This Vibrant Public Life – posted by Lauren

I think I’ve become somewhat of a curator of this blog. I read it all, in reverse chronology, on an especially smoggy evening when I dared not venture outside. If you make it all the way back to the very first post you’re rewarded with this stellar video. Thanks 2011 interns, you guys were hilarious.

It’s just that when I think of a post topic I want to see what others have said, because we MURPs are interesting, insightful people. As my time here at CAUPD is drawing to a close, one the biggest impressions I’m left with of China is the incredibly vibrant public life on display. And lo and behold, I count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve other posts commenting on the same thing.

I spent the first 25 years of my life in sprawling placeless suburbia, USA. There was zero public street life (the yearly Christmas parade doesn’t count). The main culprit seems to be the urban form and car dependency. I lived about 4 blocks from my elementary school but was driven to and from there every day. When I finished my undergrad I lived in a loft apartment downtown and worked at a law firm about 6 blocks away, where I also drove to and from daily. I remember working from home once because the roads were icy and I didn’t want to drive on them. It took moving to Portland and leaving my car in the Midwest before I realized these boots were made for walking. It was an epiphany.

Joplin was the primary reason I was drawn to my workshop project, 4th Plain Forward. 4th Plain suffers from the same trappings of a placeless suburban arterial. It could be anywhere USA, where you go from your car to the parking lot and back to your car. What do you do with a place like that? My workshop team had some ideas, and reorienting auto-oriented suburbia is no doubt one of the biggest planning challenges we face. Aside from the environmental and health problems associated with this kind of development, it just lacks a soul. In the majority of America, public street life just doesn’t happen. I think US planners desperately want to create vibrant public spaces, but for the most part we aren’t successful.

That is probably why China seems so remarkable. You would be challenged to find a non-vibrant public space here. The dance groups are legendary, and you’ll also find people exercising, eating, playing games, selling wares, flying kites, chasing kids, repairing bikes, and just sitting in public, living their life. It feels completely different, in a life-changing sort of way. Every day I walk by an exercise playground frequented by elderly folks and think of my own frail granny who has lost her strength because she only sits and watches TV all day. How different would her life be if she could walk down to the park for some Tai Chi and socializing?

chess bike food dominos laundry nap opera poetry portrait

There is danger of it eroding as the cityscape changes and losses ever more ground to the automobile, but many streets are still public spaces unlike any I’ve ever experienced in America. And it all just seems to happen organically. Is it the density? The urban form? The culture? The planning? As many have noted, the parks here are amazing. But I’ve also seen a 30+ conga line in a narrow space between the sidewalk and the entrance to an insurance company. Vibrant public life just happens everywhere.

I think Hannah could be onto something with her observations about private space and less emphasis on personal possessions. When you have less to call your own are you inclined to share more with the community? My husband Eli, a Sinophile if there ever was one, thinks the culture plays a huge part. It is one of the oldest civilizations in history, and has gone through some brutally trying times to now be the global hegemon. The shared history is probably going to make you feel connected to your community. Or is there just innate vibrancy in a dense city of millions?

I’m all questions with no answers, but would love to know what others think. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of living here, and I haven’t had enough! I’ll be living somewhere in China for the foreseeable future, so if future MURP interns want to hit me up you can (vtylep at gmail).

I’ll leave it at this video, a spontaneous chorus in the park that we stumbled across. They had more heart than any church choir I’ve ever heard.


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Great Wall Fresh – posted by Lauren

I’m guessing future MURP interns are one of this blog’s primary audiences, so I thought I’d pass on some travel advice. Hat tip to Nick for knowing about this place, and it also got a thumbs up from Hannah earlier this year.

Great Wall Fresh is a guesthouse in a tiny village in the shadow of the Great Wall. The Chen family is incredibly nice, the food is delicious, and the hiking is first rate. My husband Eli and I spent the last three days there and highly recommend it.

We did the two challenging hikes and each took about 6 hours with plenty of breaks. If you only have time for one of the demanding ones I’d recommend the Hunchback Curve. The views from the High Tower hike were amazing, but the wall is in much better shape on the Hunchback section. A part of it is even restored and they were working on it when we were up there, so chances are good even more will be restored in a year or two.

hunchback down hunchback restored hunchback up down hunchback scramble

It is a lot of scrambling up and down mountains, and parts are slow going because you’re climbing through rubble. But you’ll likely have the whole thing to yourself, and the surrounding valleys and forests are beautiful.

Below are a few photos from the High Tower hike. Getting up there was a little rough, the trail was not well-maintained in spots so it required some bushwhacking, but once you’re up there it definitely feels like the top of the world. And there’s a wind farm down there!

top of world wind farm high tower path 2 high tower path

Back at the house you definitely get a feel for rural country life. The food was really good and they keep the fridge stocked with beer. We ate dinner in the courtyard and watched the sunset over the wall, and got a hot breakfast before hiking each morning.

noodles quail eggs green beans breakfast

If you want to see the Great Wall and aren’t into the tourist scene, this is the place.

Beijing Bicycle – posted by Lauren

There was a ton of excitement over Portland’s bike share announcement last week, so it only seems fitting to post about Beijing’s bike share system. I’m glad to hear the Portland system will finally be rolling out, and those green bikes are dead sexy. The Tilikum Crossing, bike share, legal weed, y’all are getting all the nice things now that I’m gone.

The logo for Beijing Public Bikes, featured prominently in the campaign for ‘don’t drive to work alone day’ on September 22.

The logo for Beijing Public Bikes, featured prominently in the campaign for ‘don’t drive to work alone day’ on September 22.


The bikes here are red, because everything is red.  

The bikes here are red, because everything is red.

I was debating whether or not to sign up for bike share here. Public transit can get you anywhere you need to go, but I miss riding a bike! The parade blue is gone, but the fall rains have started and the pollution drops after a heavy rain. This past weekend was relatively clear (from rain and smog) so I decided our Sunday outing to the old summer palace should happen by bike.

In my opinion the best feature by far is that you use your transit card to rent a bike. The municipally owned system really is an extension of the transit network.

Good on subways, buses, and public bikes! Modern living indeed.  

Good on subways, buses, and public bikes! Modern living indeed.

But before you can take a bike for a spin you have to enroll your transit card in the bike share system. This can only be done at a few locations during certain hours. They require a 400 yuan refundable deposit (about $60) and some paperwork, which is translated in English. I had my husband Eli with me who speaks Chinese so it was a seamless process. (Yes, I’m completely cheating at this whole being immersed in a foreign language thing. An intern from 2011 recounts what it will be like for the rest of you.)

After your card is activated for bike share all you have to do is swipe it at the docking station. The price is unbelievably cheap. The first hour is free, and every hour after that is 1 yuan (about 15 cents). The maximum amount you can be charged is 10 yuan (about $1.50), for the entire day!


Ready to roll. Note the empty docking stations, this one must be popular.

Ready to roll. Note the empty docking stations, this one must be popular.

As for the bikes themselves, we ran into a few problems. The brakes didn’t really work on the two bikes we selected, but the main issue was the size. I’m 5’9 and Eli is 6’2 and even with the seats as high as they would go we just didn’t fit. Our plan to ride to the summer palace (about 7 miles away) was quickly dashed because it would not have been a comfortable ride. The average height here might be shorter than us, but we have seen plenty of tall people, so I wonder how they manage.

Its got a bell, a basket, a cable lock, and questionable brakes, only an issue if you plan on stopping.

Its got a bell, a basket, a cable lock, and questionable brakes, only an issue if you plan on stopping.

Tall man, little bike.

Tall man, little bike.

We did take a spin around the neighborhood for the requisite photo shoot. There is usually a separate lane for two-wheeled traffic and car parking on major streets, so that is definitely a win. You do have to share this space with motorbikes and utility trikes but it is much less stressful than riding next to traffic. There are also a ton of e-bikes here, used for delivery and everyday transit. Permanent or temporary separation, both are appreciated.

tree separation temp separation



As far as the biking culture in Beijing goes, this recap from 2011 is still accurate. Still no helmets, lights, or cycling clothes in sight. I was struck by the lack of bike racks. On the street where I live there are just painted boxes on the sidewalk. People either don’t lock their bike at all or just lock one of the wheels so it can’t be rolled away. Apparently this is the bike parking situation in Shenzhen as well. This obviously wouldn’t fly in Portland since you could just pick the bike up to steal it. A possible theft deterrent could be that most people here ride rusty old bikes that look like they haven’t been maintained since the 1980s. I’ve seen a couple flashy new ones, but they are few and far between.

bike box

I’m accustomed to real bike racks but bike infrastructure that is just paint, here the parking is just paint but the infrastructure is real.

locked wheel

Apparently this works?

The bike share system debuted in 2011 and now has over 40,000 bikes available at stations concentrated in the central city and a few suburban enclaves. I had trouble finding current information on ridership rates, but this article from 2013 reports that ridership was low in the first year. I see a lot of mostly empty docking stations, so perhaps ridership has gone up in the past two years.

Hopefully this system can help reclaim some of the mode share that was lost to the car takeover. It is really a story that is too sad to tell – the Kingdom of Bicycles reduced to a honking, gridlocked fiasco. Apparently these days it is all about form over function. You’ve got to love the quote from a woman who would rather be crying in a BMW than laughing on a bicycle. Well, she’s got plenty of time to cry when she’s stuck in traffic while the bicycles roll on by.

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