Quality of life and semantics

For those who may be interested, I have been placed as an intern in the International Cooperation Department at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). The main role of the department is to coordinate activities with CAUPD’s international partners. The department staff also provides support to the organization through various research projects.

This chow chow enjoys his life in the vibrant hutongs of Beijing.

During my second week in the office, my department invited me to present about my past life. For those not familiar with my background, prior to enrolling in the MURP program at PSU I worked in the non-profit sector for several years supporting community-led movements for various environmental justice and health equity issues. Following the presentation, several of my coworkers at CAUPD noted that my interests in social justice issues, community development and urban planning are in sharp contrast to China where urban planning is primarily concerned with physical design. However, one of my coworkers believes that things are beginning to change as interests are growing in the application of urban planning to address social issues in China.

For instance, one of the major research projects wrapping up this summer in my department is a quality of life study. As an intern for the department, I am assisting with research around several topics related to urban quality of life, such as:

  • Measuring and operationalizing “quality of life” indicators
  • Relocation planning for urban redevelopment in inner cities
  • Theory, models and case studies of “vibrant” cities

These past couple of weeks I have been researching up a storm on these super interesting topics. The main challenge throughout my thought process has been focused on one critical question on semantics: what does it all mean?!

Ok. So maybe not just one question, more like a million. Like… What does “quality of life” mean and to whom? Who decides how it is defined and measured? What are the implications of operationalizing certain measures and indicators versus others? What does urban redevelopment mean for China? Is “vibrant” a universal concept when applied to urban development and growth?

Does a beautiful waterfront and skyline equal “vibrant”? This is Tianjin, just outside of Beijing.

 

I struggle with these questions because on a fundamental level I recognize the pervasive influence of western thought on eastern development. I can see myself and fellow interns as agents delivering western ideas in neatly packaged powerpoint presentations. However, I’m hoping these ideas will be received and consumed with a critical lens on the current and future needs of China and its people.

Though challenging, I feel like the research has been rewarding. I have about two weeks left to wrap up my work at CAUPD, so if any of you readers out there have suggestions for literature or case studies I should look at for inspiration, please feel free to leave links and citations for me!

谢谢 | Xièxiè | Thank you! :)

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Incredibly instructive signage

China never fails to disappoint when it comes to instructive [and entertaining] signage. Here are a couple of my favorite instructional signs.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“A small step close toward urinal, a big step toward civilization!”

Until I saw this sign (a male companion brought it to my attention- I did not discover it by being in the urinals myself), I would not have equated urinal usage with civilization. That being said, I totally get it. Hardly a day goes by without observing a child’s bare bum, often relieving itself in the public right-of-way. If you’ve been to China, you are likely familiar with crotchless pants that young children adorn. Also likely, you’ve observed some questionable parental judgment when it comes to excretion. While I understand many of the benefits of not diapering a small child, there’s a critical age at which public excretion just seems like a slap in the face (let’s hope not literally). And of course, not just children are to blame for human waste in the right-of-way. So yes, perhaps, a small step close toward urinal is a big step toward civilization.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“The slight effort to do environmental protection gives our children a beautiful earth”

Beautifully put. It may take a bit more than a “slight effort”, but stewardship, personal responsibility and trans-generational thinking are always good lessons.

All your emergency provisions in one park

This way to all of your various emergency service needs. And, just in case, please feel free to vend an emergency life jacket should the man-made pond reach one thousand year floodplain levels.

Shenzhen's Lichee Park

Shenzhen’s Lichee Park

20140802_123059

Guangzhou MTR

Safe escalator use

I’ve always been a cautious escalator user, but I was not fully aware of the dangers and responsibilities of escalator use. Thanks to this example of incredibly instructive signage, I now am. The messages conveyed here may be too numerous by our signage standards, but, hey, this is China (“TIC”).  

Wayfinding on Hong Kong MTR

Some more incredibly instructive MTR signage (although, quite a bit more useful)…

Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong MTR

Shenzhen performing arts center

Shenzhen performing arts center

“Dry your hands, keep away drops” Yes, while drying your hands certainly will keep away drops, I can’t help but to wonder if this is the most important message to disseminate at the sink basin. Yes, I have an agenda. So far in mainland China, I have yet to see a sign about the importance of washing hands with soap- or the oh-so-familiar signs about washing before returning to work. I’ve been conducting my own study of sorts. At my office, males and females share the sinks in an area outside of the squat toilets. Covertly, I watch the handwashing behaviors of my fellow office workers. Over the past four weeks, on only two occasions have I seen anyone use soap, despite the fact that it is conveniently placed beside each basin. I try to withhold my public health reflex of repulsion. Back to the sign at hand (pun not intended): while entertaining, for me, this sign states the obvious, but misses the point.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Physical Disability Planning in Beijing

My intention is not to downplay the importance of a planner’s role in accommodating and maximizing the utility of the urban environment for people of ALL disabilities, but this blog post is specifically going to cover my observations through the lens of people with physical disabilities. From my experiences in Beijing so far I have noticed spectacular design features on buildings and infrastructure. But when it comes to planning and designing for people with disabilities, China has a mixed record. With a population of 1.37 billion, you would imagine there is a significant portion of the population that has a physical disability, simply as a measure of proportions.

However you infrequently encounter people with obvious physical disabilities on the streets of Beijing (also of note, of the people who had physical disabilities that I encountered, all of them were elderly). And one of the reasons there may be a lack of disabled people on the street is due to issues of mobility. Now a point of clarification on the nature of physical disability I am talking about. Persons who need to use a wheelchair or assisted mobility device are significantly disadvantaged in public right-of-ways like sidewalks. Besides the streets of Beijing being completely unfriendly to pedestrians, you have a serious lack of infrastructure to accommodate the mobility of persons who cannot walk of their own volition. This is also true of the bus transit system. One of my local buses has a space reserved for wheelchairs (see picture below), but there is no lift assist or curbside access for them to get on the bus in the first place. And once in the space they are expected to be lashed down with a cord of rope. Certainly this is not very convenient or safe for someone traveling in a wheelchair on the bus system.

Handicap spot on the bus with rope to tie yourself in

Handicap spot on the bus with rope to tie yourself in

The subway system is certainly more accessible with elevator access points and the ability to board the train car at station stops (although there is a significant gap that a person has to be mindful of when boarding). While these infrastructure features for the subway are great they are not consistent among all station stops. Add to the mix the frenzy of people pushing and shoving their way onto the train and packing in like sardines and you are left with a miserable transit experience for someone who is disabled.

Handicap queue for the subway

Handicap queue for the subway

In addition to navigating difficult routes, accessing buildings and commercial spaces is sometimes impossible. While this is not uncommon in the U.S., it is frequent in Beijing. Even newer buildings, which have accessibility ramps, often the ramp grades are at a pitch that is not practical for someone in a hand powered wheelchair (see picture below).

A ramp that is too steep and slick, making it difficult for access.

A ramp that is too steep and slick, making it difficult for access.

But where infrastructure comes up short for people with mobility issues, infrastructure for the blind is ubiquitous. The sidewalks (when present) have tracks for the blind to follow with a system of textures to alert them when to stop, change direction, or sidestep around a barrier. These tracks are also found in the floors of the subway stations and along the edges of the boarding platforms. These track systems are often foiled by the parking crisis Beijing is suffering in the city limits, with cars parked on top of sidewalks. Other nice touches for blind persons are the braille in the hand railings of the subway stations providing locational and directional information to passengers.

Sidewalk track to guide the blind

Sidewalk track to guide the blind

Track for the blind, notice the different textured patterns which inform a a shift in walking direction

Track for the blind, notice the different textured patterns which inform a a shift in walking direction

Braille on the railings in a subway station

Braille on the railings in a subway station

China’s record on disability accommodation for buildings and transit has a long ways to go. It would be prudent of the central government and urban planners to factor access for people with disabilities. Since China has a large and aging cohort it would be prudent to make infrastructure fully functional for this large population. While these retrofits can be expensive, now with such rapid urban development going on in China it is easiest to plan for these features in the beginning stages of planning and design.

Tagged
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers