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Urban renewal's destruction of homes may destroy our culture

The controversies over the urban renewal policy have been raging for weeks with the focus mainly on increasing protection for the original land owners' rights to their properties. But few have tried to understand the wider implications of urban renewal.

Taiwan's urban renewal law is founded on the idea of improving the living quality of citizens by rebuilding their homes. The rebuilt homes are supposed to be not just newer but also safer and more functional.

The idea is to change our lives, but often not in ways that we may foresee or fully understand.

Many of us live or have lived in four-story apartment buildings lining roads, streets and small alleys. Many of the buildings are far from being aesthetically appealing (allow us to use the euphemism instead of directly describing them as ugly). But they are the most common architectural type in Taiwan that forms a crucial part of its culture.

The urban renewal policy does not dictate the type of buildings that should be standing in place of the old ones, but in reality the renewal projects have all been about constructing ones that are higher, but not necessarily more aesthetically appealing.

The reason is easy to see. The government relies on private developers to renew the cities, and incentives must be given to them.

It would be totally senseless to ask developers to knock down eight apartments in a four-story structure and then rebuild another also with eight apartments to accommodate the original residents.

So the building code must be bypassed to allow extra floors to be built on the same site where otherwise only four-story buildings would have been permitted.

The new building will then be able to accommodate the original residents, as well as offering extra units for sale from which the developer can make a profit.

These new buildings are not only changing our skylines, but also changing and redefining our way of life and culture.

It is changing our way of life not only by giving elevators or parking lots to the original residents, who would otherwise still have to climb the stairs and look for roadside parking spaces after coming back from work every day.

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