I’ve been hard on Beijing; I admit it. What with its persistent smog, undrinkable water, extremely dangerous pedestrian environment, ridiculously out of scale infrastructure, and monotonous sea of mid-rise buildings, I found myself constantly tearing this city apart. As the other interns and numerous articles have noted, we in the U.S. have had the displeasure of experiencing many of these same issues, but have since realized our mistakes, and are just now starting to get things under control. I think seeing a city with such vast potential and beauty go down the same road is just frustrating and has lead me to focus on the negative sometimes. These last few days though I’ve tried to flip my perspective; I’ve been attempting to look for elements that Beijing has and American planners are still striving for. So here, in no particular order is my list of the top 5 urban planning related elements I love about Beijing and think American planners should pay heed to.
1.) Public Restrooms
Colin did a great post on public restrooms so I won’t go into too much detail about them. As Colin noted in his blog though, sanitation has been recognized as a basic human right. The availability of and equal access to these facilities ensures people can move freely about their city and relieve themselves with dignity. Public toilets also prevent public health issues (as well as just overall unpleasantness) caused by public urination and defecation. The lack of public toilets has become a serious problem for many cities in the U.S. and even places that are taking steps to provide these facilities are having major difficulties keeping them clean and crime free. Beijing on the other hand, seems to be doing an excellent job at providing these facilities for residents and visitors. The sheer number alone is impressive; there seems to be a public restroom available around every corner in this city, most of which are attended to with at least one or two dedicated staff members. And while the cleanliness and quality of these facilities varies greatly throughout Beijing, they are still leaps and bounds ahead of us in the efforts they’re making to provide quality facilities to residents and visitors alike.
**Just as a side note; I was using a public restroom the other day and pushed what I thought was the flush button but was actually the ‘I am physically disabled and need assistance’ button. A woman was there within minutes to see if I needed help! While a little embarrassing, the level of service was impressive!
2.) Neighborhood Grocer
In a place as obsessed with food systems (and food in general) as Portland, we’re all well aware of food deserts and the problems they present. The lack of access to fresh, healthy and affordable food in urban areas, especially in low-income neighborhoods, is becoming an increasingly serious problem in cities across the U.S. So much so that the elimination of them is part of the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ Campaign and the USDA offers an interactive mapping site for those interested in the topic. The flight of supermarkets to the suburbs, inadequate public transportation, and a lack of healthy food at corner stores are all factors that contribute to this lack of access. Beijing doesn’t really seem to have this problem at all. Not only are there three large grocery stores available to me within a short walk from my hotel; these are supplemented by numerous cornerstores, small to mid-sized grocery stores, bakeries, butcher shops, and countless streetside vegetable and fruit vendors. In addition, you will also sometimes see mobile vendors selling anything from dragon-fruit to bags of rice. The food and drink at all these places tends to run about the same price and all the stores will usually have some healthy options available. Even the corner-store will have usually have bulk rice, beans and peanuts for sale.
3.) Democratized Streetscapes/Rethinking Streets as Public Spaces
The single-minded focus of planning and designing streets for the safe and efficient movement of vehicles has had serious social and environmental impacts in the U.S. This car-centric planning has encouraged sprawl, advanced adverse health conditions such as asthma and obesity and significantly impaired the environmental health and quality of communities. All this while ultimately failing to improve mobility and access to destinations. Unfortunately, Chinese cities seem to be heading down the same path. Within minutes of starting to explore Beijing, it was apparent to me that the car comes first and streets are planned primarily with their needs in mind. However, it was also apparent to me that Beijing wasn’t quite aware it had done this and continued to use the street in the same way it always had. Pedestrians and cyclists alike seemed to have no fear of the car; they would weave their way in between moving and parked vehicles, ignoring the honks and revving engines. And even with four lanes of speeding traffic beside them, the pedestrian space (where there is some) is still alive with a variety of mobile vendors, food-carts, newspaper shops and even mini mobile bicycle repair shops. It’s also not uncommon to see tables set up for people to eat their meals or enjoy an afternoon game of cards or mahjong Children, dogs, and even some fat and happy chickens on the street where CAUPD is, run free, enjoying their streets as a lively and vibrant public space. All this a stones throw away from multiple lanes of stinky, noisy Beijing traffic. How, and more important why, are the Chinese still using these spaces in this way? Despite an overwhelmingly car-centric design, what factors are keeping them in these spaces that any Westerner would avoid at all cost? I think we in the U.S. could learn a lot from determining the answers to these questions. Beyond design, we could begin to understand what other factors contribute to effectively transforming streets into places.
4.) Public Parks
This morning I got up early to visit Jingshan Park on the North side of the Forbidden City. As I watched the slow, graceful movements of a group practicing Tai Chi I was reminded of how amazing the public parks are here. I can’t say enough good things about them and am thoroughly impressed with their design, programming and the central role they play in communities here. There’s just so much going on in them. Ballroom dancing, aerobics, sword and fan dancing, calisthenics, jogging, kite-flying, roller-skating, singing, instrument playing, calligraphy writing, fishing, swimming, napping…these are all things I’ve seen happening in the parks here. And these things happen at all hours of the day and well into the night. The environment is incredibly inclusive as well; families, the elderly and teenagers all harmoniously share these spaces. Also, Beijing doesn’t skimp on resources when it comes to building and maintaining these things. Every park I’ve been to has been extremely nice and immaculately maintained. Finally, my favorite aspect of the Chinese park is the adult playground, or ‘exercise pods’. These are so brilliant! American planners are starting to take note of these as well which really makes me happy. Well done China!
5.) The 24hr City
One of the coolest things about Beijing, by far, has been how alive this city is at night. In most parts of the city the shops, salons, bars and restaraunts stay open very late. Salons seem to stay open until at least 10 or 11 and it’s not unusual to see restaurants full of people until 1 or 2 in the morning. In the more happening parts of the city, a lot of the bars and restaraunts never close. While this brings up some questions regarding worker’s rights and China’s cheap labor, overall, the 24 hour city generates more jobs, activities and potentially, more social solidarity. Some cities have realized the opportunity in providing night-time spaces and activities for residents and dwellers and are taking active steps to make this happen. A Professor at PSU was actually the one who pointed out to me that a vast majority of what we do as planners only relates to what happens during the day. There’s a whole other world of possibilities, problems and research to be done on the night-time city that is for the most part, being ignored right now. Portland, and other American cities could learn a lot by looking to Beijing to determine what makes their night-time city work as well as it does.