elected, Jason Hu [Mayor of Taichung] told Ma that Taichung didn't want an elevated system, it wanted an underground. So they are going to take at least two more years to study the issue. (laughter). Two more years. And they are going to get more money in order to build those two lines. We just keep waiting. You see, originally they had an MOU with the high speed rail, they had to build a transit system.

TURTON: You mean for every city on the line?

LIOU: No. When the central government signed the BOT, one of the conditions of the agreement was that they would build a green line from the train station to the HSR station. That was only true of Taichung....

TURTON: ....What can we look forward to with the new administration?

LIOU: Taichung County government offices are encouraging consolidation of the city and the county. But that's not the view of the city, which wants only the city for special status like Taipei and Kaohsiung. The county government wants to become a special status area, which means you get more money. Right now, there is roughly $300 billion allocated by the central government to local governments. Out of that, the city of Taipei and Kaohsiung get 43% of the allocation. The other -- 39% went to the other city and county governments. Taipei County became a quasi-special status county, and is now fighting for more money. The city, especially the city of Taipei, how can they give up the privilege? The combo of Taichung City and County has nearly 2.6 million people, while Taipei City, with 2.6 million, has an annual budget of $150 to $160 billion each year....while Taichung City and County get only $600 to $700 million, about half.

TURTON: What about the future? Where is Taiwan going?

LIOU: For me, I'll keep working on public exhibit of planning information. Disclosure of whatever we are working on. Wherever I go, I ask -- did you open this information up for public examination? It's my belief that the reason planning failed in the past is because it was so locked away from public review. This made the public suspicious of urban planning. The only way to is unlock those urban planning decisions, is to have more disclosure of information and urban planning decisions, so the public can examine any contents, or any draft, or urban planning decisions. Students can use them in their research. I think essentially, that is one thing I would like to do.

TURTON: How green is urban planning in Taiwan?

LIOU: It's still very traditional. This semester we have Professor Michael Bristow, a visiting professor. He's preaching about climate change: what do we have here in Taiwan?

TURTON: ....I was going to ask that next....

LIOU:....we haven't addressed that yet. We have some planning thoughts. That's not enough -- we need action. We have some kind of semi-White Paper. I think action is what is needed now. We haven't had a chance to implement the strategies yet. For example, we're proposing protection of environmentally sensitive land from development. We proposed a land banking system that will cut it off from any speculation or development. Form a consortium of government and private groups. We have the thought -- but we don't have the action yet. In fact we proposed that to some of the losers in the election -- don't just focus on the election, but do something for the public interest. But most of them appear to view politics as their career. They don't do that.

TURTON: So there's no connection between the progressive movements and the party...

LIOU: ....once they get in office, there's no progressiveness.(Laughter). It's very frustrating. Very frustrating.

Notes: The interview was done in English and recorded. I stupidly forgot to take a picture of him, profuse apologies! UPDATE: Money error correct -- thanks to the commenter who spotted that. Also added spaces per next recommendation. Pic of Dr. L on the way.


Anonymous said...

Michael, very good interview and informative. Keep it going.

Jason said...

Thank you sir, may we have another?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting insight. Thanks for putting this together and sharing with us.

The part about the Taoyaun Airport project is what I am afraid of with KMT rule. Because they have full control of the LY and EY, they will just force whatever decision they want on the people. The people of Taiwan gave up this oversight.

I am also extremely weary of any casino projects. I think these are the dredges of society. Not only will they ruin families, but they will be used as money laundering sieves by the KMT.

Todd said...

Interesting interview Michael, I look forward to more.

Anonymous said...

Michael, that was massively informative and pleasurable to read, to boot. Nice work. I hope you do more of these in the future.

Robert Kelly

STOP Ma said...

Wow! I had no idea there was a thing called "urban planning" in Taiwan (no disrespect to your guest). Seriously though. This is one area in Taiwan that needs to be improved upon immensely. And I'm not talking about the really big projects like the HSR (which also has it's questionable design aspects). Like a lot of things in Taiwan, there is no long-term vision with respect to shaping the cities to be better than what they already are (which is not exactly a lofty goal).

It is also interesting to note that your guest uses terms like "beautification projects" and "minor projects" with respect to creating boardwalks and spaces for comfort and pleasure. They seem to be looked at as merely cosmetic afterthoughts -- and not serious long-term projects for the betterment of society. A perfect example comes to mind in Keelung, where they erected this horrendous bathroom-stall monstrosity called a "parking garage" right in front of prime waterfront space. It is an eyesore for generations to come. But have no fear! Spending tax dollars on these tomb-like box light seats that change colour every 10 seconds will certainly distract from the ugliness down the road. These very important "beautification" projects should not be ad-hoc afterthoughts. These projects should be integrated within the urban design as a whole -- with careful attention to culture and history.

And what about the basic fundamentals, like adhering to things like "fire codes". Maybe it would be an idea to have enough space behind buildings so that emergency vehicles can actually gain access to them?

And wtf is with the lack of garbage bins in Taiwan? The mayor of Keelung had this ingenious idea to decorate them with flower pots -- another "beautification" project. What was he trying to do? Make the overflowing cans smell better? Hey -- here's an idea. How about having more than a dozen for a population of 600,000 people. And don't let me go off on the basic infrastructure like sewer systems that create a sweet aroma of humanity throughout these urban plans.

Anyhow, sorry to go off on a rant there -- but Taiwan has some of the ugliest cities in the world due to the lack of adequate urban planning. Now, whether it's due to the politicians interfering or lack of coordination at local / federal officials is another issue which may partially deflect the disdain I have for the practice of urban planning in Taiwan.

Anonymous said...


May I suggest spacing out the dialogues from each person a little, e.g., by an empty line, for easier reading.

Very interesting read, by the way.

Thanks for putting this up.

Anonymous said...

An interesting and informative read Michael, thank you.

However, your numbers on allocation of resources do not seem to add up.

"$300 billion allocated by the central government to local governments"

"Taipei and Kaohsiung get 43% of the allocation"

"Taipei City, with 2.6 million, has an annual budget of $150 to $160 billion"


Michael Turton said...

Thanks Mick, for the spot on the numhers! Just goes to show the old truism that you can't edit your own work.

Thanks everyone! You can look forward to many more!


Anonymous said...

Urban planning. The art and science of arranging the urban form. Or in some places letting powerful industries and property developers do what they want. With community groups added on to ensure 'transparency'.

boston said...

i like this feature! keep it up

Mr. Shawn said...

Thanks for that interview! There were so many things that I always wanted to know in there.

Hmmm... seems kind of confusing, though, eh? As if the central government controls - what is seen as the most valuable thing to Chinese - the land. It is only they, along with their business comrades that control it!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the comments. The future of Taiwan's urban planning system as well as rural planning is really dependent on transparency and political wills. We are not there yet, but Taiwan as a nation with population five times more than Ireland and New Zealands will get there.

Thomas Liou

SQJTaipei said...

You asked: "What about a development like the one down in Mailiao?"

I'm curious... what development is happening in Mailiao? I'm interested in that area. Thanks. SQJ

阿牛 said...

<3 interview. Great feature. Keep them coming when you can. Very informative.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Professor Liou! And thank you Michael for getting it out there. What an awesome interview. Really insightful. Maybe it could be published somewhere.

HolidaysForFun said...

I know someone form there.