Tag Archives: Beijing

Some Thoughts About Beijing’s Public Toilets

Beijing’s public toilets are incredible. There are more public bathrooms than you could imagine. Go around any corner, it seems, and you are greeted by one of the ubiquitous little beige colored toilet buildings. Most of them are nothing special, but that is what I like about them. When you need to go, they’ve got what you need to get the job done. I feel at ease when I’m walking around the city, no matter the volume of liquid I’ve consumed, because I know that I’m not at risk of suddenly having to desperately search for a place to pee. This is no joke. Beijing’s toilets are a great civic amenity.

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Will Alvaro enter the bathroom?

 

The history of communal toilets in Beijing goes back centuries. Traditional courtyard houses were usually designed for four households who shared a toilet. The toilets were cleaned and emptied by the “Cleaning Guild” who sold the wastes to the “Excreta Commercial Guild”. The Excreta Commercial Guild sold the waste wholesale to farmers for manure. This cyclical system of waste management, where waste from communal toilets was sold to farmers to grow crops for residents who then created more excreta, persisted, essentially unchanged, into the 1960s.

During the Cultural Revolution, the courtyard toilets were moved to adjacent streets. The traditional single-family courtyard house was seen as a bourgeois institution, and moving the bathroom made way for increased housing density in the house’s central courtyards. For the communist party, the new communal neighborhood toilet became a potent symbol for the working class and communal living. In speeches, Chairman Mao would tell anecdotes about Shi Chaun-Xiang, a lavatory maintenance worker who had dedicated his life to cleaning restrooms on some of Beijing’s busiest streets, to illustrate the humble virtues of Chinese laborers.

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A typical bathroom.

 

Today, there are over 6,000 public toilets in Beijing. In the old part of the city, most homes do not have access to water or sewage utilities. There, the neighborhood toilet is just as important as its always been. The toilets are cleaned at least twice a day, and the excreta is collected in septic tanks which are serviced by special trucks. New buildings are required to provide running water and at least one toilet per unit. At the rapid pace that Beijing is developing, the communal neighborhood toilet is at risk of becoming a thing of the past.

To preserve the role of the toilet in Chinese public life, the city has been remodeling toilets by tricking them out with features such as WiFi, electric vehicle charging stations, flat screen TVs, and vending machines. The futuristic bathrooms are being marketed as “fifth-spaces”, which (after home, work, recreational and cyberspace) will be important places in people’s everyday lives. The WC signs are being replaced with a “5” as part of the rebranding campaign.

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A Shanghai Bathroom

 

You can almost tell the significance of a place by the quality of the toilets nearby. I recently visited Tiananmen Square’s bathroom. I was amazed to see that the toilet was managed by a small army of attendants. No sooner had I zipped up my fly than a uniformed man with a mop swooped in to make sure that I had left everything in order and tidy up for the next person.

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The Best Bathroom in Town

 

I really enjoy the design of the toilet buildings. The simple buildings have a certain austere functional charm. They make use of natural light, they are well ventilated, and every bathroom has its own character. They are usually located exactly where they should be, where alleyways intersect with busy streets, which makes them easy to find. I wish I had time to visit them all.

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Bathroom Ruins

 

I was initially surprised by how truly public the toilets are. Often, there are no walls separating the squat toilets. This creates opportunities to literally rub elbows with your neighbors. I’ve seen it – friends squatting side-by-side, telling jokes and gossiping. Also, The entrances often open onto busy streets and the insides are semi-visible from the sidewalk. In some toilets, passersby can kind of see you going to the bathroom. The lack of privacy sounds unpleasant, but I kind of like it. I feel safe knowing that there are people nearby that would help me if anything goes wrong. Once, upon entering a bathroom I encountered a completely naked man standing at the sink.  I felt comfortable brushing past him to get to the urinal because I knew that the collective gaze of the street had my back. Beijing’s public toilets are much better than what you often find in America – bathrooms located far away from any pedestrian activity where it feels like weird stuff could be lurking behind any stall door.

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Subway Platform Bathrooms – A+. I highly recommend checking them out!

 

American cities could learn a thing or two from Beijing’s toilets. Most American cities are woefully ill-equipped to handle people’s basic bathrooms needs. Who hasn’t had the experience of suddenly realizing that you have to go to the bathroom and not being able to find a place to go? It happens to me all of the time. I am usually able to sneak into a restaurant or find a bush, but for people with more complicated bathroom needs than me (e.g. people with disabilities, families with small children, the elderly, homeless people, etc..) not having bathrooms could be a serious barrier to enjoying public space.

Good cities should have plenty of bathrooms – because everyone pees. When I was a child, I was taught a rhyme to help me remember to go to the bathroom before long car trips. “It can happen to a he. It can happen to a she. But you never really know, when you’ll really have to pee.” It is a great piece of wisdom for 7-year-olds and urban planners alike. Don’t take bathrooms for granted, because they are not always there when you need them. Beijing’s got this issue figured out.

Daniel

Interesting Bathroom Resources:

Geisler, T. (2000). On Public Toilets in Beijing. Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), 53(4), 216-219.

Kitsuka, K; Et Al. (2007). Survey on Development and Management System of Public Toilets in Beijing -Case Studies in Dongsi and Xianyukou Areas-. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 6(2), 315 – 322.

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Being a planner in Beijing. Part I: A new center for Beijing

Globally advanced energy-saving and environment protection technologies, standards, materials and craftsmanship must be extensively used to build a green city, a forest city, a spongy city and a smart city –Chinese President Xi Jinping.

To combat congestion, and all of its negative impacts, Beijing is planning to build a new sub-center in one of its neighboring districts. The basic idea is to move the city’s departments to the district by 2017. Yes, 2017 – next year. The sub-center is part of a larger effort to spatially and economically integrate Beijing with neighboring cities Tianjin and Hebei, creating a mega-region (the Jing-Jin-Ji Megaregion – population: 100 million people) that will promote competition, innovation, and Beijing’s status as a global city.

At CADG, we are working on the plan for the new sub-center that will be located in Tonghzou District. This new center will add to Beijing around 155 sq. km. of new development. It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of this project – so for reference, the whole Portland area is 376 sq. km. Currently, Tongzhou has around 1,200,000 people (1,300/sq.km). Making a plan of this scale has been quite of a challenge and my team and I have been developing principles and guidelines to create a vibrant economic region that is environmentally sustainable and a nice place for people to live.

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Ideas for the new sub-center

Our plan promotes the Government’s vision of a green, forest, spongy and smart city. In developing these concepts, we are borrowing ideas from other cultures and consolidating others from China’s urban planning heritage. From these four concepts, I’ve been very interested in learning about the spongy city. A spongy city is a city that is designed to naturally retain, clean and drain rain water. This concept was implemented in Jinhua City, where they created a water resilient park that adapts to the water currents and people flows. I borrowed these pictures from this website (http://www.landezine.com/index.php/2015/03/a-resilient-landscape-yanweizhou-park-in-jinhua-city-by-turenscape/) to show you how innovative this idea is. During the rainy season, vegetation and pedestrian infrastructure capture the water, protecting the city from floods. When the water level drops in the summer, seasonal public spaces emerge.

In China, accessing information is a challenge. Everything is confidential! It can be very difficult to get even a simple basemap that shows basic features of the landscape or the location of landmarks. It is hard for the Chinese members of my team and, nearly, impossible for me as the foreign intern. Data has always been confidential, but from what I’ve heard, during the last months, the government was more restrictive after they found out the information was being illegally delivered to provide advantages to certain companies to win bids.

After begging for weeks they have finally agreed to show me the maps and information I need to do my work. The only condition I have is that I have to do my work in a special room, “the chamber of secrets”, under the supervision of an info guard (one of my coworkers). Understandable.

This week, we went to Tonghzou to get a sense of the area. Although we are designing a completely new city, there are some sections that have already been defined, such as the location of the CBD and the political center, that we will incorporate into our plan. There is also an area where a new Universal Studios theme park is currently being constructed. This will be the “America zone”; however, they are not forgetting their own culture. One of our main proposals is to build the “Chinese zone” next to it, which will have buildings, parks, gardens and museums that promote and display China’s culture to the world

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Getting ready for the visit

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Construction phase in the CBD area

Another important component of our plan is preserving and improving some existing areas. Tonghzou has several important temples and iconic neighborhoods in Old Town and in the north, including an art village, that will be saved. We didn’t have enough time to see a lot of the art village during the site visit. But during our time there, we saw a lot of artists, sculptures, and paintings.

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A Buddhist temple to preserve

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It is a challenge to preserve temples like this once the construction phase in some areas has begun

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Pictures of Old Town

 

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Art village

Most of the people who are currently living in the CBD area are going to be displaced in the process of developing the new sub-center. They will either be reimbursed for their property or will be relocated to new government-provided housing in a different part of the city. From what I have heard, there are not many affordable housing projects near the CBD and the political center; however, the development of affordable housing is being planned in other areas of the sub-center, luckily close to transit stations.

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Affordable housing close to a transit station

Learning about how China’s top-down approach to urban planning works has been very interesting. Although the local government does not explicitly take into account the community’s input in the planning process, a lot of effort goes into making the city a better place to live for its residents. Young and passionate planners, excited about the potential to improve China’s cities and inspired by successful cities around the world, are putting a lot of effort into what is going to be the future of planning.

P.S. Our team made it to the semi-finals of the company football tournament!

by Álvaro Caviedes

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Beijing, An Active City

Urban design influences human behavior. The layout of public spaces, the street, the buildings, the stores and all the physical elements that make up a community affect the availability of activities and how people use space. As Fred Kent from PPA puts it – If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.

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Kids playing hide and seek while the older ones play some basketball

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Pedestrians taking one car lane because the sidewalk was not wide enough

Physical inactivity is a health problem in various countries, causing premature deaths and chronic and non-communicable diseases. However, sometimes there is a lack of consideration of how the urban form affects physical activity and how it can be used to address this growing problem. But not everywhere. While wandering around Beijing wearing our planning glasses we saw how culture and urban design merge to produce a very interesting city to work on those muscles!

It is now 6 p.m. and it is time to explore the city. It is not hard to find a park or a plaza within a short walk. There is music and laughing and color and food and smells and something else that we cannot see. Walls of people curious like us make it very hard to make out what is happening in the square. After struggling to get to the first row of the event we finally see it, at least 20 couples dancing. All ages are here. The music comes from a special motorcycle modified to carry a speaker. A party in the middle of the square. We cannot believe it. And It is free! (as a student this is an important consideration). Our friend Huayei gets surprised of us being surprised. She tells us that every night people (mainly retired folks) gather to dance in the main public spaces all over Beijing.

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Kids playing hide and seek while the older ones play some basketball

This popular tradition is seen as an alternative to more demanding exercises and is accessible to all kind of people. It began around the 90s, as an activity for retired middle-aged women who wanted to keep themselves busy while getting the benefits of exercising and socializing in one shot. The “Damas” are in the squares and parks dancing in group, couples, solo – whatever they feel like. Every night.

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The “Damas” dancing in Wangfujing St

 

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More couples! and it is only 10 p.m.

While some people who participate in this activity feel an improvement both in their mental and physical health, others complain about the noise pollution during late hours in residential areas (I don’t get it, this music is very relaxing!). This is just the result of its big success and lack of spaces available for it. The Damas dance in parks, plazas, streets, sidewalks, malls, hutong alleyways, everywhere. One day we will find them in our place! Now, I am practicing my salsa dancing skills so that next time I see the Damas I can burn up the dance floor.

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For those not dancing in the square, just getting around Beijing is a great workout. Beijing’s street network is organized into massive superblocks. As a pedestrian, this means that getting places can take a long time. The layout is not very conducive for quick trips – it makes everywhere seem impossibly far away on foot. But, people still walk. Around 21% of Beijing residents commute to work on foot. Because there are so many people on the street, there are always interesting things to see – so it is easy to loose track of how long you have been walking. Sometimes, I set off for a quick stroll only to get sucked into the gravity of a superblock. Hours later I return, physically invigorated – after having walked only a couple of blocks.

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Walking to the office

Riding the subway is also physically demanding. Beijing subway stations are mazes of hallways and stairs. If you want to transfer lines, it often requires passing through a network of long tunnels. Intermittent gusts of wind blow through the tunnels, which adds an element of resistance training to the ordeal. Escalators are often out of service. Subway cars are packed and you usually have to stand for the whole ride. There is no need to go to the gym with a subway system like the one in Beijing.

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Transferring to another line can take a while

When my muscles are feeling tight from a long day navigating Beijing, and I need a moment to limber up, I like to go to one of Beijing’s many stretching parks. The yellow and blue stretching stations are on nearly every block. They are especially popular with older adults. At the crack of dawn, they are packed with people starting their days off with some low-impact exercise. There is one outside our window and I wake every day to the sounds of physical activity. During the day, they are usually empty except for the occasional tired pedestrian (me).

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Stretching!

I appreciate how space in the city is set aside for stretching. In the U.S., it rarely occurs to me to do stretches in the street, and it is a little embarrassing when I get the urge. There are specific times when I am exercising – I can tell when that is by what kind of pants I am wearing – and that is the only time when I’m comfortable engaging in physical activity. Here, there seems to be less separation between when and where it is appropriate to be active. Everyday existence is a workout, and any place can be a venue for playing around. In this context, proper stretching is an important public health issue.

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We live on a University Campus next to a bunch of exercise facilities. These include Basketball and tennis courts, soccer and badminton fields, a race track and stretching facilities. While I was (me, Alvaro) trying to adapt to the new schedule, I woke up every day around 5 a.m. with a lot of energy and awareness of not waking up my roommate. I decided to explore the campus and I noticed that the soccer field was packed with people doing exercise. Running, jumping, walking, playing basketball, tennis, and soccer. There were also seniors doing Tai Chi. Everybody has a space to exercise before going to work. And this is not only during mornings. After work, the field is full with families, adults, kids playing around and having some fun. One night they let us play some basketball but after realizing how bad we were the preferred to take pictures with us and talk about the NBA.

 

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People start to run at 5 a.m. (maybe some do it before but that is too early for us to notice it)

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Some people run, some people play tennis, some people play basketball and others do Tai Chi

The active culture is not only in the streets but also in the workplace. Here in our office, we are lucky to have a long lunch break where we can disconnect from work every day and have a very calm and relaxed eating moment. But we are twice as lucky every Wednesday when we have the chance to play some soccer, basketball or badminton with our coworkers! From 4 to 6 p.m. (when it is not a busy week) everybody stops their work and goes to the field to have a great time! After playing with them for a while, they fell in love with our “very professional soccer skills”. We were even hired by the CADG Urban Planning Department to play on the department team in the company-wide soccer tournament. We will let you know how it goes!

 

Alvaro and Daniel.

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