北川 – Old Beichuan, New Beichuan

Old Beichuan, before and after the earthquake.

In our last week in Chongqing, Derek and I were invited to take part in a four-day new employee  training trip with others from our office. We hopped in a van-bus on 25 August and drove to Beichuan, about a four-hour drive from Chongqing. Here, we met with over 100 planners from the other CAUPD offices. For many of our coworkers, this meant reuniting with university classmates.

Prepping for one of many group pictures.

Over the long weekend, we toured sites in Beichuan and Chengdu. Beichuan presented a unique opportunity, as the city was destroyed in an earthquake that affected many areas of  Sichuan Province in 2008 and was subsequently rebuilt (with lots of participation by CAUPD) in a different location, leaving the rubble as a tourist site. We spent time exploring both the old and new cities, so I wanted to give you a peek at what this planned-from-the-ground-up city looks like.

Old Beichuan and the Earthquake

The earthquake that struck on 12 May 2008 was a magnitude 7.9 quake, similar in strength to the quake that destroyed San Francisco in the early 1900’s and a more recent (2005) and very destructive earthquake in Kashmir. The epicenter of the earthquake was in Sichuan province, to the northwest of Chongqing.

Beichuan was not the only city affected by the earthquake, which is known as the Sichuan or Wenchuan Earthquake but it was one of the more seriously hit locations. Out of the nearly 70,000 people who were killed, 12,000 were in Beichuan – more than half of the pre-earthquake population of the city. Not only did the tremors cause buildings to collapse, but they also caused landslides from the steep mountains surrounding the city, which caused floods and exacerbated the extent of the damage.

Beichuan’s decision to leave the crumbled city as-is and quickly rebuild the city elsewhere caught the attention of media worldwide, who commented on the timeline for the rebuilding and what it means for the area’s culture. The decision to move the city’s location was mainly due to safety. The city was located on top of a fault line, and the area is still vulnerable to more landslides form the mountains which form a tight boundary around the city.

Though we often see pictures of natural disasters on the news, we usually don’t see their aftermath firsthand  (if we’re lucky). Our tour of old Beichuan the rubble of the city destroyed by the earthquake, was a unique, rather surreal experience. I’ll include a few pictures here, but I will mostly let them speak for themselves. (All photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.)

Our first stop was an overlook.

The overlook had a lot of information on what we were looking at, and what we would have been looking at before the earthquake.

Our group split in a few smaller groups for guided tours of the area. I think this picture really shows just how tightly the mountains surround the city. It’s not hard to see how a dangerous landslide could easily occur.

The earthquake is also known as the “5-12” earthquake. There’s a memorial on the old city site. We left flowers after a moment of silence.

We walked through old Beichuan and saw earthquake damage ranging from crumbling buildings to crushed vehicles. As shown in the lower right image, there were many signs that showed how many people were killed and injured in a certain building, and they often showed pictures and told stories of the victims.

Though the whole scene is pretty grim, the city is proud of the unity that the county and region showed after the disaster, and there is an underlying message of moving forward.

We visited a museum that had a lot of details about both the immediate effects of the earthquake and the follow-up actions. Though I couldn’t read all of the captions, the pictures clearly demonstrated the progress from devastation to recovery.

Many of my colleagues seemed to be quite moved (some to tears) by the visit to the site and the museum.  I didn’t ask any of them what lessons they gleaned from our visit to old Beichuan, and I’m not sure what the CAUPD leadership might have said about it in the meetings that were held during the trip. It seems to me that one takeaway is that it’s important to understand the environmental circumstances of where you build – a city on a fault line and at the base of a steep mountain seems to be in a prime spot for trouble. The whole thing was a bit reminiscent of visiting “ground zero” in New York City – it was moving, but strange to visit as a tourist.

Beichuan New Town

Planners from CAUPD’s Beijing office were responsible for proposing a relocation site for the city of Beichuan as well as much of the planning for the new city. According to this report titled “Post-quake Reconstruction Planning and Implementation for Beichuan New Town,” planners took several aspects of the location into account, including geological, transportation and spatial conditions and demand for future regional development. The final location was chosen due to its relative safety and flatness.

According to the report, CAUPD’s technical planning approach emphasized six synergies. Two that I thought were particularly interesting are:

1. Explicitly combining “innovative ideas and applicable [implementation] measures.” For example, the plan emphasizes non-vehicular transportation and traffic calming and uses strategies such as intersection design, slow traffic system design, and green landscape design.

Two-lane roads slow down the traffic, and bicycle lanes on each side of the street provide a safe space for those on two wheels.

Bike lane, protected from cars by barriers.

I like to think that this man is telling cars to slow down and watch out for pedestrians and cyclists, but I still lack the skills to say for sure.

2. Balancing “government intention and resident expectation.” Public participation was a high priority, including:

  • Seven field surveys on site selection, master planning, land acquisition, housing policy, and landless farmers.
  • Straightforward planning brochures
  • Questionnaires closely related to actual conditions
  • In-depth site interview
  • Investigations and communications with the mass through TV programs as well as publicity by means of videos popular with the mass

The report also emphasizes that the  city layout and design emphasizes local architectural style, protection of the mountain view, human scale development, and incorporation of ethnic minority characteristics.

Features of Beichuan New Town

It is clear that the old location of Beichuan was not sustainable – earthquakes and landslides will be recurring. The move to the new location is more sustainable not only because of fewer environmental hazards, but also because several of the features of the way the city is designed incorporate sustainable aspects.

Source: “Post-quake Reconstruction Planning and Implementation for Beichuan New Town”

Cultural Axis

Some people feared that the large amount of deaths and the movement of the location of Beichuan would cause the local Qiang culture to weaken. To create an area of the new city where the local culture could be preserved and thrive, the spatial structure contains a “cultural axis.”

The cultural axis connects the plaza in the east to the river on the west with a pedestrian-only street, and it continues to the west of the river (though we didn’t visit that part of Beichuan). It celebrates the Qiang culture with landmarks such as statues and gates and a monument to Yu the Great, a legendary ruler said to be born in what is now Beichuan county. It’s built at a walkable, pedestrian scale, with many restaurants and shops and places for social activities such as dancing.

Memorial to the earthquake victims, in the plaza.

The plaza was full of people at night.

Kids were zooming around in these vehicles in the plaza. I resisted the urge to join them. I don’t think these vehicles hold any cultural significance, but they are pretty fun to watch.

This is the gate that separates the plaza portion of the cultural corridor from the pedestrian shopping and dining street. The sheep horns are a recurring symbol throughout Beichuan.

Leisure Belt

The leisure belt seems to be made up of the ring of parks and other green spaces that cut across the cultural axis. These space both provide green space for people and green space for water circulation and stormwater management. Though I didn’t find anything explicitly corroborating my theory, it seems to me that planners may have used both the river and the man-made creek to create a link back to old Beichuan, which sat on a river.

Ecological Corridor

The ecological corridor comprises the river and surrounding greenspace, which seems to include stormwater runoff management landscaping.


Housing is plentiful in Beichuan New Town, if not very distinctive from block to block. The plan is that the city will eventually be home to 30,000 people, many of whom will live in affordable housing.

Streets as social spaces

Not all areas of Beichuan are currently populated with people, and those that aren’t feel accordingly quiet. Once we entered an area where people were living, however, the story was different. I stumbled on a street market. Though the roads weren’t closed to traffic, people (including me) felt comfortable walking in the street – something I haven’t seen in other cities. Granted, Beichuan is much smaller than most cities I’ve visited, but I do think that it might say something about the culture in Beichuan – the automobile does not reign supreme here.

Source: “Post-quake Reconstruction Planning and Implementation for Beichuan New Town”

Near the end of our last meal in Beichuan, the president of CAUPD,  Li Xiaojiang, asked Derek and me what we thought about new Beichuan. As the other employees on the trip were required to write reports giving an assessment of things that needed to be improved in Beichuan, it seemed only fair that we also be asked for our input. Though it is hard to fairly critique a city that is not yet fully built, Derek did mention a couple of ideas regarding character and sense of place, which is something we’ve also been thinking about for Yuzhong district in Chongqing.

Though the city is not without flaws (I’d be interested to see a city that is), I can appreciate all of the work that has gone in to finding an ideal location for a new Beichuan and the difficulty of working with residents and multiple levels of government to create and implement a plan on such an accelerated timeline. It does seem that other areas that were affected by the earthquake  may not be moving ahead with rebuilding, so I hope that the Beichuan plan continues to be implemented.

Overall, the trip was a nice way to wrap up our time in China. Though it was a somber and rather odd experience to visit old Beichuan, it was rather exciting to visit a new city with the people who designed it. We had a lot of fun with group meals, visiting our first KTV in China for some karaoke (Derek and I had a Bohemian Rhapsody duet), socializing with our coworkers, meeting people from the other branches.

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