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Messy UrbanismUnderstanding the "Other" Cities of Asia$

Manish Chalana

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789888208333

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888208333.001.0001

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Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

(p.215) Chapter 12 Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China
Messy Urbanism

Daniel Benjamin Abramson

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In China, political leaders, professional planners and designers, and the public at large typically view the modernization of cities as a matter of ordering them. Many outside observers, awed by the scale and speed of China’s urbanization and the monumental mobilization of labor and resources involved in it, are willing to accept that the drive towards order is both necessary and desirable. This chapter will question dominant official and professional characterizations of what constitutes orderliness, and discuss the actual coexistence of order and disorder in the Chinese urban landscape. In addition, by examining a series of community design activities in the city of Quanzhou, in Fujian Province, between 1993 and 2005, followed by village surveys and some modest design studies in 2007 and 2008, this chapter describes how an official and popular recognition that standardized approaches do not provide answers to the city’s unique conditions led the city’s planning authorities to sponsor an experiment in more incremental and resident-driven urban visioning. While the experiments were limited in their impact, they have served to reveal more clearly the obstacles that community-engaged planning must overcome in China.

Keywords:   Chinese cities, Chinese urbanism, Chinese urban planning, Participatory planning, Neighborhood planning in China, Quanzhou

Standardization, (Dis)Order, Vision and Power

One of the great enablers of China’s phenomenal urban growth is the capacity of planning and design professionals and officials to standardize the environment—to conform buildings and landscapes to models that vary only in their most superficial details. Standardization in Chinese urbanism certainly has a functional dimension: it enables large-scale participation in design, construction, and production by people who have minimal training or experience in new technology; it facilitates the management of a large bureaucracy and increasingly mobile labor force; and it allows the integration of China’s new urban economy with global markets. However, standardization in Chinese urban development also has an important visual dimension as an expression of order and as a political-cultural symbol of a paternalistic state (Yeh 2013). Investments in urbanization overwhelmingly take the form of quick and spectacular construction rather than provision of social services and protection of ecosystem functions (Abramson and Qi 2011; Sorace 2014). It is important that projects be visible in order to legitimize a developmentalist regime that is distant and impersonally related to local society. The visuality of development is essential also for the promotion of responsible officials who struggle for recognition in a sprawling state bureaucracy. In the absence of direct, long-term accountability of power holders to their local communities, standardized development often comes at the expense of long-evolved social life, cultural identity, sense of place, and ecological sustainability. The imposition of “orderly urbanism” on unique local societies, cultures, and ecosystems is a hallmark of modern planning everywhere, as states and corporations exploit technological innovation and scale up development (Scott 1998).

Yet order has a paradoxical relation to modernity. The essential “creative destruction” in modernizing projects involves a tension between the ever-larger-scaled imposition of (visual) order on one hand, and the ever-more-rapid emergence of unpredictable new demands that make that order obsolete (Berman 1982). “Messy urbanism”—the (visual) disorder that results from the constant environmental upheaval of modernizing cities, despite the intentions of large-scale, standardizing (p.216)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.0 Map and aerial photographs of Quanzhou and the study site.

Illustrations by Weijia Wang.

(p.217) plans—is not the pathological failure of modernization; it is the crucial aspect of modern urban life that fosters individual psychosocial growth, the formation of new communities, the adaptability of politics, and the “social learning” on which all these forms of development depend (Friedmann 1987; Sandercock 1998b; Sennett 1970). Even visibility, which serves powerful interests in surveillance and control, creates counterpowerful opportunities for pluralism and democracy in the urban “space of appearance” (Arendt and Canovan 1998; Baird 1995; Foucault 1977; Gordon 2002; Sandercock 1998a; Sennett 1990).

Urban activists and planning professionals have responded to overpowering and oversimplifying standardization by experimenting with greater visibility, empowerment, and participation of communities in the shaping of their own environments (Hester 2006).1 Although the proliferating ideologies and practices of community design and planning over the latter half century have developed in contradictory, conflicted, and tortuous ways, community participation in environmental decision making is an undeniable trend at all spatial scales and in nearly all developmental contexts from the most impoverished to the most affluent societies (Ellin 2000; Hamdi 1991). Considering the increasing complexity and unpredictability inherent in urbanization and the hazards associated with oversimplified schemes for environmental change, we can interpret the movement for community empowerment and participation as an effort to provide crucial feedback loops for resilient and adaptive development. Thus Michael Hibbard summarizes the lessons from James Scott’s critique of modern developmentalism (Hibbard 1999):

  1. 1) Presume that you cannot know the consequences of your intervention. Take small steps, stand back and observe, and then plan the next small move.

  2. 2) Favor reversibility. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences, so prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes.

  3. 3) Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation for the unforeseen.

  4. 4) Plan on human inventiveness. Always assume that those who become involved in the project can and will improve on the design.

In resilient planning and design, the role of vision is to imagine multiple possible futures and to engage multiple publics in decision making. Contemporary urbanism in China seems hardly compatible with such small-scale, incremental, open-ended, and self-reflective planning (Campanella 2008). Yet such a case serves as the subject for this article: a series of community design activities in the city of Quanzhou, in (p.218) Fujian Province, between 1993 and 2005, followed by village surveys and some modest design studies in 2007 and 2008.2 The following account describes how an official and popular recognition that standardized approaches do not provide answers to the city’s unique conditions led the city’s planning authorities to sponsor an experiment in more incremental and resident-driven urban visioning. The experiments were limited in their impact, and their proponents themselves could not anticipate where they might lead or what might be learned from them. While they did represent an iterative process of policy development, perhaps they have served best to reveal more clearly the obstacles that community-engaged planning must overcome in China.

Apparent and Real (Dis)Order in Chinese Cities

China’s cities seem especially—in many respects increasingly—inhospitable to community self-determination and participation in environmental design.3 Not only do policy and plan making officially remain the prerogative of the party-state, but the speed, scale, and density of urban environmental change leave little time or space for public deliberation. The expansion and redevelopment of Chinese cities is taking place along lines reminiscent of the postwar reconstruction and urban renewal–enabled growth machines in Europe and North America, but at a scale many times larger and with much growth still to come (Zhang and Fang 2004). The sudden dislocation and reformulation of urban communities—spatially and socially—are costs in this “cataclysmic investment” of urban redevelopment, as Jane Jacobs puts it. It is rare that any part of a city, any group of residents, or any ecosystem is untouched by the whirlwind of development, but a multiplicity of interests and power arrangements conspire to prevent citizens and various local interest groups from collectively trying to influence the fate of their neighborhoods and, in the process, to build or secure the identity of each place. Nowhere has Rem Koolhaas’s “generic city” appeared so triumphant as in China (Koolhaas et al. 2000).

However, there are two filters through which China’s environmental standardization may appear more dominant than it actually is and that mask a more complex (p.219) underlying urban reality. The first of these filters is external to society: the amazement with which non-Chinese observers (like Koolhaas) view the unprecedented scale of China’s environmental change and its ability to mobilize labor and resources to implement change. From outside China, Chinese urbanization appears to be a refreshing opportunity to critique and transcend a host of conditions that elsewhere constrain design, development, and even sustainability: NIMBYism, historicism, litigiousness, pluralism of powerful interest groups, and regulatory overreach—in short, all the products of half a century of community and property holders’ empowerment, which themselves stifle vision and innovation and encourage a kind of conformity and small-mindedness (Campanella 2011). For those who criticize the West’s constraining antiurban, small-scale, communitarian nostalgia, China’s seemingly endlessly expanding cityscapes of high-rises present a strong argument to “get over it.” For those who seek to test new solutions to environmental challenges on a monumental scale, China represents a heaven-sent laboratory. Yet it is precisely at the monumental scale that China’s own peculiar constraints on innovation are most apparent. Individual projects may incorporate pioneering technologies and forms, but, no matter how large they are, their ability to elevate density to urbanity and to improve the even larger metropolis around them is elusive (Marshall 2003).

From within China there is a widespread view among officials and even the broader public that standardization is not only the means to economic development and political success but also as the very expression, the evidence, of that success. Modernity is a broad concern; urbanity is not. Wide roads, vast plazas, palatial headquarters, country clubs, and endless rows of gleaming identical villas or apartments are not only the most efficient product of a rapid, top-down developmental decision-making system; they are symbols of society’s participation in a global process of modernization and enrichment. Despite whatever actual digressions these forms might take from the non-Chinese models that inspired them, they are undeniably efforts to conform (Giroir 2006; King and Kusno 2000). To some extent, this aspect of standardization is an arriviste expression typical of all rapidly urbanizing and globalizing societies (Cowherd and Heikkila 2002; King 2004; Pizarro, Wei, and Banerjee 2003). It intersects, however, with much older practices of conformity, standardization, and regimentation that have linked urban planning in China with a broader tradition of governmentality (Abramson 2006).

In this tradition, especially during the decades following the founding of a new dynasty, urban space has played an important role in the way the state mobilizes and regulates the population and in the way the central government demonstrates authority over a diverse and extensive territory. Thus, in China, orderly urbanism predates modernity, though it shares modernization’s power to scale up state control over society. Social order has long been associated with a strong correlation of standardized social and spatial units in the city. Today, these may take the form of “gated (p.220) communities,” but in the past they took the form of socialist “work units,” banner neighborhoods during the Qing dynasty, and li or fang during the Ming dynasty and back to the Tang and earlier dynasties. Likewise, the ubiquity of certain monumental features of a city was the symbolic expression of an orderly state, for the same reason that municipal office buildings fronted by grand plazas take similar shape in cities throughout China today. Under these circumstances, official representations of urban planning and development have little tolerance for the messiness of everyday life. Municipal leaders tend to embrace the unique icon—the landmark designed to be distinctive for the conscious purpose of providing the city with an identifiable image—even as they deny or obscure actual urban practices that are local, community scaled, iconoclastic, and popularly generated.

Certainly, there is a growing concern among municipal leaders, design professionals, and popular media that Chinese cities are becoming indistinguishable: “a thousand cities with one face” (qian cheng yi mian) (Cao 2007). Historic preservation designation for a growing list of cities, urban neighborhoods, towns, and villages, not to mention individual sites, is supposed to provide some protection for local environmental identity. But official preservation, too, is typically a standardizing force. The definition of preservation-worthy features of the environment is often narrow and sanitizing (Abramson 2001), and the implementation of historicist or preservationist projects often closely follows models established elsewhere and relies heavily on standard commercial tenants and investment—the most famous model being perhaps Shanghai’s Xin Tian Di, which has been followed by cities large and small across the country (He and Wu 2005; Hou and Yang 2002; Shin 2010; Su 2010; Wai 2006; Zukin 2008).

These exogenous and endogenous tendencies in design and planning practice conspire to obscure many of the real local effects of China’s developmental policies under Reform and Opening. The decentralization of fiscal and development-approval powers that stimulated China’s urban growth since the late 1970s has actually diversified the way planning is carried out. Some cities have adopted policies, goals, or unofficial practices that are more responsive to community needs than others. In this sense, the local political culture may be more amenable to participation than is the general official or professional culture of planning and design.

Quanzhou and the Legacy of State-Socialism for Participation in Neighborhood Planning

A number of features of China’s “standard” neighborhood planning approach are common to state-socialist systems around the world. Collective (usually state) ownership or control of urban land and the lack of land markets translates to a command-type mode of governance rather than a regulatory one. Design tends to (p.221) be the dominant type of planning expertise (as opposed to community economic development, for example). Communities-as-neighborhoods tend to be viewed as passive subjects of planning, rather than agents capable of collective action. Broad public “participation” is therefore usually taken to mean “mobilization” for party/government-defined ends, rather than a means to determine what those ends should be.

While these assumptions underlie official and professional planning practice in China, they do not always prepare planners and designers to confront the full reality of urban change (Leaf 1998). Among those realities is the persistence of cultural and environmental characteristics specific to local places. In the following narrative, the case of Quanzhou serves to illustrate how the complexity of local-national-global dynamics have created space for the expression of community will, outside of standardizing urban professional practice. Like many cities along the south and southwest coast of China, Quanzhou is home (qiaoxiang) to a widespread population of emigrants who have settled mainly around Southeast Asia but who participate actively in the city’s economic, political, and cultural life through investments and remittances, visits home, and donations to charity, public services, and temples.

Highly expressive of Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizomatic” model of development, the city and its surrounding villages are themselves but nodes in multiple overlapping transnational networks based on lineage affiliation, hometown identity, labor flows, and god/temple ritual participation (Dean and Zheng 2009). Since the early twentieth century, the large and small mansions of overseas sojourners have punctuated the region’s landscape, combining an ostentatiously “foreign” (and “modern”) architectural vocabulary with local vernacular dwelling and settlement forms (Figure 12.1).4 In many cases, these houses remain unfinished, vacant, or sight unseen by their owners, whose investments and inhabitation were interrupted by the civil wars, invasion, revolution, and geopolitical isolation that beset China throughout the century. Nevertheless, the architectural legacy of Quanzhou’s diasporic networks is only the surface of a resilient cultural identity that is at once local and global, revolutionary and conservative, and it expresses attempts to reorder the home and landscape according to a creative balance of traditional and modern values.

One of the most important expressions of Quanzhou’s local-global connections is the city’s peculiar history of official and unofficial property rights protection. Although, as in all Chinese cities, urban land in Quanzhou nominally belongs to the nation acting through local government, land-use rights for most residential (p.222)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.1 Grand home of Philippine overseas Chinese Yang family in the family’s home village of Hou Gan Bin, Shishi County, Quanzhou. To the left of the “foreign”-style mansion (yang lou) is the family’s ancestral lineage hall (ci tang) in traditional architectural style. Both are aligned with a distant ancient hilltop tower according to feng shui principles. The view shows not only the baroquely creative architectural hybridity of the mansion itself—which blends neotraditional Chinese and European neoclassical ornamentation—but also the vernacular order of the village landscape.

properties have remained more or less continuously in the hands of the families that owned them before the Communist Party came to power. The persistence of private property in Quanzhou is due to the municipal leadership’s decision not to collectivize housing even during such radical periods as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, for fear of alienating the residents’ hundreds of thousands of overseas Chinese (huaqiao) relatives (Abramson 2011a).

Local officials have made a number of concessions to their constituents that have greatly influenced the city’s planning and design practice (Abramson, Leaf, and Tan 2002; Leaf and Abramson 2002). One of the most important of these is an especially favorable compensation policy for homeowners whose houses are demolished for urban redevelopment. Not only are they given the same amount of floor space that they had in their demolished house, but also they have the right to a unit in their original neighborhood. Whereas in other Chinese cities it is typical of developers to relocate inner-city residents to cheaper land at the city’s edge and sell units in the center at higher prices, in Quanzhou their ability to do this is more limited by the compensation policy. Redevelopment is further limited by the tendency of households in the inner city to own quite large houses, requiring more floor area to compensate them.

Additionally, Quanzhou is designated a Historic and Cultural City and “the origin of the maritime silk road”; its many monuments date as early as the Tang dynasty and include evidence of one of the most cosmopolitan ports in the world in the (p.223) eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Out of concern that development should not eclipse the prominence of these monuments, the city has limited building heights in the historic center, preventing developers from maximizing floor area (Abramson 2014). Finally, most urban neighborhoods are historically organized around small temples that are the subject of a broadly popular revival of support since the early 1980s. City planners have been compelled to accommodate the temples’ preservation or reconstruction, which further limits the scope of urban redevelopment projects (D. B. Abramson 2011).

Since the early 1990s, Quanzhou has expanded its edges and widened many major thoroughfares, but for the most part the government has avoided clearing large parcels of existing housing in the city center just for the purpose of neighborhood housing redevelopment. Planners have instead placed priority on regulating private housing construction, improving infrastructure and the public environment, and encouraging residents to invest in preservation and contextual rehabilitation—precisely those tasks for which the planning profession in China is conventionally ill equipped. In the absence of clear property rights and systems of property tax, insurance and financing are very undeveloped, and the state lacks leverage to regulate or incentivize private construction.

In these circumstances, “orderly” development can take place only through large-scale projects according to unified designs. In Quanzhou, while the major avenues have undergone visual “unification” when they are widened (Figures 12.2 and 12.3), the interior of the blocks remains dominated by a miscellany of old single-story courtyard houses and newer multistory houses of different styles on highly irregular plot shapes and sizes (Figure 12.4) (Abramson 2008). Uncoordinated construction of private homes frequently compromises drainage, water and power provision, and neighbors’ access to light and air. The modern multistory house style also compromises the traditional courtyards’ sense of inward-focused privacy.

Upgrading of infrastructure is difficult, though technically not more so than in the many similarly constrained historic European urban environments. The obstacles to infrastructure upgrading in historic Chinese cities are more social-organizational than technical. Distinct agencies are responsible for each utility and answer to higher-level organizations with very little freedom to coordinate across services. And they use highly standard equipment and installation procedures, which inhibits the improvisation necessary to work in tight spaces. Finally, the distinction between public space and private property is neither well defined in modern formal institutional terms nor absolutely continuous with premodern informal traditions. As a result, residents are insensitive to the neighborhood impacts of their construction activity. For their part, steeped as they are in a sense of state-socialist authority, planners and government officials find it difficult to imagine focusing improvements on public space without also envisioning changes to private houses. (p.224)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.2 Xinmen Jie, one of Quanzhou’s three most central arterial streets in the historic city, in the early 1990s.

Photograph by Daniel B. Abramson.

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.3 Xinmen Jie after widening and redevelopment in the early 2000s. As discussed in Abramson (2008), even this imposition of unification and standardized design on the street space is nevertheless designed with unusual consideration for both pedestrians and a variety of vehicles as well as businesses of various sizes, and the massing of buildings and articulation of facades is unusually varied compared with many inner-city redevelopment projects in China.

Photograph by Daniel B. Abramson.


Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.4 Resident self-built home construction on land whose use rights are private and continuous with prerevolutionary ownership in Quanzhou’s historic city center.

Photograph by Daniel B. Abramson.

The apparent chaos of Quanzhou’s neighborhood fabric reflects the historical continuity of residents’ basic housing tenure, despite periods of great political upheaval and the erosion of traditional property rights systems. Architectural chaos therefore also reflects a continuity and strength of community composition and identity. The coexistence of built-environmental disorder with community social order is extremely contradictory to the minds of professional planners and officials in China. As one lead planner for the city once put it to me, “Quanzhou’s unusual redevelopment compensation policies are not good for the city’s architecture, but they are good for the preservation of its communities.”5

Official planners in Quanzhou often express frustration with traditional claims to space (either private, as with housing, or communitarian, as with temples); they label them “feudal” and wish instead for clarification and a clean slate. Legal observations of some of the more anomalous property dispositions in Quanzhou also conclude that clarification is the only way to protect both public and private interests—through (p.226) a “neat” division of spatial interests that corresponds to a neat division of space itself (Yuan and Bao 2001).

To the extent that “neatness” requires an erasure of history, then this approach to property rights clarification risks repeating the very mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s that tried to wipe out private property in the first place. Indeed, it was that failed attempt—not the persistence of prerevolutionary rights themselves—that produced the “messiness” of Quanzhou’s cityscape that planners so decry. As Li Zhang observes, an overly sanitizing approach to urban space is typical of modern Chinese planning, which in turn represents a form of “spatial governmentality”: an extension of control of people to control of space (Zhang 2006, 473). From this perspective, Quanzhou’s cityscape represents the deformation of standard Chinese spatial governmentality and calls for a very different way of addressing community spatial relations in planning and design. The following section describes an evolution of design activities intended to demonstrate how planning might be localized to the community level and specifically tailored to Quanzhou’s particular conditions.

Engaging Communities in Quanzhou

From 1999 to 2004, a collaboration of academic partners introduced a variety of techniques of community engagement to staff of the Quanzhou Municipal Planning Bureau, to assist them with the challenges listed above. Faculty from the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington in Seattle joined counterparts from Tsinghua University School of Architecture and the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design in Beijing to lead students from these schools and other universities in various combinations to demonstrate the techniques in Quanzhou.6 The Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Unit in Beijing supported these activities, which culminated in a conference organized in Quanzhou by the Municipal Planning Bureau and the national Urban Planning Society of China, titled “Democratization of Urban Planning Decision-Making” in July 2004. The following year, 2005, the Quanzhou Municipal Government itself funded a project with some of the partners to further use some of the techniques.

A number of communities of different sizes and situations were partners or sites for the exercise of these techniques spanning the 1999–2005 period. The first was the historic lane of Qinglong Xiang, or “Green Dragon Lane,” whose traditional vernacular architecture was designated for protection by municipal policy (but not law), with a population of 679 residents in 207 households in an area of just over two hectares. The neighborhood was famed for its many fine old courtyard houses and Southeast (p.227) Asian colonial-style villas of characteristic local granite and red brick. Yet, during the 1990s, many owners replaced them with new block-like houses of gleaming white glazed tile. The new homes were many times larger than the old, even to the point of containing much unused space. Often, they were built on pieces of an extended family plot that had been subdivided among relatives. They were also as modern as their builders could make them, including air conditioning and flush toilets when possible (though no sewer main yet existed in the lane). Moreover, these houses frequently exceeded the three-story height limit established by the government for all private housing in the Old City. Despite its inability to enforce these regulations, the government’s response was to establish even more draconian regulations, calling for the eventual reduction of all multistory individual houses in the Old City down to two stories and forbidding the enlargement of all existing one-story houses.

The main planning issue identified in the 1999 survey at Qinglong Xiang, therefore, was how to reconcile historic conservation policy with resident aspirations for modernization as expressed in the self-building process. This is especially critical given that the self-building tradition itself is an important part of the city’s environmental character. A survey that the Tsinghua–University of British Columbia team conducted in summer 1999 concluded that any effective conservation strategy would have to gain the residents’ approval and, more importantly, would need to be implemented primarily by them (Abramson et al. 2000). Further research and intervention in Qinglong Xiang (and other similar settings) should therefore address the more precise definition of historic environmental “character” worthy of conservation; methods of encouraging civic pride in this character and organizing communities to take stewardship over it; and focusing government conservation resources on a few outstanding examples of vernacular architecture or on the public space itself, whose maintenance was beyond the means of the owners.

A participatory project seemed especially feasible in Qinglong Xiang compared with other neighborhoods in the Old City mainly because, first of all, the neighborhood was located in the last historically significant area of the city that had not been the subject of any planning work up to that point and had so far escaped any impact by large-scale development. Its relative isolation appeared to keep any threat of such development at bay; indeed, the municipal government was preparing to make Qinglong Xiang a model of historic conservation in the Old City. Second, community identity as exhibited by the membership of the Elders Association and survey responses by individual residents not only appeared to be strong; it was also contiguous with both the administrative boundary of the neighborhood committee (i.e. it did not spill over into more than one neighborhood committee’s jurisdiction) and also the spatial boundaries of the lane itself. Third, a nonstate social organization was already in place, in the form of a temple. Finally, the ancestral home of the director of the Planning Bureau himself was located in the lane, and this circumstance provided (p.228) a special opportunity to demonstrate the government’s commitment to whatever plan would come out of the process.

Despite these advantages, different interests within the community became sharply delineated and challenged the sense of communal purpose that the project was in part intended to foster. One view advocated a strict interpretation of preservation, including partial demolition of illegally high houses that overlooked the few remaining well-preserved courtyard houses. These residents resented neighbors who abandoned the local building tradition in favor of a modern form of ostentation. Residents of dilapidated or crowded old housing, by contrast, themselves hoped to rebuild or enlarge their houses as much as possible or seek government subsidy to restore them; they may or may not have felt attached to the particular form of their house, but they resented government preservation policies that prevented them from making their houses livable. Residents who had already rebuilt their houses to heights that exceeded legal limits wanted the plan to focus on the public facilities of the lane and perhaps the preservation/restoration of the remaining old houses, but they adamantly opposed any change to their own houses. Finally, there were residents of a poorly built condominium apartment block that most egregiously flouted the historic building height limits; these residents were most concerned that they be able to remain living in the neighborhood for its access to a good school or at least that they receive adequate compensation should they be forced to relocate.

In order to find common ground among these different interests and, where that was not possible, to mediate among them and between them and the planning authorities, the project team and its partners among the Elders Association organized a series of workshop-style meetings that acquainted both residents and planning officials with interactive techniques of discussion, made the existence of conflicting interests an explicit and legitimate topic of discussion, formed a “core group” of residents willing to keep the community informed and involved, devised a range of policy options and corresponding trade-offs to respond to each interest, and arrived at a (modest) action plan among representatives of each resident interest group and representatives from each relevant government agency.

They also organized a series of technical and design-oriented activities to clarify in visual terms the various interests and their associated trade-offs, including a community modeling exercise in which residents identified problems and opportunities for action by placing cards on a styrofoam model of the neighborhood; a private housing “design clinic” in which students worked with volunteer households to produce designs that demonstrated compromise between residents’ self-building intentions and government regulations; a public space “envisioning” exercise in which different degrees of change and intervention as proposed by students, planning authorities, and residents were illustrated in photo-edited images of the lane; a set of design (p.229)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.5 Venue for community design in Qinglong Xiang, Quanzhou, Fujian, China, February 2000.

Photograph by Daniel B. Abramson.

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.6 Residents identifying assets, problems, and suggested actions on a model of the neighborhood in Qinglong Xiang, Quanzhou, Fujian, China, February 2000.

Photograph by Daniel B. Abramson.

(p.230) guidelines to make explicit the relationship between specific design requirements and the principles underlying them; and a technical study of upgrading options.

Meetings took place in the neighborhood, in the courtyard of the home of one of the Elders Association leaders, which he had also made available to the neighborhood committee and local security patrol, and which was open most of the time (Figures 12.5 and 12.6). They coincided with the Lantern Festival, two weeks after the traditional lunar new year when most family members and many overseas relatives were gathered at home, and the media took a strong interest. The municipal authorities showed remarkable leniency in giving the academic partners access to the community and freedom to organize the schedule of activities and determine who would attend. Indeed, this author is unaware of any planning or design activity in a Chinese city that allowed nonlocal planners from within China and from abroad such a degree of intimacy with community members.7

The exercise demonstrated how each interest group among the residents could be engaged and given voice, but it failed to unify the neighborhood around a single collective priority. Had this happened, the residents might have convinced the government to fund infrastructural and public space improvements while imposing a less draconian design policy on private houses that would tolerate the street’s increasingly eclectic visual character. In the absence of this, the municipal planners were unconvinced that the government investment would be worth it, and the plan was not implemented. It appears that neither the residents nor the planners conceived of the public environment as being worthy of investment in itself, without some major intervention being applied to the housing as well.

Despite this failure, one of the techniques demonstrated at Qinglong Xiang impressed the municipal planners enough to prompt the government to pay from its own budget for a repeat application but in a different neighborhood in the Old City. This technique, the private housing “design clinic,” especially appealed to the architectural backgrounds and skill sets of the planners and the priorities of municipal leaders, even as it provided them with a new way of communicating with residents. In 2005, the Planning Bureau invited some members of the team from the University of Washington to return to Quanzhou with professional design staff from the Beijing-based firm of WuHe International (whose manager had been one of the partners in the Ford-funded work earlier) to use the design clinic and residents in another historic street in the Old City, Xi Jie (West Street).

(p.231) Xi Jie passes in front of Quanzhou’s most prominent historic monument, the Kai Yuan Temple. Therefore, like Qinglong Xiang, the street is partially off-limits to large-scale redevelopment. However, unlike Qinglong Xiang, Xi Jie is a much more visible street in the city, and it is a priority for improvement by the municipal government. In recent years, the temple has attracted larger and larger crowds on festival days, and the street has become the venue for a monthly fair. Visually, Xi Jie is a historically eclectic street, with no single era or style of building dominating its identity. Despite many attempts by municipal planners and their consultants—including one of China’s most respected historic preservationists and urban designers, Prof. Ruan Yisan of Tongji University in Shanghai—no one has yet produced a set of designs that could govern a large-scale “restoration” of the street.

The design clinic paired volunteer homeowners along the street with the student-professional design teams to produce detailed upgrading designs for their houses that would both conform to historic district regulations and satisfy the owners’ aspirations for more modern living. The aesthetic result would be to blend old and new elements in each house according to the owner’s and the designer’s decision, thus maintaining both the street’s characteristic eclecticism and a continuity with the past. The municipal planner responsible for this high-profile project sought to subsidize a few “model” households to demonstrate this approach, in the hope that other property owners along the street would follow suit (Li 2005). Figures 12.7and 12.8 illustrate some of the design activity undertaken in Quanzhou over two weeks by the Sino-American student teams and then refined by the WuHe staff in Beijing over the following months. In effect, the designers adopted the aesthetic approach made fashionable by the developer-driven Xin Tian Di project in Shanghai mentioned above but put it to the service of local property owners, on the assumption that they would retain ownership and occupation of the new structures, and with the aim of having them take a greater stake in the revitalization of the neighborhood as a whole.

The design clinic is not a tool for direct collective action; it is more a tool for one-on-one negotiation between residents and planners. However, it is also means of providing a service to residents and of giving expression to residents’ aspirations. In the long run, the design clinic may help both residents and government to clarify and harmonize their understanding of the distinction between public/governmental and private/family realms and responsibilities, and residents themselves may then develop their own communal interest in revitalizing the neighborhood. For now, however, this experiment, too, has encountered similar obstacles to those that beset Qinglong Xiang. Many residents cannot afford to upgrade their houses even with the government subsidy. Others do not think the investment is justified unless they can significantly increase the height and floor area of their home. Still others simply do not believe that the street will not ultimately be redeveloped wholesale, and, rather than invest in upgrading, they wait in the hope of being compensated for the (p.232)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.7 Lee Roberts (University of Washington concurrent master’s student in architecture and urban planning) and Man Sha (WuHe International professional designer) discuss home upgrading ideas with a property owner in Xi Jie, Quanzhou, August 2005.

inevitable demolition of their houses. Meanwhile, small business investors who do see a potential in the existing architecture of individual properties would prefer that the government make improvements to the public space of the street first.


Twenty years of observation and active professional engagement with the residents and planners of one city—Quanzhou, Fujian—illuminate the interaction of formal and informal development in the city’s historic urban neighborhoods. Engagements ranged from public surveys of residents’ interests to organized involvement of residents in a participatory planning process and clinics that produced designs both to enable discussion of conflicting interests and to express possible conflict resolution. Community engagement in and through planning and design remains at odds with the standardizing tendencies of official practice (not to mention the usual entrenched power relationships). Nonetheless, through this experience we can see not only how official practice might be localized but also how participatory processes themselves can and need to be localized. (p.233)

Messy Urbanism and Space for Community Engagement in China

Figure 12.8 A property in the 2005 Xi Jie design clinic. Top left: existing exterior view. Top right and below: envisioned changes. Designers: Zhang Ying (WuHe International professional designer), Jayde Lin Roberts (University of Washington doctoral student in built environments), and Chen Lu (Sichuan University–University of Washington undergraduate exchange student in urban design). Exterior rendering for a remodel of a second property in Xi Jie, Quanzhou, emphasizing the combination of contemporary and historic materials and craft.

Designers: Chen Lu, Jayde Lin Roberts, Zhang Ying.

These experiments in community engagement began with “imported” models of participatory planning, including Community Action Planning, Planning for Real, and other techniques used elsewhere in the world (Hamdi and Goethert 1997). They subsequently evolved into a more locally appropriate approach: the design clinic, which was more appropriate to the messiness of divergent resident interests, unclear property rights, and individualized household preferences and definitions of “modernization”—all of which conditions are endemic in Chinese cities at this time. But even the design clinic did not achieve many of its goals, because of the (real or perceived) arbitrary and unpredictable policies of higher levels of government. In Quanzhou, the empowerment that individual resident households enjoy through (p.234) their enhanced property rights does not necessarily translate to a sense of community empowerment.

The point here is that Chinese urbanization itself is an especially messy process, and one aspect of its messiness is the combination of constantly shifting community relations and household strategies for survival and advancement, even as government-led spatial development attempts to impose a greater visual and functional order on the city. Quanzhou may be an extreme example in China of how the complexity of formal, informal, and semiformal household property rights present friction to the imposition of governmental order, but it also exhibits many layers of local, communal order—for example, as expressed through temple associations, festivals, and “invisible” territories (of the gods)—that force official planning practice to accommodate messiness. The city has yet to develop formal processes and institutions of planning that more proactively help communities develop a sense of empowerment and ownership over the entire public realm. Nor has local official aesthetic taste yet come to tolerate the inherently chaotic visual expression of Quanzhou’s fractured and individualistic but lively and creative popular culture and economic life. In Quanzhou, as elsewhere, higher-level governance practices need to change in order to create (political) space for a broader-based sense of collective ownership of the city to emerge.


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(1.) As Randy Hester wittily remarked at the 2014 conference of the Pacific Rim Community Design Network in Seattle, “There can be no representation without representation.” Playing on the American Revolutionary slogan, “no taxation without representation,” he means that if a stakeholder’s interest in built environmental change is not rendered visible, then that interest cannot have an effective role in built-environmental decisions.

(2.) While I have described the first ten years of this experience in Quanzhou in an article in Journal of Planning Education and Research, that article focused on pedagogical aspects of the engagement (Abramson 2005). Other articles have touched on the experience of Quanzhou within broader trends in Chinese urban planning (Abramson 2006; Abramson 2007); in the relation between urban form, land control, and property rights (D. Abramson 2011a; Abramson 2008); and to illustrate how urban planning itself is an ideologically contested practice (Abramson 2011b).

(3.) The great majority of experimentation with new forms of community participatory development in China has taken place in rural settings, especially since the death of Mao (see, for example Plummer and Taylor 2004). The Ford Foundation, which among international organizations was perhaps the earliest and most extensive supporter of participatory rural governance, supported the Quanzhou projects described in this chapter as its Governance and Civil Society Unit’s first involvement in Chinese cities. Subsequently, the German aid organization Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit conducted a similar project in an historic city-center neighborhood in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province (Zhu and Sippel 2008).

(4.) As of 2008, one of the family members owning a share of this sprawling complex used some of the space as a workshop for artists he employed to produce cheap art reproductions for sale in Hong Kong to buyers from around the world. The Hong Kong shop itself occupied a tiny apartment in the Mirador Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, a kind of twin to the Chungking Mansions described in this book’s introduction. Thus the small diasporic villages of coastal China are intimately, if almost invisibly, linked to the densest nodes of global cultural and economic activity.

(5.) Conversation with Huang Shiqing, Chief Planner, Quanzhou Municipal Urban and Rural Planning Bureau, June 17, 2006. Also discussed in Lu et al. 2004.

(6.) This author graduated from Tsinghua University’s doctoral program in urban planning and design in 1998, having worked with Prof. Lu Junhua and her other students for five years on various urban redevelopment and preservation projects in Quanzhou.

(7.) At the Quanzhou project’s outset in 1999, community engagement in China was primarily a rural phenomenon. The Qinglong Xiang project was the first recipient of Ford Foundation support for engagement with an urban community in China. Since this work in Quanzhou began, a small number of similar urban community-engaged or community-based historic neighborhood upgrading projects have taken place in China, as for example in the German-supported GTZ project in Yangzhou (UN-HABITAT and UNESCO 2008). However, there continue to be more such projects in rural contexts, and it is from these that most lessons have been drawn and published (see, for example, Plummer and Taylor 2004).