Quality of life and semantics

For those who may be interested, I have been placed as an intern in the International Cooperation Department at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). The main role of the department is to coordinate activities with CAUPD’s international partners. The department staff also provides support to the organization through various research projects.

This chow chow enjoys his life in the vibrant hutongs of Beijing.

During my second week in the office, my department invited me to present about my past life. For those not familiar with my background, prior to enrolling in the MURP program at PSU I worked in the non-profit sector for several years supporting community-led movements for various environmental justice and health equity issues. Following the presentation, several of my coworkers at CAUPD noted that my interests in social justice issues, community development and urban planning are in sharp contrast to China where urban planning is primarily concerned with physical design. However, one of my coworkers believes that things are beginning to change as interests are growing in the application of urban planning to address social issues in China.

For instance, one of the major research projects wrapping up this summer in my department is a quality of life study. As an intern for the department, I am assisting with research around several topics related to urban quality of life, such as:

  • Measuring and operationalizing “quality of life” indicators
  • Relocation planning for urban redevelopment in inner cities
  • Theory, models and case studies of “vibrant” cities

These past couple of weeks I have been researching up a storm on these super interesting topics. The main challenge throughout my thought process has been focused on one critical question on semantics: what does it all mean?!

Ok. So maybe not just one question, more like a million. Like… What does “quality of life” mean and to whom? Who decides how it is defined and measured? What are the implications of operationalizing certain measures and indicators versus others? What does urban redevelopment mean for China? Is “vibrant” a universal concept when applied to urban development and growth?

Does a beautiful waterfront and skyline equal “vibrant”? This is Tianjin, just outside of Beijing.


I struggle with these questions because on a fundamental level I recognize the pervasive influence of western thought on eastern development. I can see myself and fellow interns as agents delivering western ideas in neatly packaged powerpoint presentations. However, I’m hoping these ideas will be received and consumed with a critical lens on the current and future needs of China and its people.

Though challenging, I feel like the research has been rewarding. I have about two weeks left to wrap up my work at CAUPD, so if any of you readers out there have suggestions for literature or case studies I should look at for inspiration, please feel free to leave links and citations for me!

谢谢 | Xièxiè | Thank you! 🙂

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One thought on “Quality of life and semantics

  1. taps says:

    I don’t have any studies for you. Just wanted to say you’re awesome. 🙂


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