Becoming one with nature


Known both regionally and internationally as an economic experimental city, Shenzhen is a busy mix of sleek, modern development contrasted to the seemingly chaotic urban villages- the epitome of mixed-use space- full of multi-unit dwellings hovering over a plethora of commercial fronts: green grocers, bike repair shops, meat markets, electronics stores, restaurants…the list goes on. Regardless of the type of development, Shenzhen’s economic experiment has quickly put the city at odds in finding developable space and it is probably the last place where you might think to find a space for nature.

A father and daughter fishing in the park.

Western culture typically views nature as a coveted resource that must be protected and preserved. Think of any US National Park or Forest. Despite the Western reverence for these natural environments, there remains a tension with this perspective and the equally valued desire for recreational access to our national treasures. In contrast, the Chinese perspective of the relationship between humans and nature is one of harmony among all things, both organic and inorganic. This Confucian and Taoist outlook has informed the high degree of “urbanization” in many natural spaces. From paving concrete paths to building hotels and restaurants, all have been done in an effort to create accessibility and accommodation for more people to enjoy the beauty in nature. The 11th Century Chinese literary tradition, shan shui, says that humans can play a role to enhance nature in a way that acknowledges the sacredness of what is natural if the development is consistent with a valued heritage.

Massive skyscrapers and modern buildings envelop the park.

Badminton matches surrounding a park temple.

This perspective of nature has become much more visible to me after spending the last couple weeks here in Shenzhen. I have taken to early morning runs through a nearby park (as it is one of the only times during a Shenzhen summer day that is semi-tolerable for being physically active). Each morning, I am amazed by the number and array of people who fill the park, occupying the planned sections to cultivate their own sense of connection with nature.

Enjoying a peaceful moment before a demanding workday.

One of many groups in the park practicing meditative movement.

I shuffle alongside many other runners/walkers/yoggers as we move around the path, circling the perimeter. It’s hard to not get lured in by all of the other side paths and outlets of activity I see as I pass by: people playing badminton around a temple; a group of color coordinated women practicing dance; and many clusters of people practicing meditative movement.

Team of ladies practicing their choreography.

One of many groups in the park practicing meditative movement.

Despite my first (Western-oriented) impression of this park being a manicured and superimposed reality of nature, I now realize and observe people finding authentic connections to this form of nature and the people they share the space with.

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Urban Redevelopment, the Shenzhen way.

First off, I’d like to apologize. This blog post is going to touch on urban economics and housing affordability; not the sexiest of topics for a blog.  If Portland, USA and Shenzhen, China have one thing in common (and it isn’t much), it would be that they are both becoming increasingly unaffordable.  With that being said, the magnitude of unaffordability between the two cities is incomparable.  Last year Shenzhen surpassed Shanghai and Beijing in becoming the most expensive housing market in China.  Shenzhen is essentially running out of vacant land to build upon.  Amid this severe shortage of residential land supply in Shenzhen, leading to astronomical home prices, the city is getting aggressive in launching urban infill redevelopment projects.  These projects will become an intense area of competition among companies eager to make a profit from China’s most expensive property market.  According to the 13th Five-Year Plan (five-year plans are a series of social and economic development initiatives and policies shaped by the Communist Party of China, mapping strategies and setting growth targets), the city is aiming to redevelop an urban land area of 30 square kilometers (7,400 acres) and renovate more than 100 old industrial districts and 100 urban villages.  The plan looks to resolve the housing shortage in the city by building roughly 260,000 new residential apartments near railway stations and in the city center.

Building one’s way out of unaffordability (adding supply to meet demand) is by no means a new concept, but what strikes me is the renovations to the urban villages, which essentially means tearing a good portion of them down.  Fellow intern Brandon was placed, ironically, in UPDIS’ Urban Renewal department and got to tour one of the urban villages that will be partially torn down soon and UPDIS is working on the design for the redevelopment.  From what we have been hearing, urban villages provide the last type of affordable housing in the city.  And this is by no means “low-income” housing; these villages house a diverse mix of students, young families, and blue and white-collar professionals.  It will be interesting to see in the long run how much of this new housing being built will be made affordable to citizens who don’t work in tech or some of Shenzhen’s other high-powered industries.


Brakes of Beijing

Beijing has many bikes. These bikes all have brakes.


Ofo Bike

This bike by the Ofo bicycle rental company has belt brakes on the front and rear wheels:


Ofo Front Belt Brake


Ofo Rear Belt Brake

Belt brakes are very China.


mobike bike

This very fancy single-tine fork and single-chainstay/no-seatstay bike by the mobike bicycle rental company looks like it has disk brakes front and rear. Let’s take a closer look.


mobike rear

It’s a disk brake in the back. What about the front?


mobike front

It’s a fake disk on a drum brake! Those jokers!

Look at this old-fashioned brake. It’s a single level across both ends of the handlebars attached to a rod that pulls together the brake pads to squeeze the rim. Cables must have been hard to come by back in this bike’s day.


rod brake lever


rod brake pads

rod 1

rod brake, forgive the artifact of the panorama composition

A bicycle rental company may even use more than one model of bicycle. Here, we see another mobike bicycle.


mobike with a belt brake and fun tires

It has a belt brake in the rear, but also of note are its non-pneumatic tires. The tires flex with many tiny holes that allow the solid rubber to give in when the road is rough. It is like riding a Nike Air.

In conclusion, Beijing is a land of contrasting bicycle brakes.