Professor Huang Ling Envisions a More Human-Centered China

“Chinese urbanization over the past 30 years is comparable to Western countries’ urbanization over 200 years,” Huang Ling remarked during her lecture “The Role of Neighborhood Community in Urban Development in China” last Thursday. Ling, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning from Chongqing University, provided extensive research from eight major Chinese cities, from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, to prove her point. A rushed urbanization begat a sole focus on spatial construction, leaving behind the human-centered planning that must be considered for a well-functioning city.

While cities like Shanghai have initiated human-centered planning since the 1990s, Ling explicitly stated that all cities must start to “re-see the people.” She claimed that large-scale planning “can see the density of a population, but not the actual people.” For example, while there are many lanes designated for pedestrians, bikers, dogs and cars in America, no such rules exist in China. Ling highlighted three goals that human-centered planning should attempt to achieve: make people better off, restore harmony, and create beauty.

Professor Ling described her relationship with Swarthmore as “缘分” (yuan fen, fate). While living in Swarthmore, she commuted to the University of Pennsylvania to teach urban planning as a visiting professor for two years. She has published over forty papers and four books concerning urbanization and urban planning. Recently, her work has centered on community development and urban renewal.

Ling proposed that the problem for modern-day urbanization in China is that spatial urbanization forgoes human aspects. Over the course of the last six Chinese presidencies, urbanization has risen 10% with each successive presidential term. Using Xu Jianfeng’s doctoral dissertation, Ling illustrated that even with phases like the False Urbanization and Anti-Urbanization movements, there exists an inexorable force pushing China towards continual land development. Ling proposed that the obvious next step in this process is “社区” (she qu), or community development.

Though the idea of she qu was loosely tossed around in the 1920s, it was not until the 2000s that the Chinese government shifted its focus to community-based residential areas in cities. Chinese cities’ urbanization typically follows four steps: an Early Exploration based in Western ideas about cities, a Formative Phase where the government lays down the initial blueprints for the city, a Turning Phase where residents group into subdistricts and identify societal problems, and finally, a Developing Phase focused on community development.

Alongside this city-planning model, the government’s policies towards cities and urbanization had its own flow. Until 1998, China followed the Administration model, during which the idea of “community construction” was born. From 1998-2003, the Cooperation model featured the establishment of the Grassroots and Community Construction Department. The final phase of city urbanization is the Autonomy model, which, starting from 2004, allowed the nascent department to give advice on further strengthening and improving community-based organizations.

Ling concluded that the first step to human-centered planning is always to find the values of the community and build around those principles. Survey polls garner a better response in China than in America as residents often include stories and detailed explanations as opposed to the “yes/no” dichotomy commonly found in American polls. Ling believed that citizens definitely have a say in their city’s planning, whether it may be to preserve heritage or increase greenery.

One case study Ling presented were the “floating retails” in the Yuzhong district. Most low-income families in this district work as free-floating merchants who can displace themselves easily to cater to different audiences. These floating retails, however, dirty and crowd the streets, creating a conflict of interest. The government wants to make the streets clean and orderly; the subdistrict inspectors want to correct the ways of floating retails; the local residents find convenience in these floating retails but also wish to also have jobs as merchants; the floating retails, of course, want to remain in the city. This was where Ling’s urban planning came in.

“How do we keep diversity of the daily, city life as well as to make clean, beautiful and orderly streets?” Ling asked. Innovation is the key. The urban planners in the Yuzhong district created carts for these merchants to be able to transport, store, and sell their goods without having to lay out a tarp to put items on display. This ingenuity was exactly what urban planning in China needed, and Ling believes that this is the next step after surveying.

Advocacy planning, a process that includes different production firms to create the best, most viable city plan, brings about collaborative planning and takes into consideration the different actors in play, creating solutions that can satisfy most people. Ling asserted that urban planners must take a central role in these planning processes. As more and more of Ling’s students join and lead the government’s Planning Bureau, perhaps this reality can be created.

So what does the future behold for China’s urban planning? Well, it’s a mix of cloud storage, spatial optimization, and specialized surveys. Ling spearheaded these advancements by being a strong advocate for human-based planning. She remained firm in the belief that global thinking will be required for future city projects. With competent and innovative leaders like Ling bringing this wave of change to Chongqing and other Chinese cities, Chinese urbanization can begin to realize and plan according to the importance of human-based design.

Featured image courtesy of Leon Chen. 


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