Pre-trip, it was difficult to wrap my head around Beijing’s urban situation. Mapping the various accounts given by the professors produced only a blurry image of what it might be like to live in this rapidly evolving urban situation. I had only a blurry picture of what it might be like to live in a city of 19 million people until finally seeing the city and physically experiencing it on foot.
It was odd traveling to another country with only a small amount of preparation, but at the same time, it was good to know that it is possible to travel to the other side of the world and make it back without endless study and groundwork, which would have been my inclination. Doubtless this would have been an entirely different situation without the facilitation of the professors, but it has nevertheless made international travel seem more accessible to me, and I hope to continue my education post-graduation through frequent travel and encounter.
As a result of my time in China, I observed that urban development is a complex process which is very difficult to manage. There are so many actors making small decisions at a local level that translate to an overall urban form. It seems that at these moments of intense activity, governments would be best served to allow development and investment to occur freely while keeping some basic “guiding principles” in mind. Besides creating strict zoning plans, it seems that there are two things that can be done. First the government could prioritize infrastructure development, particularly the development of transportation and sanitation systems, and, second, the government could offer incentives for development that complies with a master plan or top-down vision for optimal land usage. However, this land-use plan should be revised regularly to ensure that resources are optimally deployed.
The trip provided a largely urban picture of development. Thus, it was difficult to study the periphery of this phenomenon, or the effects of current development practices on rural areas. Various sources have indicated that Beijing, as well as a number of other large cities, are expanding to absorb arable land at their edges. However, this was only verified anecdotally through discussions with BJUT students, who explained that only a few decades prior, the BJUT campus was utilized as farm land.
Beijing is more like a conurbation similar to the suburbs of New York / New Jersey, Chicago and its hinterlands… The city never feels as dense as, say, midtown Manhattan or Chicago’s Loop. The skyline of Beijing is defined by groupings of supertalls and superblocks, separated by incoherent zones of erratic activity. I imagine that it will take 50 years or so for these regions to refresh and stabilize.
What I find interesting about cities currently experiencing rapid development, is that many encounter very similar problems. As such, it seems that it is almost possible to travel back in time to see the development stages of not one individual city but cities in general. It is a process more akin to the birth and death of stars, where certain initial conditions (e.g. disposition with respect to water, transportation networks, natural resources, political capital, etc.) determine the course of a city. Therefore, I feel that we are studying urban typology in general, as much as we are studying Beijing, Jinan, or Qufu in isolation. We go to these places and we see that their districts, their neighborhoods and built forms are surprisingly not very different from cities and provincial capitals in the US and elsewhere.
Interestingly, my experience taught me that our societies differ significantly in the degree to which we share and cross-program public resources. I remember while in Jinan, going to run at Shandong University’s track / soccer stadium. It was a profound experience to witness the variety of activities occurring at one time. First, it was remarkable to see the number of people using the space cooperatively. At least a few hundred people, of various ages and abilities, were kicking soccer balls, hitting badminton cocks, walking with partners, practicing gymnastics, running up and down stairs, and practicing tai chi. It was quite remarkable when contrasted with the suburban football fields or the keep-off! game fields at most universities. The atmosphere was something between central park and night market. Even if I were not running, I would have been entertained for some time people watching.
I believe that a great deal of the formal variation, to the extent that these cities do vary formally from cities in the US and elsewhere, is produced through differences in culture and aesthetic practice. Therefore, I found the cultural programming of the trip to be the most interesting aspect. This is probably also a result of my long-standing interest in eastern aesthetic theory, particularly landscape painting. In studying landscape painting, the most notable aspect is that the work manages to avoid resolution while simultaneously maintaining a sense of equanimity. Yet, I feel that this sensibility pervades other art forms as well. Listening to the musicians and watching each stroke of the calligrapher’s brush, one gains access to the movement and gesture of myriad relationships which are subtly composed in a way that avoids strong form.
My only comment with respect to the content of the course pertains to the quantity of cultural programming. While I realize that the collaboration between BJUT students and UC students was abandoned for practical reasons, I think that it could have provided some sort of touchstone or point of access for students before actually disembarking in China. In the future, perhaps workshop-ing projects together, or inviting BJUT students to comment on UC student work, and vice versa, could serve as a valuable pretext for the exchange of cultural and social norms amongst peers.
Additionally, I feel that our study of urbanism in China could have been enriched through an understanding of how Chinese aesthetic theory, as the interplay of myriad cultural norms, influences expression. It would perhaps help to further explain the nuances of Chinese Urbanism, and maybe even reveal the degree to which the practice of Urbanism in China is or is not related to the practice of Urbanism in Western countries. If this cultural material were introduced during the classroom sessions, the structural similarities between the practice of Urbanism in China and in the US might be more readily apparent.