Living with Less in China – Hannah

If you’ve had longer than a 15 minute conversation with me in the last 6 months, you’re probably familiar with my recent minimalist manifesto. Overwhelmed by the pure excess of a typical American life – too many clothes, belongings, items on the to-do list, commitments, goals, social networking accounts, etc. – I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to streamline my life and belongings into activities and items that serve to bring me joy and utility. A secondary effect is usually having a smaller impact on the environment, simply by buying and wasting less, but of course, if I emphasize travel as my activity, well… who knows where my ecological footprint stands. The point is to just minimize distractions and be present with what you are doing and what you have. While it’s definitely a challenge–in no way do I claim to be a pro at it–I’m feeling like I’ve made some major steps in the last year to own less and be more proactive about doing that which is good for me.

One of the things I really like about travel is that it forces you to live a minimalist lifestyle. I brought to China only one large carry-on backpack full of clothes and supplies + my overly-large purse full of my computer and miscellany. I did a bit of construction-type work in Mongolia before I started my internship in Beijing, so my few items of clothing are generally multipurpose; i.e. my black office pants are technically outdoor Columbia gear, and most of my shirts happen to be dri-fit. I’ve done my best to not buy TOO many things while here, though on occasion I’ve found that I just might benefit from having a pair of scissors, or a towel, or a set of silverware – those little things, which I intend mostly to leave with people here who can use them. (Oh, also a couple of pieces of clothing because I realized that despite being very utilitarian, my outfits were completely unfashionable in a company that employs a lot of architects and urban designers–like I said, I’m definitely not a pro at this.) Unfortunately, China seems to be the land of single-use stuff. The towel I bought was a minimal investment, yes, but by the time I’m done using it after two months, it’s probably going to be falling apart.

This leaves me boggled by Chinese consumption. I’m finding that people here do not own much, which I think is pretty great. The clothes line I walk by on the way to work has the same few dresses on it every few days and the people at work often wear the same shirts several days in a row (GREAT for people like me who own just a few shirts… take a moment to think about how weird it is that we don’t do this in the U.S., even when they’re perfectly clean). However, most of the belongings people have are still pretty cheaply made and expected to be replaced at some point – they’re just not made to last. Obviously that means production is cheap, the item is cheap, great for people who don’t make a lot of money. But if you’re constantly buying items that are built for only a handful uses, you reinvest repeatedly, and that is a LOT OF WASTE. There is a LOT of trash here. People buy a LOT of bottled water and a LOT of this low-quality plastic stuff and there are a LOT OF PEOPLE. Not all that different from America, but there are just a lot more millions of people making a lot of waste here.

On the other hand, people here don’t use very much space. I live in a dorm building and there are families living in what I imagine are the same-sized rooms to what I have. When you need to fit 22 million people into one city, inevitably each person gets a lot less space than the we’d find in the average American single-family detached home. One of my colleagues is currently a graduate student in the school next door to CADG, and she is in a dorm room the size of mine (which I have to myself) with FIVE other girls, in three bunk beds. And that doesn’t mean they have less belongings than your average girl in a dorm, they just fit it all in pretty tightly in a maze-like fashion. One of my colleagues has what is a comparatively nice apartment (has a kitchen!), but to make the cost work out, she shares a double bed with her friend from high school. So I’d like you to think about your most unpleasant roommate situation you’ve ever had, then imagine what it would have been like if you had to SHARE YOUR BED WITH YOUR ROOMMATE. I’m assuming these two get along pretty well, but you’re bound to have some off days, even with your best friend, and going to sleep with them right next to you is a pretty grating thought, in my opinion. That’s because I’m a completely spoiled Westerner and used to a lot more personal space. I think Chinese people in general are used to crowds and sharing space because it’s kind of unavoidable. My friend who studied in Scotland had a Chinese friend there who was very off-put by the stillness even of Edinburgh, which is, as you know, a city…. just significantly less crowded than Beijing.

Though I find it unlikely that I’ll miss the crowds, I think I’ll bring back to my U.S. life a strengthened appreciation for the minimalist and tiny home movements (though I’d prefer a small, rather than tiny, home), and a drive to encourage others to think similarly. Part of it is that I don’t think I need as much stuff as American consumer culture makes me think. The other part is that I am terrified of the impact that our Western consumer culture is having on Chinese culture. It’s simply not sustainable. If you don’t have a good sense for the difference between what WE own and what the REST of the world owns, read this article and let me know what you think… The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. U.S. children make up 3.7% of children on the planet but have 47% of all toys and children’s books. Pretty darned striking. Couple of questions:

  • If everyone in China strives for the same Western lifestyle, what sort of a percentage increase in STUFF will we have? (With more given numbers, this could be an SAT question.)
  • If you own approximately 300,000 things (or maybe 50,000-75,000 to count for the other people in your household) and pack two bags to spend two months in China, how many of those things will you actually bring or need? How many of them would you forget you have once you can’t see them? I didn’t do a count, kind of wish I had, but I’d estimate that I have something like 100 individual items. Wish I had some of my other belongings, but… hopefully point taken. In theory you could live with <300 items and still be fashionable and functional. 

So this is an urban planning blog, you say?

Well, let’s think about how we use space, why don’t we? Let’s think about how to design housing that is not only small and exclusive to certain users (i.e. micro-apartments and studios) but also family-sized housing (multiple bedrooms, not just housing for childless couples) that is well-designed to support more people – it doesn’t need to be a whole house. What about duplexes? Quads?

What about designing more and better parks so people don’t have to have their own yards? What about better and more community spaces, public spaces, etc, so people get out of the house?

How about thinking about how we can support more local businesses and industries that support the production of higher-quality items instead of big box stores that sell cheaply made, CHEAP stuff? How about supporting higher minimum wage so people can actually afford that higher-quality stuff?

I definitely don’t have an answer for how you can teach the whole world to buy better stuff instead of more stuff, since that’s probably most peoples’ go-to, but…. I didn’t claim to have an answer here. I’m just pondering.


Barriers, Barriers, Barriers – Being a Pedestrian in Shenzhen -Rae-Leigh

What I can’t keep my mind off of is transportation! I love looking at how people get around – do they look comfortable, do they look stressed, or are they going about their day and enjoying their travel? In Shenzhen people are everywhere. The sidewalks are crowded and the streets are overflowing with cars, people, buses, scooters, and bikes. If you give people the space, they will be there. Yet, with all the people in China, limited space, and a low car ownership (11% according to Ministry of Public Security statistics), the majority of the space on city streets has been planned for cars.

Shenzhen began to develop in the early 80s. The city was designed with the car on the forefront of the plans and it was at the peak of the economic boom in China. I have found it difficult to walk around some parts of Shenzhen. There are many physical barriers and bollards separating people from streets, only some of the intersections have ramps on them, and broken sidewalks are in abundance. The barriers and bollards are used to prevent cars and scooters from riding on the sidewalks. I don’t know the solution for this issue, but police enforcement to change the behavior of the drivers might result in change.

Bollards-01 Barriers-01

If I find it difficult as an able-bodied person, I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone with a physical disability or even a stroller. Throughout the city and others in China, the sidewalks have a strip of textured concrete indicating to someone who is vision impaired that this is the correct route to take. They thought this through, and from what I can tell, it’s a mainstream form of transportation planning throughout China. Other than this textured strip, many other details have gotten lost. While ADA in the US is not perfect, it has paved the way for people to get around more easily. There are some details that I wish were applied here, including the minimum walkway width of 5 feet and required curb ramps at intersections.

 Passing Width-01

Trip Hazard-01

At some of the busiest intersections, white fence-like barriers are placed all over the intersection to prevent people from crossing the road. Instead of providing street-level crosswalks, a series of pedestrian tunnels were built to cross the roads. These tunnels are dark, uninviting, and are uncomfortable places to walk. It’s quite confusing to navigate and it requires you to have the ability to walk down stairs. I have no idea what it costs or how long it takes to build tunnels like that, but I think a better solution would be to provide crosswalks, refuge islands, and other infrastructure at these intersections instead of requiring people to travel underground.

Tunnel System-01

In China, I have ridden on some of the best metro systems. You can take the subway anywhere and everywhere. It is super easy to navigate, the user experience as been well thought out, and the system is very efficient. I’m definitely not saying the transportation system is bad here, but I do wish some of the same thoughts were spent on moving pedestrians around on city streets. I love walking around my neighborhood and throughout the city! There is so much to look at, different smells to smell, and people to watch. Shenzhen is a great city to enjoy by foot, but it would be much more enjoyable if you didn’t continually have to watch your step or figure out how to maneuver around the many barriers.


CADG Street Park Project – Hannah

Hi everyone,

I thought I should give you a run-through of what we’ve been working on at CADG in Beijing. Since I arrived, I’ve hopped in on a project that Jasmine had started to work on with a colleague, Yang Huiyi. The project is to profile a thriving urban street that strikes a balance between private and public (commercial and residential, lots of public open space) in Beijing. We’ve settled upon Huangchenngen Relic Site Park, which is a street park (aka a linear, or long straight line of a park that follows a street) fairly close to the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing. This should be a fairly replicable study that could be done in 9 other cities to profile other thriving public spaces – our office Director plans to turn the 10 park reviews into a publishable work down the road. Our two major components of the project are to:

  • Develop a site assessment based on quantitative (physical/built environment) data using urban design and social interaction-based criteria with distinct metrics – i.e. walk around the park and give it a score based on if it meets certain urban design standards having to do with safety, accessibility, openness, complexity, etc – the things people tend to like in their parks that can be somewhat quantified.
  • Gather data about users of the space and activities done there through a more personal data collection – more on this later.

Then, we pull together these two major elements, do some analysis of how the built environment can support people’s needs and activities, and make some recommendations.

Here are some quick shots of the park, which is in total over 2.5 km long (over a mile, for you non-metrics), so there is a lot of variety in the space, and a lot of different activities. We’ve honed in on just a small portion of the park that would be more manageable for our small study, but these give an idea of the total vibrancy:


Just a casual right-of-way napping obstruction. Note how the placement of the tree in the sidewalk makes this a pretty useless path anyway unless you and your friends walk everywhere in single file.


Awesome historic buildings adjacent to the site, and a bike lane!


Looking in from the sidewalk.


Guys playing chess.


Weird closed off underground walkway – this helps to cross the very busy intersection just above it, but apparently it was closed after someone set a fire in it….


One of our rainy site visit days – I just liked the twin babies wearing matching clothes. :)


Entrance to a residential area immediately adjacent to the chess area.


Practicing calligraphy. Hopefully it doesn’t say anything inappropriate because I plan on using this image in the report.


Mmmm yep two crows in a cage at the convenience store at the end of our section of the park.


Lots of nappers throughout the park during the hot afternoons.

The components that we have worked on thus far are developing the system of criteria (how to rank the built environment to show whether it is conducive to safety, activity, etc – Jasmine did most of this), working out a few interview questions for people to ask about their perceptions of the space, mapping the site, taking tons of photos, doing interviews, doing people counts (trying to see which parts of the selected area are most popular and connecting that to the built features).

The component that I’m very excited about is the interviews section of the report. When we had initially discussed the project and report, the plan had been to develop the built environment criteria and an intercept survey. My thought around the intercept survey was that it would be difficult to get enough people who were willing to take a survey, have it translated effectively (i.e. if Jasmine and I worded it very precisely and then had it translated to Chinese it may lose the original connotation of the questions), etc… On top of that, a question I kept asking about our data collection was: WHY? Thanks to Professor Bates, I know to seriously consider the questions we are hoping to answer with data collection before jumping into it. I wanted to make sure that doing a survey was really in our best interest given how much time it would take. Ultimately, I felt that we would be better served with more descriptive, more personal information about how people use the park. When you think about it, given China’s massive population, system of governance, and general collective approach to things, the common theme about data collection being more aggregate-oriented, or focused on the larger sample size, is not surprising. I feel that a narrative-based approach to information collection will give an completely new angle to the project and show that not everyone uses the park the same way. The variety of individuals and their activities may help to reveal the park’s successful elements, which is our ultimate goal. Urban design projects here tend to be MASSIVE, but they ultimately serve human beings – so I hope that this angle of our report helps to humanize that design a little bit.

I proposed that we do several “user profiles” in our report. This way, we would need to ask just a handful of different users to answer a few questions, but allow for the conversation to be more natural. If you’re a fan of Humans of New York, you’ll know the kind of look had in mind. I was thinking we could do a snapshot of the person and a summary of what they had mentioned in their conversational interview: what they were doing in the park, what they like or don’t like about the park, thoughts about the park in general, how often they come there, etc. So far we are still transcribing results of the interviews, but we do have some lovely photos of a wide variety of users, and we’re really excited to include this in the report!


Hilarious kid who just moved to the city to join his mother here, as she had moved to the city to work before him. We’ve seen him several times.


Two ladies who lead a dance group in the park 2x EVERY DAY. They learned the dance on the Internet and gathered a few friends originally. Without any word of mouth beyond the people they see in the park, the group was at about 30 people when we counted one evening!


Security guard in our section of the park – when we asked him when he comes here, he said he pretty much works all the time, so he knows many of the regulars.


Some nice grandmas who gather in the park every day to chat. They were pretty upset that Jasmine and I didn’t speak Chinese and wanted to ask a ton of questions through Yang.

Another part of the project that I’ve spent a ton of time on is mapping our section. We needed the map for our people counts and also just as a reference. Unfortunately, the Google and Baidu maps available for this area are not very detailed, so I’ve walked top to bottom about a million times measuring and drawing out all of the space’s details. It’s about a .5km stretch, I think. For the first few days, I was actually measuring with footsteps, knowing approximately how many centimeters my shoes were. Once I got a measuring tape, I found I was generally accurate enough to hang onto my old measurements, WHEW! Here’s a process image….


I know, it’s like I learned nothing in Architecture school…. my handwriting, right?? Ew.


And what that has been turned into with the help of Sketch Up and Adobe Illustrator…. still a major work in progress, as this is only about 1/6 of the section of the park we’re looking at…. :/

Now I am spending time setting up a document in InDesign (my favorite!!! kind of serious) so we can turn all of our collected information from several longgggg days on site (left at 9pm on day, arrived at 7am on another…. and it gets hot out there, people!) into this nice report. Jasmine leaves next week :( so we need to make sure we get much of it pulled together with Yang before she goes. And then on to the next project!


Benefit of long days on site = putting dinner on the project tab.


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