Some Thoughts About Beijing’s Public Toilets

Beijing’s public toilets are incredible. There are more public bathrooms than you could imagine. Go around any corner, it seems, and you are greeted by one of the ubiquitous little beige colored toilet buildings. Most of them are nothing special, but that is what I like about them. When you need to go, they’ve got what you need to get the job done. I feel at ease when I’m walking around the city, no matter the volume of liquid I’ve consumed, because I know that I’m not at risk of suddenly having to desperately search for a place to pee. This is no joke. Beijing’s toilets are a great civic amenity.


Will Alvaro enter the bathroom?


The history of communal toilets in Beijing goes back centuries. Traditional courtyard houses were usually designed for four households who shared a toilet. The toilets were cleaned and emptied by the “Cleaning Guild” who sold the wastes to the “Excreta Commercial Guild”. The Excreta Commercial Guild sold the waste wholesale to farmers for manure. This cyclical system of waste management, where waste from communal toilets was sold to farmers to grow crops for residents who then created more excreta, persisted, essentially unchanged, into the 1960s.

During the Cultural Revolution, the courtyard toilets were moved to adjacent streets. The traditional single-family courtyard house was seen as a bourgeois institution, and moving the bathroom made way for increased housing density in the house’s central courtyards. For the communist party, the new communal neighborhood toilet became a potent symbol for the working class and communal living. In speeches, Chairman Mao would tell anecdotes about Shi Chaun-Xiang, a lavatory maintenance worker who had dedicated his life to cleaning restrooms on some of Beijing’s busiest streets, to illustrate the humble virtues of Chinese laborers.


A typical bathroom.


Today, there are over 6,000 public toilets in Beijing. In the old part of the city, most homes do not have access to water or sewage utilities. There, the neighborhood toilet is just as important as its always been. The toilets are cleaned at least twice a day, and the excreta is collected in septic tanks which are serviced by special trucks. New buildings are required to provide running water and at least one toilet per unit. At the rapid pace that Beijing is developing, the communal neighborhood toilet is at risk of becoming a thing of the past.

To preserve the role of the toilet in Chinese public life, the city has been remodeling toilets by tricking them out with features such as WiFi, electric vehicle charging stations, flat screen TVs, and vending machines. The futuristic bathrooms are being marketed as “fifth-spaces”, which (after home, work, recreational and cyberspace) will be important places in people’s everyday lives. The WC signs are being replaced with a “5” as part of the rebranding campaign.

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A Shanghai Bathroom


You can almost tell the significance of a place by the quality of the toilets nearby. I recently visited Tiananmen Square’s bathroom. I was amazed to see that the toilet was managed by a small army of attendants. No sooner had I zipped up my fly than a uniformed man with a mop swooped in to make sure that I had left everything in order and tidy up for the next person.


The Best Bathroom in Town


I really enjoy the design of the toilet buildings. The simple buildings have a certain austere functional charm. They make use of natural light, they are well ventilated, and every bathroom has its own character. They are usually located exactly where they should be, where alleyways intersect with busy streets, which makes them easy to find. I wish I had time to visit them all.


Bathroom Ruins


I was initially surprised by how truly public the toilets are. Often, there are no walls separating the squat toilets. This creates opportunities to literally rub elbows with your neighbors. I’ve seen it – friends squatting side-by-side, telling jokes and gossiping. Also, The entrances often open onto busy streets and the insides are semi-visible from the sidewalk. In some toilets, passersby can kind of see you going to the bathroom. The lack of privacy sounds unpleasant, but I kind of like it. I feel safe knowing that there are people nearby that would help me if anything goes wrong. Once, upon entering a bathroom I encountered a completely naked man standing at the sink.  I felt comfortable brushing past him to get to the urinal because I knew that the collective gaze of the street had my back. Beijing’s public toilets are much better than what you often find in America – bathrooms located far away from any pedestrian activity where it feels like weird stuff could be lurking behind any stall door.


Subway Platform Bathrooms – A+. I highly recommend checking them out!


American cities could learn a thing or two from Beijing’s toilets. Most American cities are woefully ill-equipped to handle people’s basic bathrooms needs. Who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly realizing that you have to go to the bathroom and not being able to find a place to go? It happens to me all of the time. I am usually able to sneak into a restaurant or find a bush, but for people with more complicated bathroom needs than me (e.g. people with disabilities, families with small children, the elderly, homeless people, etc..) not having bathrooms could be a serious barrier to enjoying public space.

Good cities should have plenty of bathrooms – because everyone pees. When I was a child, I was taught a rhyme to help me remember to go to the bathroom before long car trips. “It can happen to a he. It can happen to a she. But you never really know, when you’ll really have to pee.” It is a great piece of wisdom for 7-year-olds and urban planners alike. Don’t take bathrooms for granted, because they are not always there when you need them. Beijing’s got this issue figured out.


Interesting Bathroom Resources:

Geisler, T. (2000). On Public Toilets in Beijing. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 53(4), 216-219.

Kitsuka, K; Et Al. (2007). Survey on Development and Management System of Public Toilets in Beijing -Case Studies in Dongsi and Xianyukou Areas-. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 6(2), 315 – 322.

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Last week Alvaro told you about his project. Here is part two, I want to tell you all about what I have been up to here in Beijing. The problem is, it is top-secret. So top-secret that, sometimes, I don’t really know what I am working on.

Like Alvaro mentioned, the Chinese government is very protective of its information. Every employee at our office has to follow confidentiality protocols to access very basic information. Here is my theory about why this is – Recently, the Chinese government has begun to crack down on corruption. In 2015, the Communist Party claimed that they punished nearly 300,000 government employees. Land use deals between local governments and real estate developers are notorious for being kind of shady – so it could be that the secrecy protocols are in response to that.

As a result, it takes some effort to get information. And, as the foreign intern, that means I am sometimes kept out of the loop. So, this is what I think that I have been working on.

Beijing is building a massive new airport, Daxing International Airport, centered on a village called Nangzheuang in the Daxing area on the southern outskirts of the city – and I am working on the masterplan for the airport city. Beijing International Airport is one of the busiest in the world, and it has become way too crowded. The new airport is designed to handle 100 million passengers a year (it’ll be the largest terminal in the world), and will also serve nearby Tianjin and Haibei. The Zaha Hadid designed terminal is slated to be completed in 2019.

It took a while to wrap my brain around the concept of an airport city. Who would want to live near an airport? Planes are noisy. Isn’t it better to stick the airport at the edge of town, put an Ikea out there, and call it good? I had no idea that I had such old-fashioned ideas about airports.

Cities are betting on airports being crucial central transportation hubs in the future, driving urban and economic development. As cities have grown around ports, canals and rail infrastructure in the past, aerotropoli (airport + metropolis) are emerging as important regions for multinational businesses that economize on being close to airports. Airport cities are being developed around the world to attract manufacturers that need fast access to commercial aviation services, logistics companies, and frequent business travelers.

Several of these new airport cities are really fancy. New Songdo City, which is currently being built near Seoul’s Incheon airport, might be the peak of aerotropolitan aspirations. The 40 billion dollar development is being built on 600 ha of reclaimed land. It’s got everything that a multinational corporate business person could want – facsimiles of Central Park, Venitian Canals, and the Sydney Opera House; a very tall skyscraper; Golf; everything is high-tech and LEED certified – and it is all within a short commute from the airport. It is one of several fancy airport cities are popping up all over the world (there are others near Dubai, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Dallas…) to attract the business of multi-national corporations. From what I’ve seen in the Daxing plans, Beijing has similar ambitions for its airport city (it looks pretty. I would live there).

The Zhengzhou International Airport Zone is the seminal Chinese airport city. It is located 19 miles from the center of Zhengzhou and is a major hub for electronics manufacturing (they produce 13% of the global stock of smartphones). Parts come into the airport and are sent to nearby factories where they are assembled into finished products, which are then put onto planes and shipped back out into the world. By 2025, the area plans to have a population of 2.6 million people and improved infrastructure linking central China to the global economy. Zhangzhou’s success has triggered a rush of airport development. Between 2011 and 2015, over 100 new airports were built in China.

I am still skeptical of the aerotropolis. Are we really going to fly more in the future? If the price of oil rises or governments implement carbon taxes in response to global warming – what will happen to the airport city? Companies could switch back to rail, container ships, or to some new environmentally friendly freight technology (apparently the cargo-zeppelin is making a comeback). Maybe business people will decide that they prefer the convenience of meeting in virtual reality, or some other crazy technology will come along to disrupt the travel and logistics industries. Betting big on airplanes just seems really risky. I am interested to see how these new cities fare – but I’m glad that there are no plans for a Portland airport city.

For the project, I have been researching airport cities and industrial development – two topics that I knew nothing about before coming to Beijing. I have learned a lot.

CADG Cup Update – The department soccer team lost in the quarterfinals against a team of architects. They were really good. I am looking forward to the celebratory dinner.


Shenzhen: a city of cranes, construction, and ongoing conformations

Walking around Shenzhen construction and adaptations are on every street corner. It may not be shocking to most, as the city is the same age as Michael Phelps [just over 30 years old], so it is still establishing as a place to this day. However, the city has strict environmental provisions limiting its buildable land to only 7% of Shenzhen’s total land area (Zhou, 2014). City authorities have been greatly practicing the “out with the old and in with the new” across the city as it demolishes urban villages, tears down a 20 year old skyscrapers to replace it with a massive world-record-breaking buildings like Ping An Finance Centre at a towering 115 floors. Just down from Difu Hotel and UPDIS lies a superblock-sized, 50+ foot hole that I have been yelled at for attempting to photograph. It’s plans are unknown to me, but I imagine it will be a massive development towering over the 15-floor buildings adjacent.


Ping An Finance Centre to open doors in late 2016.


Mary Ann O’Donnell, anthropologist, curator, blogger, and urban village activist, stands in a demolished area in Langkou Urban Village.

It’s not to say all construction is of massive scale. Sometimes we see one or two people jack hammering away at the sidewalk tiles to replace them with mismatched cement. I always wonder how this coordination works for maintenance of things like this? Are people assigned an area and find random things to tear apart and return to the next day to repair? Is there a list of small projects to be repaired? How does this coordination fit within the larger picture?


Cement truck forces pedestrians to the street in Futian District.

As it seems, construction vehicles are not regulated like other freight vehicles in the city. At any time of the day, a sidewalk could be blocked with a truck dumping tons of cement into the site, laying a brand new foundation. Additionally, many of these construction sites house workers which are usually migrants from rural communities within greater China. They live in temporary shipping container like housing that leaves a mark on the redevelopment when it is torn down. These migrants move from one job to the next just to make a living – they could be gone overnight.


Sidewalk torn up to lay new lines underneath – not closed to pedestrians or cyclists though.


On a Sunday, these workers do not see a day of rest.

Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters is visible from our tandem bike ride along the water. From afar, you can see 20+ cranes in the skyline. Before redevelopment began, the area was home to only 30,000 residents. Whereas now, it is expected to employ and house nearly 10 million people and 500 enterprises. The plan calls for high-quality construction that can last up to a century, but many people in Shenzhen argue that developers take a cheaper approach to save time and money to be able to move on to the next project. As you can imagine, this will lead to a lower quality of building in need of redevelopment in one or two decades. How ‘sustainable’.


Across Shenzhen Bay, you can see the many, many cranes across the new skyline of Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters.

So my questions I still ponder are: When will construction be tapped out? At the quality of design being implemented, can we ever expect to see a significant decrease in construction? How does coordination of authorities, developers, maintenance, water and sewerage services compare to that of the United States [something we are most criticized, our coordination between departments and services]? And of course the affordability component – all of this construction and redevelopment is making Shenzhen well on its way to a very expensive place to live. How will people survive here? Will a young person like myself, making an entry-level professional salary of maybe 8,000CNY be able to afford 4,000-6000CNY a month for rent? Urban Villages are being demolished right and left – where do these people go? Especially if they do not have urban residency, are they forced back to rural China? Will Shenzhen continue to conform to modern gentrification and displacement hardships we are trying to recover and mitigate in the United States?

I am anxious for people’s input regarding the topic, so please comment with your suggestions, theories, opinions, questions, etc.

Olivia H

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