Tag Archives: health

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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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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Blue Skies over Beijing – posted by Lauren

I have arrived in Beijing and begun working at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (CAUPD). My late arrival makes me more of a fall intern than a summer intern, but CAUPD was kind enough to let me begin later since I will not be returning to Portland afterwards. I just completed my MURP degree with a focus on environmental planning, and I will be working in CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research while I am here.

China clearly has its share of environmental concerns at the moment, which is why I am so interested in working here. I arrived with a respirator mask in my carry-on, ready for the airpocalypse I’ve heard so much about (the embedded link equates breathing Beijing air to smoking 40 cigarettes a day). Air quality is primarily measured in PM2.5, which represents the tiny particulate matter that can easily lodge in the bloodstream when inhaled. A safe range is less than 50, and Beijing has averaged around 200 lately and reached as high as 900 in the past (roughly, the index stops at 500). For comparison, Portland air quality is typically less than 30.

What I was expecting...

What I was expecting…

So you will understand my shock to be greeted by beautiful blue skies and not a smog cloud in sight. The PM2.5 has been hovering in the 30 – 60 range, which is totally breathable air by anyone’s standards. In a bizarre twist of fate the air quality in Portland was far worse than Beijing when I arrived because of the wildfires burning in Oregon. I spent the first few days in the company of fellow interns Hannah and Lea, who also couldn’t believe the weather. We could see the colors of the sunset, the reflection of the sky on the water, even our shadows. It probably would have taken me a while to notice that one – Hannah pointed out that she rarely sees her shadow since the sun is obscured by a thick haze.

My handy air quality index app, reporting abnormally normal conditions. 

My handy air quality index app, reporting abnormally normal conditions.

So what gives? It turns out arriving on August 22 was fortuitous timing. From August 20 to September 5 the government is closing factories and limiting auto access within the city. Similar to car restrictions in European cities, only odd numbered license plates are allowed on one day, and even numbered plates on the next. According to colleagues I haven’t seen real Beijing traffic yet. The reason for the pollution crackdown is because there is going to be a huge celebration on September 3 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (a/k/a WWII). Normally the day goes unobserved, but it will be a national holiday this year with a huge military parade, pomp and ceremony, foreign dignitaries, the works. It would be a shame if the photos of this once-in-a-lifetime celebration were mired in smog. Beijingers are (perhaps somewhat subversively) calling the color of the sky “parade blue.”

smog car poster

These posters just showed up in the subway a few days ago, after everyone enjoyed a week of beautiful weather. The second one reads, “In order to maintain the blue sky, please choose green travel.”

These posters just showed up in the subway a few days ago, after everyone enjoyed a week of beautiful weather. The second one reads, “In order to maintain the blue sky, please choose green travel.”

When I comment on the fantastic weather everyone quickly points out that it will not last, so I shouldn’t get used to it. It is as if the government switched off the smog machine, but they’ll flip it back on when the celebrations are over. This really leads one to question why you would permit hazardous air when you have the power to prevent it. It actually makes me more hopeful than ever that good policy is going to have a huge impact on China. I’ve heard it referred to as the “three T problem” – $1 trillion each to clean up the water, the land, and the air. It is shorthand for the scale of the problem. But massive, widespread environmental problems can be tackled – case in point, the air I’m breathing right now. The smog machine may get turned back on next week, but alternatives are on the rise and if anyone can implement them quickly and completely it is China. Take for example the first project I’ll be working on at CAUPD’s Institute of Eco-Environment Research:

We are developing a policy toolkit for local governments to incorporate distributed energy with urban planning. Most DER projects in China are natural gas powered, but renewable energy is the next step.

We are developing a policy toolkit for local governments to incorporate distributed energy with urban planning. Most DER projects in China are natural gas powered, but renewable energy is the next step.

Sure, it is going to take time to transition away from fossil fuels, but in the near future the smog machine won’t be needed to grow the economy. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the transition to a clean economy happens incredibly fast given China’s past rate of urbanization and development. I’m not being an idealist – the National Development and Reform Commission (a big deal) is interested in distributed energy because the existing centralized, coal-powered energy model is not rational. You don’t need a green agenda to realize the inevitable.

Stay tuned for blue skies all the time.

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