China - A Planner's Journey

Planners, Architects and Scale Models

A principal objective of the tour was to learn first hand about planning and development in China. In furtherance of this objective, we arranged meetings with people actively working on planning and development issues in China. Two planning related museums also proved most educational. Results by city are summarized below:

Hong Kong & Macao

Bruce Foreman is a tall Australian of immense stride and range of interest - one source describes him as a seeming Renaissance man. He belongs to a travel collective called Funky Golden Dragon that arranges specialized tours and locations in China and central Asia. He spoke about the history of the city before taking us on a walking tour.

We visited an exhibit of historical drawings at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Overlooking the waterfront we observed highrises across the water on Hong Kong Island, discussing the origin of many of them plus the ongoing filling of the bay for new development. Departed by ferry for the island. Walked from the terminal, through a newly filled section with buildings under construction, to the slopes of the city and the amazing Central Escalator. Explored a mélange of the old and new, street markets and temples.

At lunch we met up with Sylvester Wong of the HOK Planning Group in Hong Kong who spoke of development activity and the high cost of housing in the city. He took us on a walking tour through some of the city's development, including the unique HSBC Building.

The next day Bruce led us on an extensive walking tour of the old and new in Macau, topped off with lunch just down the street from the A Ma Temple. We all were pretty tired at the end of that day.

Yangshuo

Met with the Yangshuo village (40,000 population) Planning Director at the outdoor tables in front of the Morning Sun Hotel. Had to strain to hear Dragon's translation as the hubbub of the street enveloped us. Guiding development of this fast growing tourist center is difficult. The discussion had a free and easy (given the translation difficulties) question and answer character following the initial presentation. Planners in Yangshuo are faced with many of the same developer pressures we encounter in California.

Shanghai

We were introduced to the history of development in Shanghai by a couple of Australian architects - Anne Warr, Director of the Shanghai office of Allen Jack+Cottier, and Tim Schwager, Director of Schwager Associates. An Australian newsletter Cityscape contains articles by both of them. Anne has lived in Shanghai for five years and has written an Architecture Guide to Shanghai for Watermark Press – due out in 2007.

Following a power point presentation, we all walked down to the Bund where historical aspects of the buildings we passed were described. The architecture tour culminated with drinks in a rooftop restaurant. One statistic Tim listed really impressed me; "in the last five years, the amount of open space per Shanghai resident has increased from 4 to 9 square meters."

The next morning we headed to Xintiandi (site of the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921) where we were hosted by Delphine Yip, Director of Ben Wood Studio Shanghai. The firm was started by Benjamin Wood who originated the Xintiandi preservation development approach and convinced Hong Kong magnate Vincent Lo to finance it. This development is like a breath of fresh air after witnessing so much new construction on land scraped clean of any vestige of historical and traditional Shanghai. Its resounding success seems to have initiated greater openness among the powers of Shanghai to new development that actually incorporates existing structures.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall was a first. I don't believe any of us, with all our years of combined planning experience, had ever seen a scale model of a city's planned future as large as the one in this building. The model, which is said to be the largest in the world, shows Shanghai's projected future in 2020. There are a lot of tall buildings planned for this future Shanghai. There was an accomodation to preservation in the museum, with 12 historical and preservation sections of the city described.

Suzhou

Met withYang Hui, Deputy Director of the Suzhou Landscape and Garden Department in a room close to the Lingering Garden. The gardens of Suzhou are a part of classical China. The presentation was professional, of high quality and left sufficient time for questions and responses by the Califonia planners.

City plans include restoration of the old city moat, part of the Grand Canal, and the ancient city lake. The finished project will become a national park. A greenbelt is in the process of being created around the city.

Suzhou is the number two industrial city of China. A metro (subway) with four lines is to begin construction at the end of 2007. The proposed system will connect with Shanghai on the east and Wuhan to the west.

Nanjing

The meeting with the planners of Nanjing - Jiangsu Institute of Urban Planning & Design - was the longest of our entire trip. It also provided the least opportunity for questions and responses by our planners. The Director, Zou Jun, spoke first and then left the meeting. He was followed by four others with little time left over for questions or comments.

The presenters seemed quite intelligent. Too bad that there was little opportunity for a real exchange of ideas.

The presentations were not exactly riveting, the slides frequently incomprehensible for English speakers and, in the case of one presentation, obviously thrown together at the last moment. The thick handout at the end of the meeting, although illustrated in part with graphics, was mostly unintelligible - being almost entirely in Chinese. Not sure why they gave it to us.

According to the presentation, the institute plans a lot of projects. It even plans for some of the smaller cities of Jiangsu Province - most densely populated of China, with some 75 million people. In 2001 Chinese planners began using the approach of the 'Concept Plan', since it was more flexible and not hobbled by bureaucratic requirements. Key areas of the province are the cities near Shanghai (a separate province itself), the Yangtze River corridor, the coast and the Huaihe River corridor to the north.

One item of interest in most of these presentations was the provision of fresh fruit and refreshments. I doubt if most American Planning offices would be as hospitable. The Jiangsu Institute provided bananas and lichi to eat. The latter was quite refreshing.

Xian

Met in the evening with an Australian tourist expert, Yolande Bassingthwaighte of Imperial Expeditions, in an art gallery in an old home situated in the Moslem Quarter. She talked about planning for tourist attractions in Xian. The Moslem Quarter sprang up among the some 60,000 Moslems who live in Xian. These are integrated Moslem Chinese - not fundamentalists. The Drum Tower was first lit at night within the last two years. The reconstruction of previously destroyed or deteriorated sections of the city wall and moat was completed last year - making it the longest (14 kilometers) unbroken city wall in China.

The local government is finally recognizing the attraction of the Moslem Quarter to tourists. It is no longer threatening to tear it down as it did with much of the rest of the old city within the walls. Some faux old city developments were built in place of that now lost.

Beijing

Met with Hui Wang, a partner in Urbanus, a most impressive Chinese design and architecture firm. According to their website, the partners see Urbanus as a "think tank providing strategies for urbanism and architecture in the new millennium." Urbanus' design scope includes urban design, architectural design, landscape design, interior design and exhibition design.

The power point presentation captivated us California planners. The projects shown were of high quality. The firm seems to be a real success. Being a quality and creative Chinese firm on the ground floor of China's development growth, their future appears unlimited. The question and answer session following the presentation was quite lively.

Interestingly, the three Chinese partners in this firm are all graduates of Miami University in Ohio and have previously worked for American architecture firms before returning to China to form Urbanus.

After a false start involving tired and grumpy travelers, an accident, a steady rain and bumper to bumper traffic, we headed for Beijing's Urban Planning Museum which opened in 2004. As in Shanghai, there was a huge scale model of the future city. The exhibit on energy and the environment as it affects the city's growth was excellent. Not surprisingly, there was an exhibit on developments planned for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. One exhibit which intrigued me was of a Chinese firm's vision of the interior of a "future home" in Beijing.

Mutianyu at the Great Wall

There is a saying about saving the best for last. Our last contact with planning practitioners in China took place at Mutianyu village, which lies beneath the mountain crest on which stands the Great Wall.

Here we met James Spear, a former UC Berkeley graduate student who came to China some 20 years ago and decided to stay and forsake academia. He helped form and became a partner in China Bound Ltd. which ultimately created The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu Great Wall, a travel mecca in the mountains north of Beijing.

We met Jim in the afternoon after exploring the Great Wall on the heights above the village. We were served a lunch produced from fresh products of the village fields. The tourist development is being created in cooperation with the villagers.

A number of the inhabitants have sold 30 year leases to their homes (no individuals own land in China) to the company for use in the tourist facility. The company refurbishes or rebuilds the homes for wealthy individuals interested in a break from the hectic life in Beijing or as lodgings associated with the Schoolhouse tourist facility. It markets these residences through China Countryside Hotels.

There is an option to renew for 30 years in the contracts, with a reversion to the original owners or their heirs at the end of that period. The schoolhouse that is the facility namesake became surplus due to the effects of China's one child policy. Currently, most customers of the Schoolhouse are expatriates, but the aim is at the Chinese market as car owning Beijing residents mushroom in number.

Following lunch we walked past workers taking a break from the construction of the new village hall being carried out at the direction of the mayor, through the village and its fields, over hill and dale through a chestnut orchard (the area is known for the its chestnuts) to a second village. Here we saw a wall being built to control the flow of a stream through the village, a farmhouse being rebuilt for the tourist facility, and one whose reconstruction is complete. I was impressed by the solid quality of the brick construction in both the original and rebuilt structures. It contrasted favorably with America's ubiquitous stick-built construction. We completed our hike with glasses of ice water at the Schoolhouse.

Click on the image to the right to generate a series of views from our walk after lunch in Mutianyu

According to James Spear, China by 2010 is projected to have more 'freeways' than the United States. He sees growing pains similar to the US in the early 20th Century. It is "capitalism at its worse and most rapacious." The government clearly sees the need to seriously start looking out for the people at the bottom of society.

Hopefully Mutianyu can be a positive example of how to spread the wealth. Nevertheless, "a lot of villages will dry up in the coming years as all cannot become eco-villages."

H Graem © 2007