This is a critical moment of change in China’s urbanization trajectory. In the past thirty years, the Chinese urban model has adhered closely to modernist principles of urban planning, and taken the form of repetitive towers enclosed into gated superblocks, separated by wide, arterial streets. Though walls have a long history in China, this gated typology has been criticized for its homogeneity, car-centric nature, and sociospatial exclusivity—problems that threaten the livability of Chinese cities. As an effort to tackle these problems, recent design guidelines suggest the incremental phasing out of these gated communities. This thesis explores this alternative model, and its impact on public space. It is thus motivated by the following questions: What are the effects of gating on social interaction and urban experience? Can de-gating play a role in supporting public life in contemporary Chinese cities? What lessons can be drawn for the future design of open communities?
This thesis begins by tracing the legacies of Chinese urbanization, with a focus on the gated typology. It then interrogates the effects of gating with case study research of Jianwai SOHO and the Global Trade Mansion, an open and a gated neighborhood in the eastern part of Beijing. Through interviews and observational research, a study was conducted to understand the relationship between built environment, public space, and social interaction. The thesis concludes with how this research reflects on the larger dialogue on public space, and the ways that open communities can support public life in urban China.
On April 26, 2005, in the public plaza of Jianwai SOHO, a young man climbed into a “birdcage” made up of tree branches and elevated by a ten-meter steel tripod. Ye Fu, a performance artist, would make the birdcage his home for a month. He wrote poems, read books, text-messaged, and occasionally talked to passersby. According to the art curator, Zhu Qi, the birdcage was a symbol for a new way of living in urban China—caged in, in a literal sense. “Commercial culture is distancing humans from nature and it is affecting the interaction between people,” he said, “[the birdcage] makes us examine our lifestyles, and think about the aspects of our lives which need to change.”
In China’s capital, beyond the traditional hutong alleyways, the socialist compounds, and the impressive image of the Bird’s Nest, lies a different urban reality that often goes unnoticed. It is another version of Beijing that is more controlled, more sanitized, more private; pockets of space that are walled off from the rest of the city, unseen by anyone but its residents. In these enclosed spaces, there are well-manicured paths, brightly painted exercise facilities, and landscaped gardens. Yet they are surrounded by metal fences, broken shards of glass, barbed wire, CCTV surveillance cameras, and patrolling guards. There are windows so fenced up that the apartments are nicknamed niaolong (which means “birdcage” in Chinese) where, living in a dwelling here, one is likened to a caged bird. These are the gated communities of China, and thousands exist in Beijing alone.
The history of urban China is the history of the wall. In the 1920s, the Swedish architectural historian Osvald Sirén observed their ubiquity in traditional China. “Walls, walls and yet again walls, form the framework of every Chinese city. They surround it, they divide it into lots and compounds, they mark more than any other structures the basic features of the Chinese communities.” Even today, most Chinese cities retain architectural “skeletons” of the past—from ancient courtyard homes (siheyuan) to socialist work units (danwei)—that offer us glimpses into departed eras. As the urban sociologistDavid Bray writes, “In urban China it seems that the role of the walled compound as a technology of spatial demarcation transcends any simple historical divide between “traditional” and “modern” China.”
Just as these walled compounds defined social space in the past, the gated community has taken over the fabric of Chinese cities as a spatial instrument with deep morphological, social, economic, and cultural implications. By its global definition, the gated community is a walled or fenced housing development with secured and/or guarded entrances, to which public access is restricted. Yet in the context of China, where most housing complexes are walled and gated in one way or another, the term fengbi xiaoqu (or “enclosed neighborhood”) is used to refer to this physical form. The term “gated communities” is instead limited to the high-end, privately enclosed neighborhoods that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, within the context of China’s economic reform and urban restructuring. Many scholars have criticized this trend of gated communities, decrying the erosion of public space. While life was intensely public in the socialist city, the privatization of housing in Chinese cities has transformed the notion of the public sphere itself. In China, where the gated community becomes an ideal site to study the changes of urbanization.
This thesis is an effort to capture a critical moment of change in China’s urbanization trajectory. In December 2015, the top-level of Chinese government met for the Central Urban Work Conference, the first in 37 years, to develop an urbanization blueprint for how to “promote development of neighborhoods that are open and convenient, appropriately scaled, comprehensive, neighborly and harmonious.” Following this, China’s State Council and the Community Party’s Central Committee delivered a new set of urbanization guidelines in February 2016, including the phasing out of gated communities:
No more enclosed residential compounds will be built in principle. Existing residential and corporate compounds will gradually open up, so the interior roads can be put into public use, which will save land and help reallocated transport networks.
On these guidelines, Peter Calthorpe, architect and founder of the Congress of New Urbanism asserts, “These new standards are an urban design revolution. They overturn the destructive Chinese model of superblocks, gated communities, and giant streets that has been too long eroding the livability of their cities. They are perhaps the most important application of global best practices in smart growth to date.” Operating between the scales of architecture and city, the deconstruction of these walled spaces is to radically rethink the Chinese urban model. Thus, considering the possibilities of de-gating will be the central question of this thesis.
PUBLIC LIFE IN THE CHINESE CITY
In particular, this thesis focuses on the decline of public life in gated communities, and explores how de-gating might help reverse this pattern. As Bray puts it, “it is not the walls which [are] crucial; rather it is the space which they create and the spatial arrangements and practices that operate there which are of primary significance.” In the following chapters, “public space” refers to non-enclosed space such as sidewalks, streets, parks, and other shared spaces of the city. This the space where people come together. “Public life” is the social interaction that occurs in public space, and “community interaction” is the social contact between neighbors.
Most Chinese cities have seen a decline in community interaction in recent years. In her ethnography of Kunming, In Search of Paradise, Zhang Li reflects on this trend:
No longer “comrades” who share their danwei-based housing as in the socialist time, residents in the new communities are “strangers” to each other, surrounded by walls and gates… Can we speak of any identity of interests, habits, dispositions, or even an emerging class consciousness among these “strangers”?
How exactly did “comrades” become “strangers”? Many scholars fault the gated community, decrying the gating, surveillance, and privatization of public space (Davis, 1990; Zukin, 1995; Mitchell, 2003; and Kohn, 2004). If public space is where a sense of community forms (Jacobs, 1961; Whyte, 1980; Anderson, 1992), the increasing control and surveillance of public space has limited its ability to perform this function. The gated community has “resulted in the dissolution of the city as a legible artifact, [where] the civic dimension and public sphere play no part,” scholar Christopher Lee writes, “What is lost is the idea of the city as a common space par excellence.”
This thesis argues that de-gating alone cannot support public life in the Chinese city. It takes the premise that well-designed public space is a critical component for community interaction and public life:
When public spaces are successful […] they will increase opportunities to participate in communal activity. This fellowship in the open nurtures the growth of public life, which is stunted by the social isolation of ghettos and suburbs. In the parks, plazas, markets, waterfronts, and natural areas of our cities, people from different cultural groups can come together in a supportive context of mutual enjoyment. As these experiences are repeated, public spaces become vessels to carry positive communal meanings.
The fieldwork for this thesis revealed that community interaction and public life was weak in both the gated and open neighborhood. Still, residents were more likely to know their neighbors in the first, whereas public life was slightly more vibrant in the latter. This research examines how the built environment can encourage public life—to create a more vibrant, livable, and human city.
STRUCTURE OF THE THESIS
The recent guidelines reflect a changing dialogue surrounding gated-ness in Chinese cities. While most urban residents prefer gating, there is a growing consensus that the fengbi xiaoqu is an outdated mode of thought. Still, there is much research to do to understand what the open community could look like, and the implications of this spatial change. This thesis aims to contribute to the emerging discussion about China’s future urban model. This thesis is thus composed of the following parts:
Chapter two details the historical legacies of Chinese urbanization in Beijing, focusing on how housing policies from the socialist era preserved the spatial order of enclosure that is expressed in the gated community today. The chapter then discusses the gated community, situating the Chinese case within a larger global discourse on the topic, with a focus on the February 2016 urbanization guidelines.
Chapter three describes the field study undertaken in Beijing in January 2017, including resident interviews and observational research in Jianwai SOHO, an open mixed-use development, and the Global Trade Mansion, a gated neighborhood. The chapter examines the relationships between built environment, public space, and urban experience, drawing from the field study, related literature, and past studies.
Chapter four describes how de-gating can play a role in supporting public life in the contemporary Chinese city. The chapter concludes with how this research reflects on the larger dialogue on public space, and what meanings that open communities, and their hopeful future, have for urban China.
URBAN HISTORY OF BEIJING
THE TRADITIONAL CITY (BEFORE 1949)
For centuries, traditional Chinese urban form has been anchored in ancient cosmological beliefs, bureaucratic hierarchies, and the ideals of a Confucian society. The earliest record of city design can be traced to the Kaogongji chapter of Zhou Li, a text that dates back to the Han dynasty (300BC–300AD). It prescribes that the imperial capital should be set out as “a square with sides of nine li, each side having three gateways. Within the capital there were nine meridional and nine latitudinal avenues, each of the former being nine chariot tracks in width.” This simple grid design reinforced the central power of the government, but more critical to this study, it served as the foundation for the earliest li-fang system of walled neighborhoods. The li-fang system was closely related to the household registration system, or baojia,to facilitate social order in early Chinese states. While the physical walls of the li-fang system disappeared during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126), the baojia system remained till the Republican period. The walls of the traditional courtyard housealso stayed firmly in place.
Until the 1950s, Beijing was mostly composed of traditional siheyuan, each separated by its own walls. “Early twentieth century Beijing, as a physical entity, remained a city stubbornly defined by walls, walled enclosures, and gates,” historian David Strand remarked, “The habits of vernacular architecture extended this principle into neighborhoods and residences.” In their traditional form, siheyuan were arranged on a north-south axis, with four adjacent side buildings that surrounded a large interior courtyard. The main building faced south, occupied by the patriarch of the household. The other wings of the courtyard were similarly arranged according to Confucian moral philosophy. Siheyuan traditionally had a timber framework, high brick walls, and delicately tiled roofs. The courtyard acted like an open-air living room where urban activity took place. Histories suggest that these walled compounds precluded the existence of true public spaces—thus public life is considered non-existent in the traditional Chinese city.
Yet perhaps even under these conditions there existed a vibrant public life. If the siheyuan was the “urban tissue” of Beijing’s Old City, the hutong was the “structural skeleton” of these tissues. In this way, “hutongs provide a space for residents to communicate with their neighbors,” architect Wang Yi writes, “Therefore, to some extent, the residents of courtyard houses regard hutong as a public space of their neighborhood.” Other historians suggest that traditional public life would have revolved around urban teahouses, markets, and Chinese opera theaters.
THE SOCIALIST CITY (1949-1978)
The first major change to Beijing’s urban form came when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) assumed political power in 1949. The CCP saw the traditional city as a physical remnant of the old, feudal system, and sought to bring a radical spatial transformation to the Chinese city—an idea derived from a Western tradition of revolutionary spatial practice, and passed on to China in the 1950s by Soviet experts. During this era, many temples and historical treasures were destroyed, including the historic city walls and many siheyuan. The government also produced new forms of spaces to facilitate a reconstruction of Chinese society. In an address in March 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed, “We are not only good at destroying the old world, we are also good at building the new.”
First, the work unit compound emerged as the predominant urban spatial form in these years. Under the planned economy, cities allowed no private ownership of land and had no land market. Instead, the government provided welfare housing to all members of a danwei, including state-owned enterprises or other institutions (healthcare, education, research or administration). The danwei oftenintegrated working and living space by a strictly productive logic, such that the workshop, dormitories, canteen, kindergarten, groceries, health clinics, libraries, and sports grounds were all self-contained within the compound. By 1957, more than 90% of the urban population belonged to a socialist danwei. The standard spatial form of the danwei consisted of three- to five-story concrete buildings arranged in orderly rows, within a walled enclosure. The walls of the danwei defined the realm of the collective “production unit.” In essence then, the danwei redeployed the same language of enclosure to produce a socialist space for new China.
Second, the new socialist agenda saw industrial production as the major function of cities. “From the very first day we take over a city, we should direct our attention to restoring and developing its production,” Mao declared, “Only when production in the cities is restored and development, when consumer-cities are transformed into producer-cities, can the people’s political power be consolidated.” As such, Beijing was transformed into a major industrial base. By 1965, the city’s total industrial output had reached almost 6 billion yuan, 35 times that of 1949. The total industrial investment in Beijing grew 4 billion yuan between 1950 and 1965, accounting for 36% of all investment in the city.
Finally, the Revolution came with a new socialist vision for a public sphere. In the spirit of radical Soviet architects of the 1920s, Chinese planners and architects developed grand public monuments, large public squares, and new city centers that were appropriate for public life. Yet, despite appearances, public space was as restrictive in new Beijing than it had been in the imperial era. Many walls from the traditional siheyuan remained, and new urban construction was inevitably walled and gated. With the walled danwei containing not only spaces of work, but also spaces for everyday life, public life retreated further into the confines of the walled compound.
THE POST-REFORM CITY (AFTER 1978)
China has experienced unprecedented transformation in the last thirty years, best summarized as one “from state-led extensive industrialization to urban-based intensive urbanization.” Several major reforms have characterized this transition: the opening up of China to foreign investment, the commodification of urban space through public land-leasing and commodity housing, and the reduction of migration controls (the hukou or household registration system previously controlled rural-to-urban flows). Since 1978, there has thus been significant change in Beijing’s urban form.
For one, Beijing’s borders have been pushed out considerably from the historic center (the Sixth Ring Road was completed in 2009), such that locals call Beijing tandabing or “spreading pancake.” The city has also witnessed a spatial restructuring from within. From 1990 to 2002, 40% of the inner city was demolished, and the 2008 Olympic Games has further accelerated this creative destruction. In its place, new developments have largely taken the form of large-scale superblocks, encouraged by planning authorities for its economies of scale. These megaplots typically range from 400 to 800 meters in length; in contrast, blocks in developed cities typically average 150 meters. This new typology generally consists of repetitive buildings—office towers, housing slabs, villas—that stand isolated from the rest of the urban fabric, as private gated compounds. It is in this context that gated communities have come to dominate the urban landscape, carrying through the enclosed spatial order expressed in both the siheyuan and the danwei.
Whereas the socialist city did not have housing markets, the new city is a place in which social differentiation is clearly expressed in space. As Lee writes, “the architecture of both norm and exception serves up an urbanism of enclaves fragmented and closed off according to social class.” In Beijing, the wealthy and middle-class live in new gated communities, mostly in the suburbs and select downtown areas. The urban poor live in old housing in the inner city, and migrants live on the rural-urban fringe or “urban villages” (chengzhongchun). Despite income or hukou status, most neighborhoods have some kind of wall or fence, and many have security guards who monitor entry. The wealthier the community, the better the security—higher walls, more guards, and more high-tech surveillance and entry systems.
Finally, public space is undergoing transition. Like Western cities, Beijing is increasingly controlled, surveilled, and invested by private meanings. While public streets were the main form of civic space in the past, Beijing has seen the rapid commercialization of these spaces in recent years. The privatization of housing has also meant a decrease in public spaces within residential neighborhoods—the “public” has evolved into the “pseudo-public.” Still, the post-reform city brings new public spaces and experiences. Since the 1990s, nearly 200 of Beijing’s public parks now offer free admission, attracting a wide range of public activities—from traditional pursuits like Tai Chi, calligraphy, and opera singing to new pursuits such as ballroom dancing and card playing. With the emergence of sprawl-like development, expansion of road networks, and rise of car ownership, Beijing is becoming less pedestrian and bicycle-oriented. As such, public transit exists as “new” public spaces, where Beijingers can experience novel forms of public life.
THE GATED COMMUNITY
Gated communities have been studied extensively in the United States, yet how these communities emerge and manifest themselves in Chinese cities has important differences from gated communities elsewhere, informed by the unique circumstances governing urban development, the history of housing, and conceptions of space. For instance, Pow (2003) points out that Chinese gated communities tend to be much larger and 5-10 times denser than US ones. While US gated communities are typically low-rise, single-family communities with 12-15 families per hectare, their Chinese counterparts are generally mid- (6-storey walk-ups) or high-rise (10 or more stories), with 120-180 families per hectare. Chinese gated communities usually cover 12-20 plus hectares of land, with 2000-3000 families.
Despite this, most existing studies still use Western discourses to interpret Chinese gated communities. Echoing the economic discourse around gated communities in other parts of the world, the Chinese case is most often explained by the discourse of fear (Blakely and Snyder, 1997; Wilson-Doenges, 2000; Low, 2003). “The primary reason for gating in China,” scholar Miao Pu states, “is always security.” While crime rates remain low by Western standards, the fear of crime has grown in the transition to a market system, especially in the context of increased diversity within Chinese cities. Baoan (which means “protecting safety”) is a relatively new concept that only emerged in the 1980s. Other Western-based explanations are largely centered on privatization and the declining provision of public goods (Caldeira, 2000; Webster, 2002; Leisch, 2005). Wu (2005) argues that the post-socialist shift toward market-oriented provision has created a new realm of “club” consumption for private housing. In the Chinese context, gating not only adds value to properties, but also offers an image of prestige and exclusivity (Giroir, 2004). Many scholars also suggest that increasing social inequality reinforces “cities of walls” in China (Davis, 1990; Miao 2003). In general, the dominant narrative has centered around convergence theory—that Chinese urban practice will follow the same linear trajectory as that in the West.
In recent years, a clearer argument has been made to emphasize the uniqueness of the Chinese context. “While Western-based typologies can partially explain the emergence of newly built gated communities in Chinese cities,” geographer Huang Youqin writes, “they cannot fully explain the wide distribution of gating there and its continuity in history.” Tracing the history of gating from traditional China, many scholars argue that gating is an important part of Chinese civilization (Bray 2004; Giroir 2004). In some way then, the gated community is compatible with the existing urban fabric. Huang (2006) further proposes a cultural and political perspective to explain gating in China. In the Chinese context, the physical wall is not exclusionary, but rather, an expression of solidarity and collective identity. Gated communities may not denote a transition from a former socialist identity to a modern, individualized identity—but rather a new form of collectivity (Bray 2004). It is also used by the government to facilitate tight political control. “China’s system of spatial administration is not only hierarchical, but also strikingly cellular,” Daniel Abramson writes, “Both pre-modern and modern Chinese cities have been organized to enable the government to monitor and mobilize urban populations.” Other scholars have interpreted the pursuit of private space as a form of liberation from the old, socialist way of life (Pow, 2003).
If gating in China is the result of very different processes to that in the West, its social implications can also be very different. Miao provides an insightful analysis: “In Chinese cities, gating does more damage to the sharing of public spaces because of the ways Chinese urbanites use these spaces.” Specifically, Chinese residents rely more heavily on public space for conducting social activities than their Western counterparts. Gating sets up both physical and psychological barriers to using public space. Still, there is much more research to do to understand the effects of gating in the Chinese context. This thesis attempts to fill this gap.
The Loss of Public Life
The main focus of this thesis—the effect of gating on public life—has not been studied as in depth in the context of China. Even so, there is reason to believe that public life is diminishing within the gated community. Miao Pu takes the case of Shanghai:
These days, if a visitor ventures into one of the new residential areas outside Shanghai’s Inner Ring Road, he or she will hardly forget the eerie feeling present in the urban scene as compared to the bustling streets of the central city… The entire urban space looks like a giant stage set without actors.
Similar studies suggest that community ties are weaker. “There is no organic connection between a person and his or her group,” anthropologist Liu Xin writes, “no commonality among them except for their physical adjacency and proximity.” This general sentiment was expressed in the interviews for this thesis. One recent graduate from Peking University told me:
I remember growing up in a work unit compound. We were all brothers and sisters [because of the one-child policy]. It was like having an extended family. But when I came to Beijing for university in 2009, there was none of that here. I still feel like a stranger to this city.
If de-gating is on the agenda, this is an opportune moment to study public life in the Chinese city.
Beyond the Gates
As Piper Gaubatz observed in 2008, “The walled-in nature of Chinese cities has eroded more significantly in the past 20 years than in the previous 2000.” Even without the recent urbanization guidelines, de-gating has long been a question in modern China. Since the reform era, there have been wide attempts to offer alternative approaches to the bounded qualities of traditional and socialist urban space. For instance, when first built in 1954, Beijing’s Friendship Hotel served as an exclusive enclave for foreign residents in Beijing. The compound itself was surrounded by high, opaque walls. In the 1990s, the walls were removed. This is only one example of early efforts to open up urban space in Chinese cities.
Most of these spatial changes have occurred since the 2000s. With the influx of designs from international architecture firms, there has been a more deliberate attempt to not only break up large superblocks into smaller, more manageable plots, but also to provide open communities. In Beijing, these principles are showcased by Johnson Fain & Partners in their 2001 master plan for Beijing’s new Central Business District (CBD), east of Tiananmen Square. Instead of replicating the traditional grid plan, Fain adapted and weaved it into the larger city, thus avoiding self-isolation within a walled compound. Other projects of note include Jianwai SOHO by the Japanese architect Riken Yamamato, our case study in the next chapter, and the Linked Hybrid by Steven Holl. These efforts by foreign architects have coincided with the changing “modern” lifestyles of urban residents, and the subsequent response by a younger generation of savvy entrepreneurs to create “global” urban living environments for New China. While many walls in Beijing remain, their physical form is often subtler as walls themselves are replaced by metal fences, CCTV cameras, and other security features of the West. In this process of becoming global, the city itself has become more open, and more public.
The past decade has witnessed another fundamental shift in Chinese spatial thinking. As traffic and environmental costs rise dramatically in Chinese cities, there is now a growing consciousness that what is being built is flawed. In recent years, both foreign and domestic firms have proposed Western-derived principles of New Urbanism to address the outdated superblock model: smaller blocks to promote walking and biking; narrower roads; buildings that define the edges of streets; mixed programs; public transit with dense nodes. The open community underlies these principles. In an interview in 2013, Calthorpe reveals the progress that is being made in Chinese cities:
It is a huge challenge to the status quo, what we’re bringing, and yet the government on all levels is interested… They say, “OK, let’s build a few of these walkable, mixed-use communities and see how they function. Then we can shift policy.” They basically test drive ideas, pick what works. We have six projects in construction throughout China. All of them are based on small blocks, with auto-free streets, dedicated to pedestrians, bikes, and transit.
Given this reversal of thinking, it is no surprise that the recent urbanization guidelines have emerged. In fact, they echo the urban discourse that has been taking place for years.
Still, this guideline has received a fierce backlash among the public. When CCTV News published the news on Sina Weibo, a twitter-like microblogging site, at 8:15pm on February 21, 2016, it had been forwarded 15,000 times and generated 3,600 comments by 10am the next day. Of the 20,000 participants in an online poll on Sina.com, only 18% chose to support the opening up of gated communities. 65% chose safety as the top issue to go against this guideline, and 85% expressed that homeowners should get compensation if communities are to open to public roads. Online comments further urged civil servants and Party members to set an example by opening up their state-owned danwei first.
The proposal has largely drawn criticism from private homeowners and legal experts, who argue that the policy breaches the law. According to the 2007 Property Right Law, “roads and other public areas and facilities within a building zone are jointly owned by owners, with the exception of the public roads belonging to a city or township.” The Supreme People’s Court responded to this on February 23, saying that legislative action would be required before enforcing this guideline. To further ease the backlash, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development also published an article on February 24, assuring that this new guideline will be incremental, and that the government will not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach in opening up the gated communities. When I arrived in Beijing in August 2016, the topic had already died down.
Many people doubt that implementation is likely. In the interviews for this thesis, the general consensus was that existing gated communities will not open up for traffic or public access. Because new homeowners are unlikely to buy apartments without walls and gates, developers are most likely to continue developing estates with walls and gates. In fact, when I visited Beijing in early August, a new turnstile gate was being installed outside my apartment in Beimencang Hutong, northeast of the city. I mentioned this in a conversation with Chen Liqun, a planner at the China Center for Urban Development. She explained, “The wording of the guideline is ‘no longer build gated community, in principle.’ I think it is quite a soft recommendation rather than command.”
Despite this, the recent guideline signals a growing desire to create cities that are thoughtfully designed and implemented. Many are now beginning to think beyond China’s gates (Zhang & Chai, 2014; Zhao & Zou, 2017), but there is much more research to do to understand what this urban form could look like. As such, it is appropriate to begin our enquiry here. The next chapter describes the study conducted in Beijing. Through observations and interviews in an open community and a gated one, I interrogate the relationship between gating, public space, and urban experience. This study hopes to contribute alternative insights into how public space can function beyond the gates.
The study investigates the impact of residential gating on the larger urban environment and public life of Beijing. The following research questions guide this study:
- How do residents experience and use public space in the different—open and gated—neighborhood typologies?
- What is the relationship between built environment, public space, and urban experience in the Chinese city?
- Can de-gating play a role in supporting public life in contemporary Chinese cities? And if so, how?
These questions prescribe the exploratory nature of this thesis.
This study is primarily based on semi-structured interviews, field observations, and case study research conducted in Beijing in January 2017. First, it is largely focused on two neighborhoods in Beijing. Based on consultation with local experts, academic sources, and scoping field visits in August 2016, I selected the Global Trade Mansion and Jianwai SOHO as case studies. The first is a tower-in-the-park superblock development, and the latter, a hybrid version of one. The two sites are similar in most respects (location, year of construction, building form, socioeconomic characteristics etc.), except for degree of openness. This is an intentional decision to isolate the effect of physical gating on public life. Thus, in this study, the Global Trade Mansion is representative of a “gated” community, and Jianwai SOHO, of an “open” one.
To explore the effects of gating on public life, I conducted semi-structured interviews in each case neighborhood, with the help of Dominic Romeo, a local resident. The interviews were conducted in Chinese, with questions about public space usage, sense of community, and perceptions towards gating. In addition, I conducted direct observations of each neighborhood. I observed building heights, setbacks, frontage types, street character, open space, and security features. I also observed human activities—public space usage, circulation patterns, and social interaction—at various times of the day. Finally, I referred to news footage, online forums, and past studies to supplement this fieldwork.
Because of the narrow focus of the study, its conclusions should be considered as cursory and act as pointers for future, more in-depth research. For instance, the cold weather (around 30F), air pollution (very unhealthy to hazardous conditions), and proximity to Chinese New Year were all significant limitations to observing public life. It might be worth expanding this fieldwork to warmer months. Gathering quantitative data and conducting surveys were also outside the scope of this thesis, but would prove to be beneficial to further understanding the impact of de-gating on public life.
JIANWAI SOHO: THE “OPEN” COMMUNITY
Situated at the junction of the Third Ring Road and the Tonghui River in Chaoyang District, Jianwai SOHO is an early attempt at designing an open community on what was originally a closed, 34-hectare superblock of state-owned factories—the Beijing No. 1 Machinery Factory. In the 1990s, the government had ordered manufacturing facilities out of the city to make way for the financial sector, and in 1995, the property development firm SOHO China (SOHO stands for “Small Office Home Office”) acquired the land. In June 2001, the factory was demolished.
In 2002, Riken Yamamoto and Field Shop were engaged to design a mixed-use complex for the riverfront site, at the southern part of the Beijing’s planned CBD. The program called for a “work-live environment” of primarily residential and office use, as well as accommodation for public and community-oriented functions, restaurants, shopping and parking. In its final version, the contiguous superblock was subdivided into nine smaller parcels in its redevelopment and, in doing so, arterial roads and secondary streets were re-introduced into the site. The completed development of 20 towers occupied just 16.9 hectares along four parcels. The segmented parcels are 290 meters by 220 meters, compared to the original block of 850 meters by 470 meters. On this design, Yamamato had this to say:
I would like to build Jianwai SOHO into a place with alleys running between buildings. I do not want to call it a street block because it is not a closed, monotonous space, but rather an open place with department buildings, stores and offices in it. I want a piece of architecture to be a cell of a city. No matter what kind of architecture it is, it must have something to do with the city. A piece of architecture can be a house, a department store, a theatre, or an art museum, but no matter what it is, it can be a cell of the city. This cell has the ability to grow into a city.
Rather than working with a static image in mind, Yamamoto envisioned an architecture with the inherent ability to adapt to the subsequent evolution of the place. This project has since been widely cited by architects and scholars as a hybrid approach to effectively and appropriately deal with the Chinese urban form—it is a possible indication of what the open community could look like.
This thesis focuses on the eastern site of Jianwai SOHO, the first phase that was completed in 2004. This is bound by Henghui East Road, Jingheng Street, Tonghui River, and the Third East Ring Road. At the time of construction, the work-live environment was expected to eventually support a daily population of 50,000 residents and workers. There are now over 1400 households living in Jianwai SOHO. While apartments were initially offered at $2000 per square meter, property prices have since risen to $7500 per square meter.
Neighborhood Layout and Security Features
The many elements of Jianwai SOHO cohere spatially to provide a human-scale experience at the broad pedestrian level. First, the site is composed of a grid layout of nine identical towers and four villas, offset by 25 degrees to the overall geometry of the site. While the 28-story towers respond to the large block structure within the CBD, the low-rise villas soften the vertical landscape for a more human scale.
Second, Yamamoto introduced a horizontal ground plane to the site. This is articulated by the 16 pedestrian walkways that crisscross the site, along with a series of landscape elements that are arranged parallel to the 25-degree building displacements. The interior alleyways are two to nine meters wide, while exterior sidewalks are three to four meters wide. 22% of the site is green space. It is on the ground level that the city is returned to the pedestrian. This ensemble also remains visually and physically open to the public. In total, there are 10 pedestrian entrances that range from five to 30 meters wide. There are no fences or walls. Instead, the streets connect to the city itself.
Finally, the three-dimensional character of the site is enhanced by overhead balconies that access rooftop gardens, winding staircases to underground parking, and sunken courtyards in the interior. These elements keep with the regularity of the site, yet they provide interesting possibilities for the pedestrian. As Peter Rowe and Har Ye Kan write, “Collectively, these seemingly simple yet sophisticated maneuvers playing on perceptual depth and unfolding visual sequences endow a high degree of liveliness to the project, while heightening the overall spatial appreciation.” This further adds to the public realm of the project.
Still, it is worth noting that security is articulated in subtler ways. While the ground plane remains relatively open and seemingly non-exclusionary, the landscaping and paved elements create an invisible gated periphery that gives people a sense of private domain once they enter the site. The large stone bollards along the outer streets represent another form of defensive architecture that seeks to discourage unintended users from entry. Other security features are identical to those that we observed in other gated communities. First, there is one security guard regularly stationed at the northeast entrance of the site, as well as two duty guards that patrol the area at all hours. There are 22 outdoor security cameras in the site, with additional CCTV cameras mounted to the side of buildings. To ensure residents’ safety, entrances to residential units are kept separate from commercial entrances, and are tightly controlled by a password-activated system. Even if the entrances are left open (as we noticed during one visit), there are additional security guards within each building to verify residents’ identities. Many residential units have an extra door installed just in case.
Frontages and Shopping
Jianwai SOHO projects a new way of living. As Zhang Xin, the CEO of SOHO China, wrote in the company’s publication:
There are restaurants, shops, offices and people living here at Jianwai SOHO. It is like the center of New York, Paris, and London… Beijing needs this cosmopolitan lifestyle… Beijingers took off their gray people’s suits, gave up their bicycles, and with confidence, they have started to live a lifestyle like that of New Yorkers, Parisians, and Londoners in their newly built city.
In the context of post-socialist China, a “cosmopolitan” lifestyle is a commercial one. At Jianwai SOHO, the lower levels of the complexes are mostly filled with storefronts, which wrap around outer streets and inner alleyways. The four villas are entirely commercial. Some towers have a commercial podium. This continuous strip of commerce includes a range of upscale services, including cafés, salons, convenience stores, a grocery store, traditional tea shops, clothing boutiques, tutoring services, banking services, an optical store, and health clinics. There are also small eating establishments dispersed across the project, including Western-style bakeries, traditional Beijing snack shops, a nut vendor, noodle stalls, and small restaurants, with Japanese and other Chinese cuisines. The storefronts vary from about one meter to over 12 meters wide, each with its own individual entrance.
These storefronts bring an openness to the project that is quite rare in China. Many stores have glass façades that are fully transparent—open and inviting to the public. Some food vendors go even further, leaving their doors wide open to the streets. Even in the cold weather, we observed many people on the sidewalk that were either queuing, ordering, or waiting for food; the private sphere extends into the public. It is in this way that commercial activity activates the “public” space of the street. On the other hand, a notable portion of the street wall remains closed by opaque façades and private advertising.
In Jianwai SOHO, Yamamoto envisioned a site imbued with a vibrant public life, where intimate alleys open up to public plazas and nodes of activity at the turn of a corner. He found his inspiration in a Moroccan city called Ceuta:
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Every possible thing—human beings, donkey’s dancing, sheep’s bleat, shops, ancient house mosques, restaurants, the fragrance of mint and tobacco, and the odor of human bodies—were mixed together indiscriminately. Passing through an alleyway lined with souvenir shops aimed at tourists and brushing away the importunate hands of vendors. I suddenly arrive at a street of houses. There is an entrance to a mosque, well ornamented with strikingly beautiful tiles, and then a small square. Corridors of houses cross casually overhead. In no time at all I feel lost. The entire city is a maze.
This multi-layered, maze-like condition is embodied in the spatiality of Jianwai SOHO—its narrow alleyways, overhead bridges, and open plazas. It is a space designed for public life to happen.
In past studies, some have noted that Jianwai SOHO has become a popular venue for live performances and cultural events. “During my fieldwork, I witnessed a wide variety of cultural events, ranging from book fairs, fashion shows, and lectures and symposiums on architecture and urban culture to poetry readings and lavish private parties,” urbanist Ren Xuefei writes, “These well-orchestrated cultural events continued the place making and helped to create buzz about the tabula rasa of the new CBD.” Still, despite the active programming of public space, Ren comments on its limited success:
I arrived at Jianwai SOHO around 4pm on April 26, 2005. I saw a few rows of bookstands—apparently a book fair was going on. The selection of books was random and the fair attracted few visitors. The public square felt a bit empty.
This is a shared sentiment. In China Underground, Zachary Mexico describes his meeting with a journalist in Jianwai SOHO, while studying in Beijing in the mid-2000s. He observes:
But as I wandered around Jianwai SOHO, looking for the Guizhou restaurant, I began to feel uneasy, spooked: there were almost no other people around. Sure, there were a few others strolling along the concrete pathways that bisected neatly manicured lawns, but the complex was largely empty, especially compared to bustling Jianguomen Avenue, the street I had been walking on just minutes before… For a moment, I felt like I’d stepped through a wormhole into an alternate reality: a very un-China-like China.
In spite of Yamamoto’s ambitions, Jianwai SOHO is not like Ceuta. In our many visits to the neighborhood, we only saw some people interacting together in public areas—a small group of colleagues or a few friends. Most of the people were alone. While there was a lot of pedestrian traffic during peak hours (noon and after work), most of the people that we saw were walking on their way somewhere. There were barely any pedestrians otherwise. The occasional worker would sit on an outdoor bench to take a phone call, but other than that, the street furniture was unused. When we visited in the late evening, the site was almost entirely empty of people.
Unlike in more traditional neighborhoods of Beijing, we saw no signs of laundry, gardening, or informal vendors selling chestnuts out of carts by the sidewalk. These activities are strictly prohibited in public space, and closely monitored by private security guards. We did not observe any cultural events or programmed activities either. Our interviews suggested that these had lessened significantly over the past decade. The limited street activities included sitting on benches, walking dogs, and on-the-street advertising for English tutoring services.
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Jianwai SOHO is close to a diversity of transit modes, from walking and biking to public bus, subway, and private car. Just 200 meters north of the complex is Guomao station, a major transportation hub at the intersection of subway lines 1 and 10. There is also an adjacent bus stop at the Third Ring Road that serves around 13 local routes. Because it is situated by the Third Ring Road, driving or biking are attractive options too. There are one- to two-meter-wide bike lanes along the four sides. Based on our interviews, ride-sharing apps such as Didi Chuxing—the Uber of China—are increasingly popular among Beijingers, as are dockless share bikes from Chinese startups like Mobike and Ofo.
Still, Jianwai SOHO is a pedestrian network within itself. Traffic is concentrated around the site, and the inner streets are returned to the pedestrian. Any vehicular traffic gets redirected to the basement level of the complex. Bicycles, electric bikes, dockless share bikes, and motorcycles cannot enter either, and are instead haphazardly dumped on adjacent pavements. This significantly narrows the sidewalk room on the Third Ring Road and Jingheng Street, causing huge sidewalk congestion during weekdays. This is worsened by China’s boom in e-commerce services like Baidu Waimai, Meituan Dianping, and JD.com, where deliveries are increasingly carried out on electric scooters.
While there were plenty of people walking around, it was difficult to find interview subjects as few were residents themselves. Many were just visiting, or worked in the complex.
- Most residents we interviewed had lived in Jianwai SOHO for less than five years, and a few lived here since its opening in 2002
- Don’t know neighbors at all, too many people
- Sometimes friends will come meet up in Starbucks, restaurant, or in nearby area
- Liked it most for convenience—walking distance to work, restaurants, shopping, transportation (long hours: Starbucks opens at 8am, closes at 11pm), delivery service too
- Did shopping downstairs, some went further for fresh groceries
- Expressed pride in the architecture (new, global Beijing), but didn’t like that it was getting old
- But do not use the public plazas, there isn’t much to do there (i.e. no furniture)
- Wished that there was more programmed space for children to play in, to walk around and take evening walks
- It’s an expensive neighborhood, on average have to spend a couple hundred kuai
- Like that it was close to a park and riverfront (Qingfeng Park), go running (especially popular after 2008 Olympics)
The Local and the Waidiren
In everyday conversation, waidiren means “person from another area” and generally has a derogatory connotation. The word is not necessarily used to refer to migrants who come to Beijing to work, but rather used to define those that are “out of place” in the city. The majority of property owners in Jianwai SOHO are waidiren. According to a report released by SOHO China, in Jianwai SOHO’s 2004 sales, 54% of the purchases were made by wealthy Chinese from other provinces, 18% by foreigners, and only 28% by local Beijing investors.
Our interviews highlighted that the influx of waidiren has changed expectations of neighborhood life. As more and more migrants move to Beijing, the nature of community relationships have fundamentally shifted. Here, include quotes about waidiren. Many waidiren who just moved to Beijing did not expect to make new friends in their community. Though they may be friendly with neighbors, they are not attached to the community. Many local Beijingers that we interviewed did not feel attached to the housing either. These residents described existing social networks in the city, finding little purpose in forming new friendships with strangers. This division between the local and the waidiren, the native and the migrant, highlights a direct challenge to community interaction and public life.
A New Form of Collectivity
Perhaps there exists a new form of collectivity in Jianwai SOHO. While the interviews reveal that community interaction is low, past studies and news reports mention the presence of a property owners’ committee that represented all owners’ interests in external matters. In 2008, when the property management company was removed over allegations of financial corruption, the committee entered a two-year dispute to defend the rights of residents.
Neighbors also self-organized in informal groups to address this issue. In 2010, resident Zhang Hongjing set up a second property owners’ committee to improve the living situation in the community. “We do need some honest and fair people to change this disorderly situation and fight against plots from different sides,” said a property owner, “We don’t want [other representatives] to intervene in the management again.” About 80 owners attended the election for this committee, most belonging to the independent “third-party payment platform” group of more than 700 owners. In the retreat into private life, this is one way in which a stronger sense of community might take form.
Illusion of the “Public”
There is one final point to make here. Even without the physicality of gates, Jianwai SOHO still operates on privacy and exclusion. The average price of an apartment is $7500 per square meter, while the average salary in Beijing is only around $1300 per month. The majority of residents are high-income urban professionals such as lawyers, accountants, and business executives. These are the privileged few who can afford to experience a new cosmopolitan lifestyle. As a retired factory worker from Beijing No.1 Machinery Factory noted:
I started working in the factory when I was seventeen years old. Now I’m sixty. I was laid off ten years ago with other workers. I get 200 RMB [about $30] every month for living, and I don’t have to tell you if that’s enough… After I was laid off, I did any jobs I could find. I even collected garbage on the street… This whole area used to be Beijing No. 1 Machinery Factory, but now everything has changed. Now there are expensive shops and restaurants. Sometimes I take a walk here but I don’t buy anything here.
Not only are the consumer spaces themselves exclusionary, but the acclaimed “public” space is an illusion too. In her ethnography, Ren further notes that migrant workers were not allowed to sit in the audience seats at fashion shows, film screenings, and other “public” events. The world of the rich and the world of the poor are two parallel universes that can never cross at Jianwai SOHO. Similarly, when 60 security guards and cleaners organized a protest in a bid to receive unpaid salaries in 2010, they were instantly met by police. If public space is, in reality, invested with private meanings, there is perhaps no difference between Jianwai SOHO and the gated community.
GLOBAL TRADE MANSION: THE “GATED” COMMUNITY
The Global Trade Mansion is a gated residential complex at the heart of Beijing’s financial sector, an area on the eastern side of the city, between the Second and Third Ring Roads. The entire community covers around 24 hectares and has over 176,000 square meters of living space across the four blocks, with a large 16-hectare central garden. The main borders of the Global Trade Mansion create a rectangle that is approximately 180 meters by 130 meters. It has a total population of about 1000 residents and the price of an apartment is around $13,000 per square meter.
The Global Trade Mansion was developed by Beijing Aozhongjiye Real Estate as part of a citywide effort to build up the Jianguomen CBD. In Beijing’s 1992 master plan, Chinese planners viewed the establishment of a CBD as essential for projecting the image of Beijing as an international city. As such, construction intensified through the 1990s, but many development projects failed to locate inside the designated block, and instead spilled over into nearby areas. The Global Trade Mansion was one of the first projects to be developed within the designated CBD in 2001. Over the span of a decade, the Global Trade Mansion now shares an address with THE PLACE, a project encompassed by a trendy lifestyle shopping mall, two office towers, and a 250-meter walkway boulevard with Asia’s largest LED skyscreen. THE PLACE was launched by the same developer in 2006, who described it as “the PLACE where dreams begin!” The Global Trade Mansion also shares an address with Parkview Green Fangcaodi, the first commercial complex in China to earn a LEED Platinum rating in 2013, and Guanghualu SOHO 2, a mixed-use complex designed by Gerkan, Marg and Partners and completed in 2015. Today, the Global Trade Mansion is an uncommon sanctuary in Beijing’s flourishing business district.
As a prototypical gated community, the Global Trade Mansion has largely been deemed a success. In 2000, the project was awarded a gold prize by the Ministry of Construction in a nationwide competition on innovative residential design. Beijing Youth Daily named it among the “best classic apartments” that same year. This is largely attributed to the linear design of the neighborhood, such that daylight passes through the North and South ends of every flat. The project has also been praised for its carefully landscaped garden, designed by the Japanese TAM Regional Earth Research Institute, against a backdrop of office towers, shopping malls, art galleries, and boutique hotels. It is in this way that the project “[aspires] to high standards in living environment, as well as a tasteful and enriching lifestyle experience.”
Neighborhood Layout and Security Features
The immediate area outside the Global Trade Mansion is overwhelming—the sheer scale of the modernist buildings, the heavy traffic, the wide sidewalks, and the bombardment of commercial display. There is a mixture of small and large businesses: large international chain stores, coffee shops, small restaurants, banks, a convenience store, a local bakery, and a health clinic. In contrast then, the Global Trade Mansion looks perhaps a little underwhelming. There are no commercial fronts, minus a sidewalk stall that sells popular Beijing snacks from a one-meter-wide window. The towering buildings are not representative of modern architecture. There is not that much traffic along its adjacent streets, and sidewalks are so narrow that pedestrian barriers extend into the traffic lane. Instead, the community is thoroughly walled and fenced from the rest of the city.
There are three entrances to the Global Trade Mansion complex. The east entrance on Jintong West Road is for residents only, but the gate is often left open. Thus, access is relatively open from the sidewalk. There is a security kiosk about six meters beyond this entrance, but very few security personnel actually verify residents’ identities or question strangers. The north entrance is for residents only. This is a glass pavilion that is tightly controlled by a card-activated entry system. Last, the west entrance is setback about 10 meters from Dongdaqiao Road. It is mainly for cars, though there is a separate entry for bikes and pedestrians. Another security guard is posted at that gate, so access is strictly controlled. We counted around five security cameras: one at each entrance, and two within the complex itself.
Within this site, four 31-story buildings are arranged on a north-south axis, surrounding a landscaped garden. The open space has a large plaza, a children’s playground, an artificial pond, and a small fountain. Everything is well-connected by winding pedestrian paths that are two to three meters wide, on average. There is ample sitting area at the plaza, as well as a few benches scattered around the complex. These open space features are human scaled and soften the immense height and harsh edges of the towers. It is worth noting that Block A is a private clubhouse, where residents and guests can access an indoor swimming pool, fitness center, sauna, and spa. Block D is the Global Trade Mansion Business Building. As such, there are two separate entrances to the building: one within the complex, and a public entrance from Jintong West Road. There are security guards and additional CCTV surveillance within each building, and an access card is required to reach residential floors. Many residents further install security doors for their unit.
The Global Trade Mansion is most accessible by public bus, bike, or foot. On the first, there are six bus routes that have routine service to the Fangcaodi South stop, only about 30 meters from the west entrance. From the west entrance, bikes and private cars are also allowed access to the complex (other visitors are allowed on-site parking from the east entrance). There is a dedicated 50-meter-long sidewalk space for bike parking outside the north entrance, though most delivery bikes park on the sidewalk space along the east gate. Still, because parking space is available, there is very little congestion along sidewalks. The outside streets are generally pedestrian-friendly and bike-friendly. Dongdaqiao Road, for instance, has a green planting strip that is intended to provide a buffer between bicycle traffic and main street traffic.
While the complex has said to have access to three subway lines (Line 1, 6, and 10), the stations are considerably far away. By international standards, the 800-meter buffer around subway stations is considered accessible to transit users. The east entrance to the Global Trade Mansion is one kilometer away from Dongdaqiao Station. It is about 1.1 kilometers away from both Dongdaqiao and Jintaixizhao Stations. As such, the community lies in a “transit desert” of some sort.
“The Global Trade Mansion was too quiet and too expensive,” Evan Osnos, a former resident and the Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, writes. This was only confirmed during our few visits to the complex. Compared to the bustling commercial frontages along Dongdaqiao Road and Jingtong West Road, everything is quiet past the gates. There were few people outside during the day, and those that we saw were often walking on their way somewhere. Most people were alone. The only place where we saw anyone interacting was at the children’s playground, where we saw a parent playing with her child. The open plaza remained unused.
Still, we noticed that pedestrian traffic would pick up during noontime—a delivery guy, a few friends, or a small group of colleagues visiting the clubhouse. The neighborhood also became a lot more alive in the evening. When we visited at night, there were a handful of elderly people and couples walking around the courtyard space. A few people were walking their dogs. Some were smoking at the benches. One man was doing pull-ups on the monkey bars. Even though there were more people outside, we never saw neighbors really interact with each other in the shared community space.
It seems that the old Chinese saying, “A walk of 100 paces after meals equals a life of 99 years,” still holds true. Most of our interviews were conducted in the evening, when a number of people took their post-dinner walk around the courtyard. The majority of the residents that we interviewed had lived in the Global Trade Mansion for around four to five years. One 65-year-old resident had moved in when the complex opened in 2002. “Back then, everything around here was just a bunch of holes in the ground,” he told us. Another had just moved in half a year ago. Most respondents lived with their nuclear family. One lived alone.
The interviews revealed that there may be some interaction among long-time residents in the Global Trade Mansion. Most residents said they knew, or at least recognized some of their neighbors. “I see them around. Sometimes we speak a couple of sentences in the courtyard,” one resident explained. However, these few interactions appeared to be of a somewhat surface-level nature. When asked about his friends, one person told us, “None of my close friends live here. I met everyone here after I moved in, so I don’t count them as friends.” No respondents described any actual relationship or friendship with their neighbors. The respondent that recently moved in knew no one.
Most interestingly, only one person complained about the lack of community. This resident expressed some nostalgia for the reform-era xiaoqu that he grew up in: “We had closer relationships then. I know some of my neighbors here, but our relationships are not as strong.” Other respondents did not seem to mind. “I don’t expect a community in Beijing. It is a big city, and I’m just a waidiren,” a 29-year-old teacher from Shandong explained. This echoed the same sentiment that was expressed in our interviews in Jianwai SOHO. The pace of migration in Beijing has changed expectations of neighborhood life. Fewer Beijingers—old or new—are attached towards their communities, thus altering the social life within their shared space.
Almost all of the residents that we interviewed said that the best part of living in the Global Trade Mansion was its convenience. There are community facilities within the complex. Most can walk or bike to work (though one still commutes by car). It is also walking distance to many shopping malls, parks, schools, and other amenities. As such, the majority of respondents do their shopping nearby at local shops on Dongdaqiao Road, or at the nearby Walmart supermarket. When questioned further, one resident elaborated, “It’s convenient for me because there are so many places to eat!” Another resident mentioned that he usually goes to the nearby Worker’s Stadium to play basketball. “There are many places to play here,” he told us. Other residents liked to go to the nearby Ritan Park (Temple of the Sun). One person told us that the frequent bus service made it easy to get to other parts of the city.
All of the respondents liked living in the complex because of its open green space. “The neighborhood life here is very complete,” a retired trader told us, “I like to walk around the garden and exercise in the plaza.” He particularly appreciated that no cars could enter the community. Other residents shared that they liked to walk around the neighborhood because it is a pleasant environment. Many described it as their own neighborhood park in the heart of Beijing. One resident was especially passionate about the open space: “I like to dance and I can dance in the plaza whenever I want!”
While all respondents reported that they enjoyed living in the complex, there were a few grievances. One person complained that everything was too expensive in this area. Because of this, he has to drive elsewhere to do his shopping. Another resident complained that the complex was getting old, and wished that the property management office was politer. The only repeated criticism in our interviews was that the subway stations were too far from the complex. No one expressed concerns about neighborhood security.
Illusion of the “Private”
There is one final point to make. In a similar study, the urban scholar Yip Ngai Ming makes the observation that a dichotomy of open/gated communities does not exist in urban China.. Most communities can be classified as open-access, walled neighborhoods—where gates are symbolic, rather than functional. Other scholars have described these as pseudo-gated or “faked” gated communities (Low and Smith, 2013).
The Global Trade Mansion is no different. In our visits to the Global Trade Mansion, we noticed that while it had all the visible signs of a gated community—walls, gates, electronic security systems, CCTV cameras, and security guards—it was still open to the public. The east gate was unlocked and the guard rarely verified identities. The symbol of walls is sufficient to offer the feeling of exclusiveness, security, privilege, and quality of life—an illusion of “private” space.
This is not to say that the complex is not underwritten by private meanings. The east entrance displays a large sign— “Private House No Trespassing”—and it is, by law, private property. But rather, whether it constitutes public, semi-public, semi-private, or private space can be contested here. If the public can enter the complex freely, can it be defined as strictly private? It is worth noting that members of the public can also pay a fixed rate to use the indoor swimming pool, dance studio, and gym. If the paid area is private space, can we define the unpaid areas as gray space—or public space? Based on our interviews, most residents were aware that total strangers had access to the private complex—after all, they were strangers to each other. None were alarmed with the fact.
TOWARDS A NEW TYPOLOGY
This thesis is an effort to examine “birdcage living” in urban China. In the past thirty years, the Chinese urban model has adhered closely to modernist principles of urban planning, and taken the form of repetitive towers enclosed into gated superblocks, separated by wide, arterial streets. Though walls have a long history of China, this gated typology has been criticized for its negative impact on public life. The recent guidelines to phase out gated communities reflect a changing dialogue surrounding gated-ness in Chinese cities. This thesis explores an alternate model: What are the effects of gating on social interaction and urban experience? Can de-gating play a role in supporting public life in contemporary Chinese cities? What lessons can be drawn for the future design of open communities?
This research showed that public life and community interaction was weak in both the open and gated neighborhood typologies. This is perhaps expected, given the vast changes that China has undergone in the last 30 years. There are two specific factors worth noting here:
First, the scale of urban-to-rural migration has been unprecedented. At the opening up of China in 1978, less than 20% of Chinese citizens lived in urban areas. Since then, over 500 million people have migrated from China’s countryside to its cities (in comparison, around five million African-Americans migrated from the rural South in the Great Migration). In Beijing alone, over seven million residents are waidiren. This huge movement has decisively changed the character of the city. Because many migrants find it difficult to be attached to one place, there is a changed expectation of what social life should look like. Some old Beijingers may find little in common with newcomers. This research found that this shifting dynamic is not conducive to community interaction.
Second, the nature of housing itself has changed. In the transition to a market-based economy, it has transformed from a welfare good to a commodity. This has, in turn, altered the way people think of neighborhood life. Because housing is a good that is privately consumed, there is less emphasis on the community—rather, residents are increasingly concerned with apartment size, solar orientation, on-site facilities, transit accessibility, and security. The interviews for this thesis revealed that residents often overlook social life in their housing choices. Even when organized, their collective interest is to protect their own private rights. Thus, the decline in community interaction and public life reflects the general retreat of Chinese citizens into their own private worlds.
Still, this research suggested that residents in the Global Trade Mansion were more likely to know their neighbors than residents in Jianwai SOHO, whereas overall public life was stronger in the latter. The following section focuses on how specific elements of design might impact urban experience.
1. Walls and gates do not (necessarily) kill social life
Gates are expected to negatively impact the sense of community. However, this effect was not observed, gated-ness even appeared to have generate a stronger sense of community when considered alone. In the case of the Global Trade Mansion, we found that there was still a degree of social interaction between residents, and may even have a positive impact on the community itself. There was no indication of more social life (around same level of social segregation) in the open neighborhood. But, our research showed that gating does kill social life.
So even though this study has covered the interaction of residents within gated communities in some detail, it is unable to examine the external links of such communities to the outside world. It is possible that public life can flourish in outside ways.
II. Public spaces do not (necessarily) encourage public life
- Yamamato designed series of public spaces for public life. Yet, the presence of public spaces alone does not encourage public life
- It is human-scale, but still suffers from being too big
- It is too formal, clean cut, no dedicated night path
- Lack of furniture, talk about the benches (even those are designed in Chinese inward-looking way)
III. Green public spaces encourage social life
- Needs landscaping and active programming. This programming need not be overt examples like SOHO China, but rather, subtler ways to add street life/public life to the complex i.e. playground facilities.
- We found that in Global Trade Mansion, more people used public space because it was more green, more programmed
- There is a sense that green public space is theirs—I can dance whenever I want
In the Global Trade Mansion, Second, more claims to space in GTM. Speak to the multi-level spaces in the complex, and how that influences sense of community?
IV. Commerce affects social activity and public life
The commercial space in the two study areas were structured very differently.
- Tower on podium typology v. gated
- It is important here to address the Chinese concept of renqi, or “human vitality,” and its application to commercial activities and community interaction.
- The structure and form of commercial activities in Jianwai SOHO are conducive to renqi (overlapping activities, shops spilling out onto streets, small scale of shops, lack of car traffic, large windows at Starbucks)
- This in turn affects social interactions and public experience
The Global Trade Mansion has no commercial activities within the neighborhood’s gates. Commercial activities are walking distance from all three gates. There is a vendor outside, but the renqi ends at the gates. The two studies paint different images: city center and the suburb.
Beyond the Gates
This research has found that de-gating alone is not enough to support public life. There are additional steps that must be taken. Several lessons can be drawn for the future development of open-access neighborhoods:
This can be widely applied to the Chinese city.
This thesis has made the case that de-gating alone is not enough to support public life in the Chinese city, but rather, a vibrant public life will require the careful, deliberate design of new public spaces. How does this research reflect on the larger dialogue on public space in urban China? What meaning does de-gating communities have for the modern nation? To offer a preliminary answer to these questions, I will make three brief observations:
First, Chinese urban public space is increasingly controlled, surveilled, and invested by private meanings. The public experience is privatized. The geographer Jon Goss refers to shopping malls as “pseudo-space” and argues that shopping malls “[contrive] to be a public civic place even though it is private and run for profit; it offers a place to commune and recreate, while it seeks retail dollars.” The case of Jianwai SOHO appears to fit this description, masquerading as an open public space, yet still practicing an elaborate “politics of exclusion” that restricts public access. The question of de-gating then, is an interesting one. If Jianwai SOHO is any indication, there will be more public space, but also more surveillance—it is in private interest to do so. This research suggests that de-gating is unlikely to bring about true “public” space to the city. Rather, it further obscures the public-private boundary, challenging the bounds of communal space that exist for property owners, developers, the state, and the public.
Second, green spaces are beginning to offer new visions for public life in urban China. In the past decade, urban parks and community gardens have become hugely popular for a range of public activities: opera singing, calligraphy, Tai Chi, bird-cage walking, matchmaking clubs, ballroom dancing, and card playing. In our interviews, the residents at the Global Trade Mansion said that they liked to walk, dance, and exercise in the community garden. As Chinese cities become more densely built and commercialized, these protected green spaces of the city are increasingly important to public life. It is unclear whether de-gating will require the removal of community gardens, for instance, from the city. If so, public life becomes more deliberate—it belongs in the park.
Finally, new technologies are transforming public spaces and experiences. Some scholars have noted that urban rail systems provide new public spaces (Lewis, 2003; Gaubatz, 2008). Yet, I would argue that the huge growth in mobile businesses has complicated this story significantly. At first glance, the story of Didi Chuxing, Mobike, and Meituan Dianping is a story about how public space is being claimed by private interests, often in the form of migrant delivery boys on electric bikes, shuttling around 10 lunches per hour. As more people are spending their time in private ride-shares or in their apartments, fewer are spending time in the public transit, public squares, or public streets. This has reduced social contact and renqi significantly, while “public” space is instead found in the virtual sense. This story is to a large degree true. It fails to acknowledge that new technologies offer alternate forms of experiencing public life. For instance, when Beijingers use bike-shares to get around the city, they are reclaiming the city streets. Or, when I was there over the summer, I was added to HeyRunning, a public running group in Beijing that meets up daily around the city. Perhaps then, de-gating does not matter so much anymore.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to answer whether there will be more or less of public space in urban China. But what can be said is that the public and private spheres are undergoing transition as social, political, cultural, and economic relations are negotiated in urban space. The question of de-gating further complicates the conception of public space in the Chinese city.
I want to mention another birdcage. In an essay titled “City without Walls,” Beijing author Zha Jianying tells of a friend well known for his graceful, nostalgic stories about the city:
And suddenly, he hits on an image that compresses all his complicated feelings about Beijing’s changes. “Modern Beijing,” he says, “is a city where it’s impossible to find a spot to hang up one’s birdcage.” To understand what he means, though, one has to know about an older, more classic Beijing image: a gentleman with his tamed birds in a bamboo cage hanging off a branch in a quiet park or in a merry teahouse, or simply in his own courtyard. It is the quintessential image of leisure and a certain type of cultivation. The birdcage is a symbol whose disappearance would mean that a certain lifestyle and a whole set of values has gone with it.
This thesis has made the case that de-gating can support public life in the Chinese city. Yet, if Jianwai SOHO is any indication, the open community bears little resemblance to traditional ways of living—Zha’s birdcage will likely vanish. Can there be a new typology that is open and allows for Chinese ways of living?
There is perhaps a useful point to make. Zhu Jianfei writes that China is both geometry and formlessness. It is gated – lack of public life, yet also not – allows for public life? How can both coexist? This requires another way of thinking.
Ye Fu finally left his birdcage on May 27. “I felt the feeling of freedom,” he told reporters, “Now I can feel the same feeling of freedom as everyone else.”
SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
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n China’al of China, the city of over 50% of Chinese are urban residents, and it is estimated that 70%—arouna a billion peopleDavid Bray, Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Reform (Stanford University Press, 2005), 17.
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 Li Zhang, In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis (Cornell University Press, 2012), 119.
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 Ibid., 45.
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 Liu, “中共中央国务院关于进一步加强城市规划建设管理工作的若干意.”
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 Refer to Appendix for interview questions.
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 Ibid., 97.
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