A few weekends ago I took a trip to Qingdao to attend the city’s 22nd International Beer Festival and take part in one of China’s most revered pastimes; drinking Tsingtao. While most of the weekend was spent learning the art of drinking Tsingtao from a bag and attempting to cratch crabs with locals on the beach, I did have a little bit of time to explore the city. As I explored what I consistently heard was one of the nicest and most liveable cities in China, I tried to determine :
1.) Which elements made this city so desirable and liveable in comparison to other Chinese cities
2.) If these elements were the result of thoughtful and innovative planning or simply happy accidents
3.) What lessons Chinese (and American readers of this blog!) could learn from China’s most liveable city
Qingdao, or “lush island” in Mandarin, is approximately 5 hours Southeast of Beijing by high-speed rail. The city is located in Shandong Province on China’s east coast. The city sprawls along the east shores of Jiaozhou Bay and Korea and Japan lie just to the East across the Yellow Sea. According to the 2010 Census, the city has a population of about 8.715 million and serves as a major seaport, naval base, tourist destination and industrial center for the region. Qingdao is perhaps most famously known for the Tsingtao Brewery, which German settlers founded in 1903 and produces the most famous beer in China. The brewery is an artifact of the Kiautschou Bay Concession when Germans seized and occupied the area from 1898 to 1914. Along with the beer, the Germans left behind hundreds of Bavarian style buildings and a fascinating colonial heritage. Qingdao is also known throughout China for its beautiful beaches and views of the bay. The city has seven public swimming beaches within Qingdao as well as 32 bays and 69 islands. For this reason in particular, the Qingdao International Sailing Centre was built and served as the venue for th 2008 Olympics sailing competitions. Unfortunately despite the city’s heavy promotion of sailing since the building of the marina, participation in the sport has been low and the marina goes largely unused. Finally, this city by the sea is known for it’s delicious seafood with clams steamed in chilli broth being the local specialty. I was partial to the skate though.
So how do we as planners define liveability and what implications does this word have in planning practice? I actually tend to avoid this word like the plague in anything that I write, whether it’s for class or work. I feel that like the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’, ‘liveability’ has also come to mean everything and nothing at the same time. (Want to test this? Google the word ‘sustainable’ and the most unsustainable thing/organization you can think of. You will undoubtedly get some ridiculously unbelievable publication or site attempting to prove how sustainable they are. Case in point. Case in point 2.) I feel like every 5 minutes I’m reading some random article, done by some random organization with some arbitrary ranking system telling me what the world’s best and most livable cities are. Regardless of my confusion and trepidation when it comes to this word though, it seems that the Economic Intelligent Unit’s Liveability Index and the Mercer Quality of Life Report are the most popular and broadly accepted rankings of cities. These ranking look at a combination of subjective factors based on surveys as well as objective figures on stability, culture, infrastructure, healthcare and education. However, much has been written on the difficulty of creating these rankings (so much so EIU had a contest to help update the rankings) and findings have proved to be highly debatable and are under constant scrutiny. China’s most popular livability ranking comes out of the Hong Kong based China Institute of Competitveness. Like many things in China, the report is proprietary information so I couldn’t research their methodology beyond knowing that the ranking looks at governance, economy, environment and culture.
A Truly Liveable City?
So how did Qingdao fare with all these different factors in mind? The moment I stepped off the train I could immediately understand where this city obtained the majority of its points. For the first time in weeks I didn’t feel like there was a layer of film settling on my skin from teeny-tiny-filthy-pollution-laden air particles. The skies were clear blue, the air was fresh and smelled like the sea and there was a nice breeze coming in. I saw the stars for the first time that night in almost 3 weeks. When I woke up that morning I was amazed to see lush, green mountains surrounding the North and East sides of the old town where we were staying.
As the weekend wore on though, I started to notice a few things that were obviously not contributing to a liveable city. First, I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the usual stream of cyclists that is commonplace in Beijing. Curious about what was going on, I turned to the Google. And found this…http://www.thatsqingdao.com/2012/07/qingdao-first-legal-bicycle-lane/…..whaaaaa??! Seriously? Well, who knows if it is actually enforced, but this does explain the major lack of infrastructure and cyclists I was noticing compared to Beijing. Second, after chatting with a girl from Jinan on the train, I learned that in comparison with other second tier cities, Qingdao is actually quite unaffordable. The city has recently become a destination for the ultra-wealthy and seaside condos and mansions are popping up left and right along the city’s 730km of coastline. This begs the question, livable for who? Next, while the city was pretty clean in comparison to Beijing, a couple of the beaches I visited were not. There seemed to be a lot of algae, indicating a major issue with over fertilizing in the area. Also, at one point I stopped to wash my feet off in some water and upon noticing its odd smell, realized it wasn’t a stream but effluent/runoff from the city making its way to the ocean. Gross!
I also experienced the worst bus-ride of my ENTIRE LIFE (not even exaggerating) in Qingdao. I’ll just say it was long, it was unpleasant, and it was in some of the worst traffic I’ve ever been in; including Beijing. After nearly 2 hours of that it was clear that this city did not have the ‘infrastructure’ portion of the ranking going for them. Finally, to me, one of the most upsetting and unlivable things about Qingdao is how it’s modernizing and developing itself away from the very thing that people love so much about it. Qingdao’s website advertises the city as a having a ‘laid back European atmosphere’ and ‘beautiful colonial architecture’ and people flock to the city because of this. Despite this, horrible, gray high rises are popping up all across the city, making Qingdao look just like every other Chinese city. All in all, despite all the hype, Qingdao didn’t seem any more livable to me than Beijing.
More important than all this though, I got to see this in real life, making my trip to Qingdao the highlight of my summer.