Category Archives: 2014

The People. The People. The People.

I once picked up a book at my old college’s free book pile entitled, “The Real Meaning of Life”. It was a collection of answers to the question, “What is the real meaning of life?” from an online forum. The answer that I was most drawn to was a quote from the Maori, an indigenous people of New Zealand:

“Te Tegata. Te Tegata. Te Tegata”.
The people. The people. The people.

My time in the great city of Beijing has come to an end, but it is not the rich history of emperors living behind closed walls or the fried scorpions sold on the street that I’ll remember the most, it’s the people. Notably my colleagues in the Regional Transportation Planning department at China’s Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). They have been extremely welcoming from day one: indulging me in the most basic questions about traffic order, inviting me to an international transportation conference, and bringing me to a night out at the symphony. It’s only fair that I share these wonderful people with you too.

Without further ado, my colleagues, my friends.


Dr. Wang

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The best boss you could ask for and I’m not just saying that– my internship is already over so he can’t fire me anymore! Dr. Wang took the time to sit and answer all my questions, talk about his career in planning, and share his overall life. His parents were both farmers before China’s rapid urbanization. So Dr. Wang was fortunate to grow up in the generation that has seen both worlds in China: the natural and the modern. Now he hopes for a different modern world. He believes as China’s urbanization rate slow down, the country will look inward, to its people. The future of planning will shift from building large scale infrastructure to enriching quality of life.

Dr. Wang is also an international man. He is coming to UCLA in the fall as a visiting urban planning scholar. I think he speaks English well, but he dubs his wife the “translator” since she speaks five languages including French and Italian. Welcome the Wang family to the US!


Xiao Ma (Little horse)

30.picXiao Ma promised me on day one to be my friend. And my friend she has become! She took it upon herself to teach me the few Mandarin phrases I know, show me the Bus Rapid Transit, and take Christine and I on an epic trip to Tianjin.

Xiao Ma is a fellow transportation intern, but she confessed she originally chose transportation for the money. She didn’t know what to do at the time when she was supposed to a choose a major, but chose rail because China was intensely developing its rail and subway system in 2008 . Luckily she realized that transportation does drive her, for all she wants to do is something that is, “close to life”. That is improve the daily life of the Chinese people and bring people closer together. Furthermore, she wants to help reduce inequality, notably the favoritism towards the wealthy who can afford the automobile. She is especially inspired by China’s new president’s, Xi Jinping, “very brave” anti-corruption campaign.

Xiao Ma is a free spirit. She says that “the Chinese live one life”: they find a job wherever they can, get married, buy a house (often in their hometown), and have children. But not her. Xiao Ma has a plan to visit multiple cities with strong transportation companies in the next few months. She will find the city she will thrive in. But NOKIA Lumia 900_000082she won’t stop there. She wants to travel, meet people, and gather knowledge because “I want to have stories to tell”. She held up one hand, parallel to the ground, and kept raising it.  “I want to become stronger”, to keep building as a person.

I told her, we have the same dreams. We want to help others, see more, be more. “Yes, but I have more risk here”. There are more fingers being pointed at her if she doesn’t follow the “one life”. And this is why she is the brave one.


Carrie

31.picThere is no shortage of bravery here either. Carrie set out to achieve the “Chinese one life” plan: she went to a top university, received her Masters, and found a great job. This has recently provided her with a Beijing Hukou, an extremely coveted residency status that provide access to social services such as healthcare and education. The Hukou is also a main source of contention as several million migrants without a Hukou suffer without basic services. So life is good for Carrie right? Well.. sometimes like all great master plans, life doesn’t go according to plan.

Like Xiao Ma, Carrie confessed she kind of just fell into transportation because..well…that was the most reputable major at her university. She said she didn’t even know what “transportation engineering” was at the time. Carrie also admitted that when she studied for her Masters Degree in the United Kingdom, she barely left her room. She felt so much pressure to do well, especially as a foreign student. She was afraid of judgement from other students and Chinese society. Furthermore, she spent the last year working 12-14 hour days, six days a week.

Now as as she looks back? She says, “I would have left my room”. She would have tasted fish and chips, talked to people, and took time to find herself. To find the joys in life that she feels many in China have not been lucky enough to find. She has done what many have not— she has reevaluated her course in life, decided she doesn’t like what she sees, and despite society’s pressure, she will get hers. Carrie, at the age of 25 with a Masters degree in Transportation Engineering, will open her own art school next month. A facility nNOKIA Lumia 900_000191ear a college campus for the everyday student, not the professional artist. For she hopes that this generation can learn to look inwards, paint, draw, and create their own world.

Carrie says urban planning is an interest, but not her passion, I’m arguing that in fact it is. Like Dr. Wang suggested, what Carrie knows as planning, this technical/ mechanical version, may not be what planning is evolving into in China and the world. Alas, Carrie still has a heart of an urban planner- a will to improve the quality of life for her people.

We, as planners, try so hard to create a sense of place and belonging by changing the use of space. However, more often then not, a place is its people. You know that feeling you get when you first meet someone and it’s like you’ve known them for years? Like one of your girls? That was Carrie. She was like finding home.

So as you can see, the heart of all my experiences here in China are: 

The people. The people. The people. 

Thank you my friends.

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Incredibly instructive signage

China never fails to disappoint when it comes to instructive [and entertaining] signage. Here are a couple of my favorite instructional signs.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“A small step close toward urinal, a big step toward civilization!”

Until I saw this sign (a male companion brought it to my attention- I did not discover it by being in the urinals myself), I would not have equated urinal usage with civilization. That being said, I totally get it. Hardly a day goes by without observing a child’s bare bum, often relieving itself in the public right-of-way. If you’ve been to China, you are likely familiar with crotchless pants that young children adorn. Also likely, you’ve observed some questionable parental judgment when it comes to excretion. While I understand many of the benefits of not diapering a small child, there’s a critical age at which public excretion just seems like a slap in the face (let’s hope not literally). And of course, not just children are to blame for human waste in the right-of-way. So yes, perhaps, a small step close toward urinal is a big step toward civilization.

Shenzhen recreation area

Shenzhen recreation area

“The slight effort to do environmental protection gives our children a beautiful earth”

Beautifully put. It may take a bit more than a “slight effort”, but stewardship, personal responsibility and trans-generational thinking are always good lessons.

All your emergency provisions in one park

This way to all of your various emergency service needs. And, just in case, please feel free to vend an emergency life jacket should the man-made pond reach one thousand year floodplain levels.

Shenzhen's Lichee Park

Shenzhen’s Lichee Park

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Guangzhou MTR

Safe escalator use

I’ve always been a cautious escalator user, but I was not fully aware of the dangers and responsibilities of escalator use. Thanks to this example of incredibly instructive signage, I now am. The messages conveyed here may be too numerous by our signage standards, but, hey, this is China (“TIC”).  

Wayfinding on Hong Kong MTR

Some more incredibly instructive MTR signage (although, quite a bit more useful)…

Hong Kong MTR

Hong Kong MTR

Shenzhen performing arts center

Shenzhen performing arts center

“Dry your hands, keep away drops” Yes, while drying your hands certainly will keep away drops, I can’t help but to wonder if this is the most important message to disseminate at the sink basin. Yes, I have an agenda. So far in mainland China, I have yet to see a sign about the importance of washing hands with soap- or the oh-so-familiar signs about washing before returning to work. I’ve been conducting my own study of sorts. At my office, males and females share the sinks in an area outside of the squat toilets. Covertly, I watch the handwashing behaviors of my fellow office workers. Over the past four weeks, on only two occasions have I seen anyone use soap, despite the fact that it is conveniently placed beside each basin. I try to withhold my public health reflex of repulsion. Back to the sign at hand (pun not intended): while entertaining, for me, this sign states the obvious, but misses the point.

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Physical Disability Planning in Beijing

My intention is not to downplay the importance of a planner’s role in accommodating and maximizing the utility of the urban environment for people of ALL disabilities, but this blog post is specifically going to cover my observations through the lens of people with physical disabilities. From my experiences in Beijing so far I have noticed spectacular design features on buildings and infrastructure. But when it comes to planning and designing for people with disabilities, China has a mixed record. With a population of 1.37 billion, you would imagine there is a significant portion of the population that has a physical disability, simply as a measure of proportions.

However you infrequently encounter people with obvious physical disabilities on the streets of Beijing (also of note, of the people who had physical disabilities that I encountered, all of them were elderly). And one of the reasons there may be a lack of disabled people on the street is due to issues of mobility. Now a point of clarification on the nature of physical disability I am talking about. Persons who need to use a wheelchair or assisted mobility device are significantly disadvantaged in public right-of-ways like sidewalks. Besides the streets of Beijing being completely unfriendly to pedestrians, you have a serious lack of infrastructure to accommodate the mobility of persons who cannot walk of their own volition. This is also true of the bus transit system. One of my local buses has a space reserved for wheelchairs (see picture below), but there is no lift assist or curbside access for them to get on the bus in the first place. And once in the space they are expected to be lashed down with a cord of rope. Certainly this is not very convenient or safe for someone traveling in a wheelchair on the bus system.

Handicap spot on the bus with rope to tie yourself in

Handicap spot on the bus with rope to tie yourself in

The subway system is certainly more accessible with elevator access points and the ability to board the train car at station stops (although there is a significant gap that a person has to be mindful of when boarding). While these infrastructure features for the subway are great they are not consistent among all station stops. Add to the mix the frenzy of people pushing and shoving their way onto the train and packing in like sardines and you are left with a miserable transit experience for someone who is disabled.

Handicap queue for the subway

Handicap queue for the subway

In addition to navigating difficult routes, accessing buildings and commercial spaces is sometimes impossible. While this is not uncommon in the U.S., it is frequent in Beijing. Even newer buildings, which have accessibility ramps, often the ramp grades are at a pitch that is not practical for someone in a hand powered wheelchair (see picture below).

A ramp that is too steep and slick, making it difficult for access.

A ramp that is too steep and slick, making it difficult for access.

But where infrastructure comes up short for people with mobility issues, infrastructure for the blind is ubiquitous. The sidewalks (when present) have tracks for the blind to follow with a system of textures to alert them when to stop, change direction, or sidestep around a barrier. These tracks are also found in the floors of the subway stations and along the edges of the boarding platforms. These track systems are often foiled by the parking crisis Beijing is suffering in the city limits, with cars parked on top of sidewalks. Other nice touches for blind persons are the braille in the hand railings of the subway stations providing locational and directional information to passengers.

Sidewalk track to guide the blind

Sidewalk track to guide the blind

Track for the blind, notice the different textured patterns which inform a a shift in walking direction

Track for the blind, notice the different textured patterns which inform a a shift in walking direction

Braille on the railings in a subway station

Braille on the railings in a subway station

China’s record on disability accommodation for buildings and transit has a long ways to go. It would be prudent of the central government and urban planners to factor access for people with disabilities. Since China has a large and aging cohort it would be prudent to make infrastructure fully functional for this large population. While these retrofits can be expensive, now with such rapid urban development going on in China it is easiest to plan for these features in the beginning stages of planning and design.

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