Tag Archives: public space

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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Shenzhen’s Street Life

By Eric Rutledge

Walk up to street level from the underground metro and Shenzhen’s active, seemingly chaotic street life will smack you in the face. Densely packed retail stores, restaurants, and produce shops sit below layers of bright signs in Chinese characters. Pedestrians, bikes, and scooters flow between the street and sidewalk, with little regard for signals, rules, or anyone in their way. Cars (mostly) stay to the street, but with little regard for anything but traffic lights. Horns are used more frequently than brakes, and yielding to anyone seems to mean you will lose years off your life that you can never get back.

This is Shenzhen’s Futian District, formerly an agricultural village, then the heart of the city’s 1980s manufacturing era that gave way to today’s modern business district. As Lauren mentioned below, public space is unsurprisingly a common topic on the Transplanet blog. But how can it not be? For any American planner fortunate enough to experience the invigorating streets of a 21st century Chinese city, one must blog about it.

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A crowded Futian District retail street with high end stores. Metro entrance can be seen in the center of photo. Versace advertisement, upper right corner of photo.

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Pedestrians, bikes, scooters, and cars tangled at an intersection

The idea of leaving my hotel or office and taking to the Futian streets is met with excitement and resistance. I can’t wait to be immersed in the sounds, smells, and sight of a bustling city, where poor rural migrants and ultra-wealthy urban elites push forward with their daily lives. On the other hand, the calm, air conditioned office offers a peaceful place where I can learn the history of the city below me and try to make sense of the chaos I can hear from the third story window.

In the end I’m happy to have both, but my office is not what makes this district special. The same place that American Vision Zero advocates would consider hell on earth is actually heaven on earth for American advocates of the complete neighborhood movement. For my non-planner friends, Vision Zero is the goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities via safe streets and responsible driving, and a complete neighborhood is one where home, work, school, parks, and groceries are within walking or biking distance. So while the street is a frenzy of cars, scooters, and busses and the sidewalk is a frenzy of pedestrians and bicyclists, usually whatever you left the house to get is just around the corner. It’s the latter that American city planners can strive to achieve more of, but what are the conditions in Shenzhen that make the hyper-active streets not only feasible, by necessary?

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Two men leaving a street-level market at the base of a residential building

First, Shenzhen is dense. The urban area features 14,000 people per square mile and the total population is approaching 20 million. Over 1,000 skyscrapers dot the skyline and omni-present cranes are raising even more. Shenzhen’s Futian District is no exception to the density rule and it’s rare to see a building under four stories tall. While some American cities are denser (San Francisco ~17,000 people/sq. mile and New York City ~27,000 people/sq. mile), it’s the sheer number of people in Shenzhen and how they move across the city that make it feel different. The city continues to add sparkling new underground metro lines that connect the city and leave American transportation planners wondering “How can we do that?”. Literally millions of pedestrians pop out of the underground metro system every day and are immediately a potential customer for the street level shops, restaurants, and news stands. If a Shenzhener needs something on their way home from work, they can simply grab it on the way to their apartment. In this regard, densely packed ground floor retail is not a convenience, but a necessity.

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Futian District, from the top of the Difu Hotel where UPDIS interns are staying

Second, smaller living spaces and less cars means more frequent shopping trips for less items. The Futian streets are full of shoppers carrying items at their sides, in rolling carts, or on the back of their bike. The all-American Costco just isn’t a thing here, and while those fortunate enough to have cars certainly use them, parking for any use is limited throughout the city.

Finally, China’s new urban population has spurred serious demand for material goods. In just 35 years, Shenzhen’s lush agricultural land has been replaced by a modern city, full of urban residents that once lived off the land. Consumerism is alive and well here, and much of the shopping takes place on the street. Although high end stores are only located in air conditioned super malls, Futian’s ground level storefronts sell everyday food, clothes, phones, and household supplies. Everywhere you look, it seems, Shenzheners are taking to the street to spend their newly acquired wealth.

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Ground floor retail with residential above, wide sidewalks separated by a planter

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Active streets near Futian’s large indoor electronics market

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Transporting goods via cart and a Coca-Cola to cool off

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Shoe store on the left, fruit stand on the right

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Futian’s massive indoor electronics market, where buyers come from around the world to purchase an endless variety of electronic goods

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Busy pedestrian street, although cars and large trucks are not banned

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Going for a ride

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Street barber

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Outdoor market tucked away in a neighborhood courtyard

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Disorder on the streets

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Cars whizzing by a man crossing the street with a cart full of boxes

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This Vibrant Public Life – posted by Lauren

I think I’ve become somewhat of a curator of this blog. I read it all, in reverse chronology, on an especially smoggy evening when I dared not venture outside. If you make it all the way back to the very first post you’re rewarded with this stellar video. Thanks 2011 interns, you guys were hilarious.

It’s just that when I think of a post topic I want to see what others have said, because we MURPs are interesting, insightful people. As my time here at CAUPD is drawing to a close, one the biggest impressions I’m left with of China is the incredibly vibrant public life on display. And lo and behold, I count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve other posts commenting on the same thing.

I spent the first 25 years of my life in sprawling placeless suburbia, USA. There was zero public street life (the yearly Christmas parade doesn’t count). The main culprit seems to be the urban form and car dependency. I lived about 4 blocks from my elementary school but was driven to and from there every day. When I finished my undergrad I lived in a loft apartment downtown and worked at a law firm about 6 blocks away, where I also drove to and from daily. I remember working from home once because the roads were icy and I didn’t want to drive on them. It took moving to Portland and leaving my car in the Midwest before I realized these boots were made for walking. It was an epiphany.

Joplin was the primary reason I was drawn to my workshop project, 4th Plain Forward. 4th Plain suffers from the same trappings of a placeless suburban arterial. It could be anywhere USA, where you go from your car to the parking lot and back to your car. What do you do with a place like that? My workshop team had some ideas, and reorienting auto-oriented suburbia is no doubt one of the biggest planning challenges we face. Aside from the environmental and health problems associated with this kind of development, it just lacks a soul. In the majority of America, public street life just doesn’t happen. I think US planners desperately want to create vibrant public spaces, but for the most part we aren’t successful.

That is probably why China seems so remarkable. You would be challenged to find a non-vibrant public space here. The dance groups are legendary, and you’ll also find people exercising, eating, playing games, selling wares, flying kites, chasing kids, repairing bikes, and just sitting in public, living their life. It feels completely different, in a life-changing sort of way. Every day I walk by an exercise playground frequented by elderly folks and think of my own frail granny who has lost her strength because she only sits and watches TV all day. How different would her life be if she could walk down to the park for some Tai Chi and socializing?

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There is danger of it eroding as the cityscape changes and losses ever more ground to the automobile, but many streets are still public spaces unlike any I’ve ever experienced in America. And it all just seems to happen organically. Is it the density? The urban form? The culture? The planning? As many have noted, the parks here are amazing. But I’ve also seen a 30+ conga line in a narrow space between the sidewalk and the entrance to an insurance company. Vibrant public life just happens everywhere.

I think Hannah could be onto something with her observations about private space and less emphasis on personal possessions. When you have less to call your own are you inclined to share more with the community? My husband Eli, a Sinophile if there ever was one, thinks the culture plays a huge part. It is one of the oldest civilizations in history, and has gone through some brutally trying times to now be the global hegemon. The shared history is probably going to make you feel connected to your community. Or is there just innate vibrancy in a dense city of millions?

I’m all questions with no answers, but would love to know what others think. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of living here, and I haven’t had enough! I’ll be living somewhere in China for the foreseeable future, so if future MURP interns want to hit me up you can (vtylep at gmail).

I’ll leave it at this video, a spontaneous chorus in the park that we stumbled across. They had more heart than any church choir I’ve ever heard.

再见!

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