Our Beijing studio comes to an end today, as students presented their work from the past two weeks at the Stanford Center at Peking University. Five teams focused on various topics ranging from accessibility to migrant education to transportation commute patterns. Our course will be continuing over remote collaboration for the next ten weeks as part of the International Urbanization Seminar. Stay tuned for future developments as we continue to refine our projects!
Written by Tran Lam
Today, Energy Foundation is giving us a talk on sustainable urban planning in China. At 9:30am, we set out for our one-hour-and-a-half subway commute to the office in Jianguomen. Commuting in cities, especially Beijing, is daunting; average commute in Beijing is 2 hours (terrifyingly, that is NOT round trip). And car traffic is not that much better. A statistic I read somewhere says that traffic peak hours in Beijing take place 16 hours a day (out of Earth day’s 24 hours). The government is struggling to get cars off the streets while frantically constructing mega public transit facilities. But will public transit increase or decrease traffic? That’s the chicken-and-egg question in urban planning.
Energy Foundation is a NGO-grant sponsor of China Sustainable Cities Program. Aside from funding, the foundation’s sustainability experts work closely with various Ministries of the government and real estate developers in different cities to ensure the enforcement of Guildline of Sustainability (paradoxically, laws are well written in China but they are rarely enforced).
8 Sustainable Principles—the Dogma of Urban Planning
An example of 3rd principle ‘Create dense networks of streets and paths” is successfully accomplished by the Energy Foundation in Kunming Chongqing New Town Development Project. Street blocks in China are superblocks (dimensions: 500m x 500m). Chinese residential blocks are often walled and gated so residents usually drive around the block to search for the gate (if they pass the gate, they have to circle back). The Energy Founation works with different developers of the areas to transform the superblocks into grids by making the streets within the gated blocks public (tear down the wall!). This is a significant accomplishment because superblocks cause car emission to be four times higher than using grid streets (see the graph).
3rd principle of Urban Planning Dogma: no superblocks = reduced carbon emission = less air pollution = fewer lungs cancers = fewer children’s deaths = happier world = WORLD PEACE.
If you would like to talk more about how urban planning maintains world peace, contact me at tranl95 at stanford dot edu. Or you can check out efchina.org and schinastc.org.
Written by Terence Zhao
Today, we visited Digua, a community center located in the underground air raid shelter of a high-rise building in a suburban development just adjacent to the North 4th Ring Road. We were received by Spencer, an English-educated designer who founded the project, and Daphne, who is Chinese-Canadian and was trained as an ethnographer at Brown.
The two opened with a brief description of the project - a collection of spaces for the community that includes a variety of functions and vary in cost of use from free to thousands of RMB per year for the gym.
The majority of Spencer and Daphne’s talk about Digua was centered on the model of operations for the community - namely, the fact that many parts of the space costs money to use, and users can further make money from their usage of the space (for example, running a fee-based daycare). The duo gives a few reasons for why they use the model that they do. First, it allows the project to be more sustainable in maintaining its finances and, crucially, the size of its staff, given the Chinese context where young people find it not very viable financially to engage in low-pay, social entrepreneurship work.
Second, in a somewhat bizarre case of culture shock, we learned that the residents of the community actually broadly rejected a zero-cost version of Digua when it first started because they were scared that the project was a scam, which highlights the lack of consumer trust in contemporary China. Third and most importantly, they explain that given that most people in the community have busy schedules, the prospect of profit is the only motivation that is strong enough for many to take part in the activities of the center.
Following the talk and some videos of previous events at Digua, the group, which included students from Stanford, Tsinghua, and the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) transitioned into an open discussion on the present and future state of Beijing. Despite having such a diverse set of backgrounds, we came to a fairly unanimous conclusion that Beijing was not, at this point, a human city. The comment we heard again and again from our Chinese colleagues who moved to Beijing from other parts of China was that the city was simply not as livable as their hometowns, but that the economic and educational opportunities the city offered outweighed its faults. And, we also largely came to the consensus that unless Beijing is able to shift some of the functions it currently holds to other places (which some noted is occurring slowly as some government offices and universities are relocating from the urban core) and China’s opportunities could be distributed in a more decentralized way in general, more people will keep coming to a city whose resources (natural and social) have long been saturated.
Written by Flora Wang
Today, China continued to observe the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, so the Stanford group spent the day at and around the Great Wall. We set out early, 7:30am, for a 2+ hour trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Going to Mutianyu, I did not expect there to be so few people, especially on a holiday. Last week, I went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall with my mom and brother on a weekday, and there were at least ten times as many people. The crowds at both sections speak to the accessibility of the sections. My family and I were able to take a train to Badaling for only six yuan; whereas, getting to Mutianyu requires driving (personal car, taxi, or bus) and traffic.
At Mutianyu, some of us walked up to the Wall while others took a cable car. We did not spend too much time at the Wall since we were in a time crunch, but we were able to walk up to the tallest part of the section and admire the views and the vastness of the Wall. I enjoyed exploring the watchtowers at the Mutianyu section, especially because the watchtowers at the Badaling section were closed to the public. Everyone (minus Kevin) took the toboggan down. While waiting in line, we had an interesting conversation with a toboggan worker. We told him about ourselves and learned a little about his life as well. He lived in a town by the Great Wall and earned 2000 ¥ (~$300) a month, which we later found out was around the minimum wage in China. He was bilingual- he would yell out safety instructions, that most people ignored while on the toboggan and that were not enforced, in Mandarin and English.
After our adventure at the Great Wall, we went to the Brickhouse, previously a tile factory and currently a hotel/resort in Beigou, voted the “Most Beautiful Village in China” near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We ate lunch at the Brickhouse (with house-grown produce) while Jim Spear, the founder, a UC Berekley graduate, and now a permanent resident of China, talked to us about him and the history of the area and his projects. Jim moved to Mutianyu Village after retiring from a corporate job in the city. Jim was received as a rich white American man, and the mayor wanted him to give back to the community. Jim also mentioned that before coming to Mutianyu Village, people have been moving out because of the lack of job opportunities. This call for help led Jim Spears and his partners to launch the Schoolhouse project. Jim leased the land of an old schoolhouse that was owned collectively by the townspeople. He turned the schoolhouse into a crafts shop and later added a restaurant in time for the 2008 Olympics. The government then seized the land, schoolhouse, and restaurant despite the success and attention. Jim and his partners then created the Brickhouse in Beigou.
Jim also has other smaller scale projects, designing and building houses for relatively wealthy clients. After lunch, he showed us around the village and some of the houses he has built and is currently building. When designing buildings, Jim has to consider his clients’ wishes, but Jim often builds upon existing abandoned and old buildings. A lot of these houses he has built in the surrounding villages are used as rental homes under the Brickhouse organization.
On the van ride back to our hotel, we had an interesting discussion on our thoughts of Brickhouse and Jim’s other projects. Many people had mixed feelings about our experience in Beiguo. I think we generally all appreciated that Jim has done smaller scale projects here and is trying to be sensitive to the community and its needs. Jim has hired many local villagers as an effort to be more sustainable. On the other hand, we had some qualms about what we have learned. Lena mentioned feeling “ethical tension” throughout the afternoon. We discussed different definitions of sustainability (social vs. economic sustainability). When we found out that one of Jim’s clients already had seven other houses, there was some uneasiness among the group. Terence mentioned ultimately Jim runs a business, and to run a business, he must make money. We also recognize the good that Jim has done in this community and thank him for taking the time to tell us about his projects.
Also, thanks to Shelby for putting masks on us!
Written by Lena Blackmon and Shelby Marcus
With the assignment of urban observation in hand, our group of Stanford students embarked to the eastern outskirts of Beijing to the modern art district, 798. The first time I arrived at 798 in 2012, I counted the number of foreigners I saw in the neighborhood on two hands and the number of domestic tourists on one hand. Every year since, I have walked the art clad streets and noticed more and more foreign and domestic tourists joining me. 798 is becoming a tourist stop despite not having a subway stop within its premise.
Despite the general unpleasantries of increased tourism, 798 remains more or less the same niche of Chinese and fusion modern art. Today, I found the same cafe I’ve ate at every summer for the past five years effortlessly by tracing my way through the familiar alleyway shops and galleries. As we ate, I noticed the absence of the red dinosaur sculpture that had always been a focal point of the view from the patio.
As our group wandered through the alleyways, we came upon a doorway with the Chinese character, 拆. This character denotes a notice of demolition, a destruction. I had never considered what 798 had built over when it became the art district. I had been so focused on its preservation without acknowledging what it had demolished in its construction.
I’m not sure what I will find when I return next year or the year after that or in a decade. 798 has the potential to be something other than another tourist spot in Beijing. It’s not yet the generic entertainment or historical landmark that attracts tour groups and busses. Experiencing 798 requires interaction, conscious observation and inspection.
While we explored 798, our Qinghua counterparts hopefully enjoyed the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Today, during breakfast, we ate lotus moon cakes and regaled the story of the original Mid-autumn festival: Hou Yi, after taking a magic elixir for eternal life, but took too much and floated to the sky, all the way to the moon. On her way up, she grabbed a rabbit so that she could have company on the moon, and they have resided there ever since.
A common metaphor about mid-autumn festival is that it is the Chinese equivalent of Thanksgiving in America, because both holidays are family and food centered. In the holiday spirit, we received holiday good will from a man who took a photo with us yesterday. He added a nice frame to our photo and posted it to WeChat with the caption:
"To friends in my circle foreign and abroad I wish a happy holiday. Hope your work goes well and that you will find success at whatever you set out to do."
As a group, we’d just discussed how out of place we can feel as foreigners this morning, so it was touching to me to see a WeChat post so kind to foreigners and friends.
Finally, in our 中秋節 celebrations, approximately half the class got dinner—we went to a nearby mall, which was quite crowded due to celebrations. But, the full moon was bright, and we eventually took a photo with it. The night ended quietly, but most importantly, I spent a mid-autumn festival full of laughs and friends well.
Written by Tran Lam
Today is International Urbanization’s third adventure in Beijing. Stanford’s funding is being well-used for our group! We always leave the hotel at 8:30am and return after 8:30pm. 12 hours or more, all day every day! After more than 36 hours of always staying together and looking out for each other in this gigantic Chinese-speaking metropolis, we have developed a treasurable friendship and a trusting community where one feels comfortable expressing his or her opinions or recounting life experiences.
Here comes a summary of our today’s learning outcomes:
Together with Tsinghua students, we attend a talk of Kevin+Deland about how to be ethical urban scientists, how to empathize and be in the shoes of the local community we study, how to use different creative data-collecting tools/methods that exist in this field, and how to respect and interact with people from different culture. We Stanford students have been learning a lot from the seminar because we attend lectures in the morning and conduct fieldwork in the afternoon. However, language barriers and schedule conflict might have prevented some of the Tsinghua students from harvesting the full potential of the seminar. Nevertheless, it’s been a great experience for us all to work with students from different disciplines and educational systems; these initial interactions might serve as bridges of international relations in the future, who knows!
We have lunch with two Tsinghua students who are extremely kind for letting us use their meal cards. Personally, not being able to have lunch at a Chinese college’s dining hall would make my day a little less exciting. A plate of Hunan-flavored tofu dish served with rice that costs $1 goes a long way! I also enjoy breaking the ice with Chinese students through these delicious meals.
A sub-group of us lingers around Tsinghua to visits April’s female dorm room at Tsinghua. April lives with three other students in a girl’s dorm. It is extremely interesting for us urban scientists to compare and contrast the dormitory systems of America and China. American dorms prioritize individualism and privacy, whereas Chinese dorms specialize in efficiency and roommate camaraderie.
After the dorm visit, some of us went to rent ourselves some bicycles. We the unskilled students rent a bike for 8renminbi/day ($1.2USD)—our friends rent for 5renminbi/day ($0.75). The difference is not significant but the moral of the story is that, “You can bargain in China. It’s a cultural thing.”
Together with Tsinghua students and Kevin+Deland, we visit the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube. They are the two controversial 2008-Olympic landmarks of Beijing (there were evictions and extremely high construction budgets). As an ‘unimportant’ statistic, the Bird’s Nest will take thirty years to pay itself off (The Guardian). Probably one of the positive aspects about the Olympic frenzy of Beijing back in the 2000s is the pedestrian walking street situated between the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. We have a free hour of walking around the park and interestingly, some of us decided to stay in the shades and talk to each other instead of exploring the park. During this conversation, I vaguely learn about Lena’s summer material science research. Lena speaks passionately about how shining light on metal is analogous to the cake’s icing and its plastic container (I told you, I only learned vaguely…). We also get to know a German Tsinghua student well. As you can see, this public space in the costly Olympic park provides a valuable space for human interactions (also arts display too because inexplicit art sculptures are everywhere!); for a bustling, sonder-eliciting city of around 30 millions people like Beijing, public space is very much needed for human’s mental well-beings.
This is our free time. We decide to commute to Wangfuijng, a famous shopping pedestrian street of Beijing that stores international brands like Zara, Cartier, or Burberry. When I walk on this street, I am confused about my current physical location. The intersection with Apple Store and Cartier look extremely international and Western, yet it does not look like any other city (ironically, doesn’t look like Beijing to me too). This geographical confusion strengthens my argument that in terms of architecture, Beijing is a confused hotpot with imperial Forbidden City, traditional Hutongs, traditional Siheyuan, Russian Soviet buildings, various European architectural features, and modernistic/futuristic-looking constructions (with a lot of KFCs, Starbucks, PizzaHut, or McDonalds!).
Yet, hidden away from tourist spots are some few unchanged old alleyways. One of the members of our group, a Stanford student majoring in Urban Studies, and his family were evicted from Wangfujing’s vicinity in 2003. His disappeared house is now a government’s parking lot. But the alleyways around his house, which has his old pre-K, the hospital where he was born, and his favorite milky ice cream, are still unchanged in appearance. Beijing is changing fast, but in some corners of the city, some legacies of the past are still standing, at least for now.
Sources: Branigan, Tania. "Legacy of Beijing Is That Bird's Nest Will Take 30 Years to Pay Off." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
Written by Isaiah Smith and Robert Young
Today was a day packed full of travels across Beijing and a huge amount of learning. We started the day by taking a few Ubers to Peking University (colloquially known as Běidà) for class at the Stanford Center, a beautiful building with two basement levels and a mixture of Chinese and Californian influences.
In class, we began by discussing design thinking methodology and its application to urban planning and our class. Design thinking entails five key steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. We’ll be beginning these steps while in Beijing, and will continue the design process back at Stanford throughout the rest of the quarter. In order to empathize with the people in the city and define the problems we wish to solve, we also learned some urban observation tools. These tools include counting, trace measures and tracking among others, and will help us to quantitatively observe the occupants of the city in order to get a better understanding of their lives and needs. Tomorrow we’ll be continuing with urban interaction tools, which break the gap between researcher and subject.
Following class, we took a brief look around the Stanford Center before walking to lunch nearby. We picked up take-out noodles that promised to “be spicy enough to make our mouths numb” and returned to the hotel by taxi. Although the noodles failed to achieve their ambitious promise, they were delicious and prepared us well for the adventure ahead. We hopped on a bus to the center of the city, arriving about an hour later to travel the central axis of the city from Qianmen to Jingshan Park.
When we arrived at Qianmen Square, we were greeted by Lars of Beijing Postcards. Lars was the most dramatic tour guide we’ve ever met, with the growling voice and extensive gesturing of an inspirational army general and an impressive knowledge of Beijing history. We began with Qianmen, the southern gate to the inner city, outside which migrants in imperial times would gather in order to make final preparations before crossing the wall into the main city.
We then continued through two security screenings to arrive at Tiananmen Square. Lars described the square as the “eye of the tornado” of Beijing, as it has hardly been changed since its political significance reached a peak after the 1989 June Fourth protests and massacre that occurred there. The Square is the home to the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (also known as the Maosoleum) as well as the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which commemorates the many challenges faced by China in its revolutionary period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, up to 1949.
From Tiananmen Square we passed through the Tiananmen Gate, the imposing remnant of the imperial wall that still bears Mao’s portrait, through yet another security checkpoint, and into the inner Forbidden City. Lars described the Forbidden City as the “elephant in the room” of Beijing, as many visitors discuss its aesthetic aspects without discussing its significance as a symbol of imperial history, a history that often clashes with modern Communism in China. Traveling along the outer wall from our entrance point, we came to a small gallery housing maps and models of the city, as well as a video showing plans for areas to be restored. Here our Tsinghua TA Rebecca gave the group a crash course on Qing Dynasty architecture and its influence on the construction of the city.
Moving farther north into the city, we came to the first of the throne rooms, located in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall is aligned along the central axis of the city with its two lesser companions, the Hall of Middle Harmony, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. Each of these three halls, where the emperor would entertain wealthy elites as well as military and government leaders, houses an ornate gold throne alongside jades vases and patterned rugs. From here, a short walk led us through the Imperial Garden and out of the northern most gate of the city.
As we emerged, we looked up to see the foreboding hill of Jingshan Park rise above us. A stop for water and ice cream bars (waffle-shaped and flavored with green tea, red bean paste and mochi) held off our exhaustion long enough to get us up the hill to a gorgeous pavilion that provided views of the Forbidden Palace and other areas far off into the city. This stop was certainly one of the highlights of the day, contrasting the view of our path across the historical center of the city with the massive sprawl of modern-day Beijing. We also watched as a 2-year-old girl performed tai chi in an Imperial-era dress, a scene worthy of a small crowd of tourists and locals with video cameras and phones.
After the long day, we said goodbye to Lars and returned to Tsinghua University via the bus. The Stanford crew visited a local Korean restaurant for dinner and returned to the hotel for some much-needed rest. Today was a day full of history and deeper exploration of the city’s past in order to better understand its present. We’re looking forward to using some of our new knowledge as a starting point for our observations of and interactions with Beijingers over the rest of our study here.
Written by Terence Zhao
At the Bamboo Bicycles Beijing workshop, we spoke mostly with Prima, who volunteers to help run the workshop three days a week. She previously studied in America and lived in Shanghai for several years, although she is a native of Beijing. Our visit began with Prima going over the materials and steps necessary to create their bamboo bicycle frames, which uses only bamboo and a few materials for adhesion, and takes only two working days to complete. Handlebars and wheels can be from old bicycles.
She also briefly described the organization’s logistics. BBB has two full-time employees in addition to Prima, although an MIT grant awarded the year before allowed them to hire six students for a 9-week period last summer. The workshop charges ￥2000 for each bamboo frame made, of which 320 or so have been made in the past 3 years. The price, Prima claims, could cover only the barest essentials for the workshop - namely materials and rent.
I asked Prima about the demographics of the workshop's clientele, which she described as being about 50% foreigners. My first impression was that the workshop to be somewhat detached from the neighborhood it supposedly serves, and this definitely fed that impression. I drew a (admittedly somewhat unfair) comparison at this point between BBB and the tourist-ferrying rickshaws - both were attractions that bring in non-local visitors into the hutongs but do not cater to actual residents. But, Prima points out that the workshop does try to integrate itself into its surrounding community, such as the two public bicycles parked outside that the workshop provides for the community’s use (although I didn’t see them used while there), and the fact that the shop regularly loans out tools and provides free materials to neighbors who need them. And, while not mentioned, I also noticed some public displays and art in the immediate vicinity of the workshop that appear to be their handiwork. From what I could tell, BBB had a genuine desire and willingness to put in effort to integrate itself into the hutong community, despite the overwhelmingly non-local demographic it serves, although the efficacy of those efforts seem doubtful.
I then asked Prima what she saw as the future of Beijing through the lens of her hutong. She began by dividing the present inhabitants of the hutongs into four categories: first, the old Beijingers who have been in the city for multiple generations; second, the poor migrants; third, foreigners; and fourth, young people, among whose ranks she counted herself. She believed that this fourth group was the only one that was able to renew and revitalize the hutong neighborhoods. The first group, she claimed, was either moving out or “dying out,” and their ability to shape the future of the hutong was thus diminishing with their ranks; the second group - the poor migrants - simply did not have the capital (both social and economic) to bring about any improvements to the neighborhood; and the third group - foreigners - are temporary residents and unreliable for long-term transformation. She concluded that the fourth group was thus responsible for taking the decaying hutong and remaking them into something of their own.
I found the language that Prima used to be extremely curious because she made a point to clarify that the second group she spoke about was defined by their low socioeconomic standing, not simply their origin - indeed, one of Prima’s coworkers, whom we briefly met, had an accent from southern China, but was most certainly considered part of the fourth group. She also mentioned other such incursions by young people in the neighborhood, including a calligraphy studio run by someone originally from Taiwan (also technically a “migrant”, but not considered one) and a cafe-art gallery hybrid. Like BBB, none of these places are profitable.
To me, this is very reminiscent of patterns from multiple case studies first-wave gentrification that I have encountered, such as in some parts of Brooklyn, where young, middle-class people looking for a non-mainstream lifestyle (in this case as it was in, say, Brooklyn: living in an urban core rather than a suburb) move into a decaying urban neighborhood and transform it culturally using, for the most part, sweat or non-monetary capital - that is, their own time and energy. And, according to historical patterns, this will eventually lead to, among other things, the hutong regaining value as prime real-estate and the commercialization of the new culture that the gentrifiers brought in.
And whether that second stage of gentrification does occur is another question altogether. For now, however, it was clear that these newcomers to/gentrifiers of the hutong, the “fourth group”, is bringing new life to the hutong and, with it, a new culture that has the potential to reshape the existing fabric, as gentrification often does. And, in a way, the bamboo bicycle itself feels like a metaphor for the changes that BBB, Prima, and her cohort can bring to the hutong - taking the old, be it a bike or a neighborhood, and replacing the heart with something new.
Written by Lance Hilderbrand
Our first day of the seminar began with a walk to Tsinghua University, where the Stanford students met the Tsinghua students for the first time via orientational exercises that showed the diverse urban backgrounds within the group.
Afterwards, the Stanford and Tsinghua students walked over to the Tsinghua University cafeteria for some lunch. Well, some students preferred a scooter over walking.
The food was pretty good!
After lunch, the group took a bus over to inner city Beijing to get suited up for our bike tour three hour bike tour to orient us to the city - make sure your brakes work beforehand!
Our first leg of the tour took us through the Yu'er Hutong. A hutong is a is a form of dense urban neighborhood, consisting of very narrow streets and alleyways.
The homes in the hutong are without bathrooms, so the community shares communal restrooms and shower houses. It was regarded as a traditional custom for the local Beijingers, but not for all the Chinese students.
Biking through the hutong is a great way to test your agility!
Because of the area where those hutongs land - the center of Beijing, all of those old buildings on the sides of hutong deserve more than millions of dollars, which could prove how important role the location of real estate play in affecting the house price.
Our next stop was at the Bell and Drum towers. Both towers lie along a north/south axis, in line with each other and the Forbidden City, among other landmarks.
We then biked along the Ten Temple Sea (actually three lakes).
It was here we tried our hand (or feet, rather) at jianzi, a sort of Chinese hacky sack.
From the Ten Temple Sea, we biked over to the Forbidden City gate to snap a photo before heading onto the widest street in China.
The widest street in China consists of fourteen lanes total, two for bikes. Crossing this behemoth of a street was daunting enough on a bike, I can only imagine what it would be like as a pedestrian!
Some policeman stopped our bikes and cut off the traffic when we were about to cross the road. At first we just thought that there might be some important politicians or visters using the road, and then after a black car coming across the road and entering the Sea Palace, together with a row of police cars, we came to realise that it was Chairman Xi who was in the black car. It could be an interesting coincidence in our tour.
Why did the students cross the road? To get to the National Center for the Performing Arts, of course! This unique building, often dubbed "The Giant Egg", is surrounded by a moat and contains Beijing's finest opera house.
The performing arts center was the last stop on our grand bike tour of inner city Beijing. After returning to Tsinghua University, students split their different ways to find dinner. Some of us decided hot pot would be a nice way to conclude our eventful first day in Beijing - bon appetite!