Some Observations on Street Life in Chinese Cities

Stephan Fairfield, Ofer Manor, David Perkes, and Harriet Tregoning, October 1, 2004

The Lincoln Institute has been collaborating with the Loeb Fellowship Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design for several years. The program was established in 1970 through the generosity of alumnus John L. Loeb, and each year invites about 10 mid-career professionals to study independently and develop insights and connections that can advance their work in revitalizing the built and natural environments. In May 2004 this year’s group of Loeb Fellows took their class study trip to China. They held a seminar on land use planning for the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission and were hosted by senior planning officials on land use tours in Beijing and Shanghai. This article offers some brief observations by four of the fellows.

China’s great cities are rushing toward a tipping point where a rich legacy of innovative styles of urban living may be swept away by unbridled modernization. The country’s land planners face Herculean challenges in shaping the fastest growing urban settlements the world has known, and it is easy to imagine how nuanced planning can be lost in this rapid tide of change. In China’s quest to catch up with the West, it might be tempting to simply replicate Western patterns and practices. However, not all of those approaches are worthy of emulation, and in some cases China may be emulating the wrong ones.

The Car Culture

In a time of global concern over dependence on oil, Chinese officials seem to be encouraging the car to prevail over other transportation infrastructure and policy options, although the rate and extent of development of Beijing’s public transit system is commendable. Following the decision to award the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing, the municipal government announced it would complete construction of its light rail system along with Metro lines 5 and 8 by 2005, extending the rail systems by 85 km to a total of 138 km. The city also plans to start on Metro lines 4 and 9 during the next five years. Yet, there are also plans to build the 5th and 6th ring roads around the capital, reflecting both the phenomenal growth of the city and the anticipated explosion in car ownership and use. Also troubling is the constant relegation of existing dedicated bicycle lanes to additional vehicular traffic, thereby creating a vicious cycle of ever more citizens surrendering their bikes for cars.

Beyond the social, cultural, environmental and economic consequences of this process, which are in themselves largely irreversible, these asphalt expansions result in irreparable damage to the city’s urban fabric and structures. While this condition is obvious to local planners, they seem to have bowed to the citizens’ strong yearnings for car ownership. These aspirations are spurred by a national policy of accelerating automobile production for domestic use, conceived as a leading catalyst in the country’s industrial and economic advancement.

Acknowledging these trying circumstances, the enforcement of mitigating measures within the jurisdiction of local government could help restrain the increase in car use. For example, a curb on parking would decrease commuter traffic substantially, but would only indirectly challenge the nation’s automobile consumption policy, since these coveted status symbols would remain available for noncommuting needs. Car sharing, a commercial enterprise that has enjoyed great success in Europe and more recently in transit-rich U.S. cities, is an alternative that would give many more Chinese the benefits and convenience of car usage without necessitating the cost and impact of individual automobile ownership. Many nations, including Singapore and most European Union countries, have automobile-related taxes on purchasing prices, fuels and registration, as well as parking and tolls. These taxes are intended to internalize the costs of pollution, infrastructure, traffic congestion, accidents and noise, but they also act as financial disincentives to car ownership.

The conditions in Beijing appear particularly favorable to introducing transportation management policies. While many cities might be wary that such measures could dampen inner-city development, these propositions would not alter the projected growth in Beijing’s core. Regarding a parking policy, for instance, rapid development over the past decade has already produced a substantial number of covered parking spaces, arguably meeting minimum needs. Conversely, the extent of projected development would render these measures particularly effective in limiting additional traffic.

Local policies that focus on controlling car use would also benefit Beijing’s cultural destinations, where cars already encroach on pedestrian sidewalks in parks and around lakes. From an environmental perspective, beyond the reduction in carbon emissions due to fewer cars, a sharp reduction in the extent of roadways, parking lots and related construction of impervious surfaces would contribute to increased groundwater recharge to replenish the already parched aquifer on which the city’s water supply depends.

Scales of Urban Living

Despite China’s vast expanse, population pressures in the cities dictate that every bit of land in metropolitan regions be put to work. Each road leading out of the city is lined for many kilometers with nurseries of trees, shrubs and flowering plants to provide mature landscaping for every new park, building, road, plaza and mall as soon as the project is completed. The result is surprisingly green boulevards and generously planted parks. The plantings tend to be both water- and labor-intensive varieties, but that might change as water resources are likely to become scarce before cheap labor does.

Beijing and Shanghai demonstrate the uniquely complex ways of living that have evolved over many years (e.g., small-scale farming, sidewalk markets, bicycles and motorcycle taxis), but these urban features can be jarring when juxtaposed against the dynamic scale of current development. Even as these authentic, small-scale living arrangements are being buffeted, and perhaps eradicated, by large-scale planning and the concomitant rush toward modernization in many city districts and neighborhoods, new innovations in urban living are emerging. For instance, the illegal motorcycle taxis observed at a 50,000-unit suburban housing development are a creative and practical solution to the problems of getting around a huge pedestrian-unfriendly project with inadequate public transit and amenities that are concentrated in a large core rather than scattered within walking distance.

Other new districts, such as Pudong in Shanghai, represent instances where a grandiose scale results in dissatisfying urban places that look like American cities of the Sunbelt, designed around cars with too much open space and decorative landscaping. These vast plazas may be appreciated from the air or the upper floors of nearby high-rise buildings, but they are incoherent at ground level. Pedestrians avoid the arid spaces, preferring the charm of the older urban districts with their more human scale, shade, shops and seating. More participation in the planning process by those who live and work in these areas would likely yield an environment more tailored to quality of life than a monument to progress.

Indeed, more resident participation in the planning process is one of the Western practices that is seldom replicated, but can most contribute to better-quality outcomes. Perhaps not understood is that residents, provided with enough background, will often point to similar but more helpfully nuanced ways of achieving the goals sought by planners. Enfranchisement in planning and economic outcomes can make allies of those in historic districts and on the urban frontiers who are currently a growing political and public relations problem for officials. Such a process can also improve market efficiency, since residents often know best what is needed and will work locally.

The willingness to create a culture of participation, dissent and engagement is a far from certain proposition, even for planning and development purposes. As design professionals observing Chinese cities for much too short a time, we can only hope that in the future more can be done to preserve successful forms of traditional urban living and create uniquely new Chinese forms that will contribute to the higher quality of life the policy makers, planners and architects we met seem so eager to embrace.

Loeb Fellows, 2003–2004

Ann Coulter, Executive Vice President, RiverCity Company, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Stephan Fairfield, CEO, Covenant Community Capital, Houston, Texas

Gerald Green, Former Director, San Francisco Planning Department, San Francisco, California

Michael Houck, Executive Director, Urban Greenspaces Institute, Portland, Oregon

Yan Huang, Deputy Director, Beijing Municipal Planning Commission, Beijing, China

Cheryl Hughes, Director of Program Development, Mayor’s Office of Special Events, Chicago, Illinois

Matthew Jelacic, Architect, New York, New York

Ofer Manor, Chief Architect, City of Jerusalem, Israel

David Perkes, Director, Jackson Community Design Center, Jackson, Mississippi

Rodolpho Ramina, Environmental Design Consultant, Curitiba, Brazil

Harriet Tregoning, Executive Director, Smart Growth Leadership Institute, Washington, DC