China Chas / flickr.com

爱未来 (Beautiful future)

An interview with Feng Feifei on the Chinese way in city planning by Olga Poletkina

Read intro

An interview with Feng Feifei

An interview by Olga Poletkina

China is a huge experimental laboratory for city design and development. The country is currently facing rapid development on the one hand and huge challenges, such as ecological pollution, overcrowding and so on on the other. These circumstances have forced China to develop in a very special way – at an accelerated pace, without giving time for long theoretical arguments. From this point of view, I think that China presents an object of great interest for the whole world as a creative laboratory on a huge scale.

The person I’ve decided to talk to is Feifei Feng, a director of the Urban Planning and Design Department at the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design. She is also Deputy Director of the Historical and Cultural City of Beijing Academic Protection Committee.

“Feifei Feng has been engaged in planning for over 20 years, during which time she has participated in and presided over a large number of different types and levels of planning projects prioritising Beijing's historical and cultural protection. She has promoted more in-depth research on urban public space, urban design and the walking and cycling environment”.
Hide intro

China is growing rapidly and the construction industry plays a significant role in China’s economy. Can we say that there is a specifically Chinese approach in city planning in our days? What are the main features of the Chinese approach to city planning?

I can’t say there is any specifically Chinese approach in direct city planning and development. When you are working, for example, in a historical city you should, as everywhere, take into account the historical context. The height of buildings, their colour, the network of streets, the scale and many other things are important. Historical housing in Beijing, for example, involves single storey buildings, so you need to focus on this scale; the traditional colour is grey, so colour experiments are not allowed there either. But generally, the approach towards work on new areas is the same as in Europe or the US.

In China we have a huge speed of settlements development and creation. And maybe this can be named a specific China feature

Talking about the bigger scale of the country and its territorial evolution I can, of course, state that in China we have a huge speed of settlement development and creation. And perhaps this could be regarded as a specific feature to China. Also, the past few decades have seen the practice of creating new towns on the basis of old villages and, well, maybe this too can be seen as a specific China approach. This process is interesting but not unique; it is sophisticated and has both positive and negative features.

In the pursuit of profit, the government gave land to developers and the race for profit caused a lot of problems in the past. The government paid some money to the locals for their land but, after losing their habitual way of living, people didn’t know how to survive in the new circumstances. They didn’t know how to be citizens; they had no specific skills and were forced to labor in some low-​skilled work, being paid for this much less than before. Old settlements were destroyed and developed in a new way – as urban structures, and the old culture of places was unfortunately lost. But I think that this is a characteristic peculiar to the country’s development phase. Today, the government has changed its approach, and now locals are sharing the profit from settlement development; we are trying to inscribe locals into the new towns, and the developers take more responsibility for the people, who receive new houses with all their infrastructure from the developers. We can also see the appearance of dwellings for people from outside town, along with attractors like commercial centres. Local people are now much more involved in the new life of their native places. Concerning historical heritage, the approach has changed too, we are now trying to safeguard the historical layer of places.

johan versteeg / flickr.com

johan versteeg /​flickr​.com

People have debated the topic of city growth limitation since the end of the 19th century and, in several counties such as the US, England, New Zealand, Canada and others, city growth limitation is practised for some settlements. Do you have any such policy in China and how do you think the process of city borders can be considered? What would a Chinese approach to future city boundaries be?

If you want to control a big city extension you have to develop other places and settlements. And that will be the way where people can choose the best place for them to live.

The border question is very important, but a big city is quite difficult to control. If you want to control the growth of a big city you have to develop other places and settlements. And that would be the way in which people can choose the best place for themselves to live. For example, Shanghai is a big city, but in its surroundings there are a lot of medium-​sized cities that are very well developed. So people have a choice of living either in the biggest city, or maybe in a smaller one, but not far from the former, making both options acceptable. But in Beijing, for instance, we have a different situation. Beijing has no well-​developed satellite towns, it concentrates everything inside itself. So, people don’t have any choice. In fact, you can only have a job and reasonably comfortable life in Beijing. And right now the city is still growing and it is difficult to control this process. Beijing has now finally realised that this approach, the old approach towards urban growth, was wrong and it has also realised that the Shanghai experience is more positive. So now Beijing is trying to learn from Shanghai.

Concerning China, the situation is as follows: There are three main city groups in China: Beijing, Shanghai and Banjo, and the main cities are well developed, though Shanghai is better developed than the others. All of them are located in the East. In the West we have several quite big cities, but they don’t have city groups and I think the future of the country’s evolution and its border control strategy will involve the development of city groups.

It will have a positive effect on resettlement across the whole country, because then, hopefully, people will be able to move from the eastern part of the country to the west, resulting in a more even development of the country’s territory.

EugeneLimPhotography.com / flickr.com

Eugene​LimPho​tog​ra​phy​.com /​flickr​.com

I have a question about Chinese ghost towns. Usually, a town becomes a ghost because the economic activity that supported it has failed, or due to natural or manmade disasters. In China the situation is paradoxical, there are several new, freshly built towns with no people living in them. For example: Tianduncheng, Kangbashi, the new area of Lanzhou, or the new city of Chenggong. Why are these territories empty? Is it some planning or management mistake or a conscious strategy on behalf of the government?

The ghost towns are only situated around medium-​sized or small cities. For example, there are no ghost cities near Beijing, Shanghai or Banjo. The reason for that is the surfeit of population in the central city that can fill out these new settlements. They also lack sufficient industry to attract new people. We could say it was a management mistake. Only local people are living there. So, we see now that the population there is very small and there are no jobs for people, some of whom are involved in services within the settlements, but in fact these places are not adapted for working and living. Some people are buying apartments there as an investment but they don’t actually want to, and are even unable to, live there. These towns have commercial facilities but they are not yet operational: there are no hospitals, schools, or anything else. Actually, 50 % of the dwelling still can’t be sold by developers.

What do you think will happen with them in 10 or 15 years and what should the strategy be to attract people there and develop these areas? How can China possibly amend this flaw and save face?

I don’t think this problem can be solved in a short time. I even think that some of them might remain ghost cities forever. These territories can be developed by building new factories, by the appearance of industrial sectors and creation of some attractors – such as public facilities. But still I don’t think it will work in the near future, as there is no population and it will be difficult to attract people there despite the huge population problem and housing shortages in China. To attract people you have to build industry and this is a complicated strategic question, which depends on a lot of different factors, so it is no simple matter to attract industry into these regions.

It’s no secret that China faces great environmental and ecological problems. It is also well known that, in Beijing for example, there are programmes for ecological recovery, such as the movement of industrial facilities outside the city centre, programmes to replace coal heating with electrical, raising the standards for vehicle fuel, but it doesn’t appear to be enough for real change. What should be the main strategy for Beijing in the next, let say, 50 years, to make real progress in this regard?

We have to improve technical conditions of industrial facilities and should control the level of emissions

I think that if you want to improve the environment you can’t just move the factory out of the city. Several Beijing industries have now been moved into suburbia or even further afield, but 25% of pollution still comes from places around the city. So we see that moving the factories doesn’t change anything. There is no use in moving industry outside the city, it will never change the ecological situation and it will still be harmful for the environment and people will suffer. We have to improve the technical conditions of our industrial facilities and need to control the level of emissions. Beijing has a huge ecological problem and yet the government has not been able to control the situation there. The city is suffering from pollution. To solve this problem we should firstly – change the quality of industry, making it environmentally conscious, and secondly – Beijing should be responsible for the suburban ecological situation, it must help the other settlements around it to solve their ecological problems.

MarioEurope / flickr.com

MarioEurope /​flickr​.com

It is interesting to learn more about the official policy of monuments conservation in Beijing. What is the attitude of locals towards historical heritage? And does Beijing have a stable future as a historical place for tourists?

Just several years ago government did not care about historical area and culture, we destroyed a lot of things. But current authorities and also citizens, have realized that it is very important to protect historical heritage. Especially in time of globalization, traditional culture is very important for China

Just several years ago, the government did not care about historical areas and culture, we destroyed a lot of things. But the current authorities, as well as the citizens, have realised that it is very important to protect our historical heritage. Especially in these times of globalisation, traditional culture is very important for China. Today the government spends a lot of money supporting heritage. But due to the fact that for a long time we didn’t care about it, we’ve got a lot of problems now in this area. Historical houses and buildings are not comfortable to live in, they are in poor condition, though there are still a lot of people living in them. Some houses are very small; they even can measure a mere 5 m² and historical dwellings usually have a height of one storey, and the quantity of such buildings is still high. So, we have to move a lot of people into new dwellings while simultaneously understanding how to develop historical areas in a new way. The situation in Beijing is very serious and in need of an urgent solution to the problem.

I think that Beijing has a good level of tourist attractions; Chinese people travel to Beijing a lot and foreign tourists like to go there, but I think that the amount of foreigners is not as big as it supposed to be because of the poor ecological situation there.

We’ve discussed some very important ecological and city growth problems of China, and more precisely of Beijing. What should the lessons for Russia and Moscow be from the China experience?

Well, there are a lot of common problems in big cities all over the world. In Moscow, for example, you have a huge problem with traffic jams. In Beijing we have the same problem, but now we are trying to solve it. As you know, there are several cities around Beijing and in the past we didn’t have a metro system there, which caused serious traffic problems. But now every new city has a subway connection. And tickets are very cheap– 2 Yuan (5 Russian rubles). For this fare you can go anywhere in Beijing and its suburbs. we have also established paid parking in the city centre – 2 dollars per hour. It’s quite expensive for some people, especially in comparison with public transport costs. So the government is encouraging people to take public transport. As for me, I have 10 years driving experience, but now I prefer to use the subway to go to work. It is convenient, quick and inexpensive. So for Moscow it would be helpful to develop the metro structure more, going further from the centre with it.

I would also like to ask you about the New Moscow plan, have you seen it? Obviously, the plans of Moscow and Beijing share a similar radial structure; do you think it will be efficient to develop Moscow in such a way?

Now we are expending Beijing and it is the same thing that Moscow wants to do. But we expend it in direction of Tianjin because we are doing a corridor between these two settlements, connected by a high way and surrounded by the middle cities around the area. In Moscow you develop the plan in some direction, but there is no real attraction at the end of this corridor, so there will not be city or traffic corridor. And I afraid that this new structure can’t be a real problem solver.

Sure, I know of this project. I think, if you want to expand the city, it is better to have a city or traffic corridor. Around Beijing there are several cities and we can take Tianjin city as an example. Tianjin has a population of 7 million people, so it is quite big and there are also several middling cities around it. Now we are expanding Beijing, which is exactly what Moscow wants to do. But we are expand it in the direction of Tianjin because we are making a corridor between these two settlements, connected by a high way and surrounded by the middle-​sized cities in the area. In Moscow, you develop the plan in a certain direction, but there is no real attraction at the end of this corridor, so no city or traffic corridor will form. And I afraid that this new structure cannot be a real problem solver.

You participated in the design of Beijing’s Olympic Park and Financial Street. How has Olympic Park influenced the city’s development and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this project?

If you look at the city structure you will see that the axis of the city goes from south to north. The first plan was to build the Olympic park on this axis in the south of the city, because we wanted to develop this part. But with all the industries that are located there we couldn’t do that. The level of pollution was very high and it was obvious that Committee of the Olympic Games wouldn’t like this option. So we found the most favourable place and it was in the north of Beijing. I think this place was already quite comfortable and friendly, so now it has more developed infrastructure and has become more attractive; we made a good place even better with this project. But at the same time the southern part of the city was still not developed in a good way. That was the weak side of the project, but now we are developing this region with a new airport.

Generally, I think the most important positive effect of the Olympic Games was to help open people’s eyes onto the world. China had been closed off against the outer world, but after the Olympics we felt ourselves to be part of a global community. And this was the most important positive effect of the project. Big events make a lot of changes in citizens’ lives, and this is what has happened in Beijing.

IvanWalsh.com / flickr.com

Ivan​Walsh​.com /​flickr​.com

Once more about Olympic Park: What is your favourite place or places there (from a user perspective)?

Olympic Park is divided into two areas. One part includes the stadium, the other – the National Aquatic Centre, and there is also a park nearby. So, this park is the only place I really like. The scale of the main Olympics objects is not comfortable for me, we suggested beforehand that they should not be too big but they turned out huge in the end: a big stadium, wide public spaces, everything is big. But Green Park is more intimate and people like it very much, just as I do.

As with the Olympic experience, the construction of a business centre is very important to Russia at the present day, because Moscow city centre is one of the most significant projects for Russian capital. What would you say are the most important factors for a business centre’s design and development?

A financial centre depends on the status of the city. In Beijing, for instance, everything is concentrated: power and money and business. But in other countries there is a division between centres of political power and financial centres, as in Germany. In China, Shanghai is now developing as a financial centre, but all businesses want to have offices in Beijing anyway, not to be far from the political power, the same as in Moscow. So the point is that the most important factor to influence on the development of a business centre is the political and financial tradition. I don’t think that every city should have its combination of political and financial centres, but this is a question of business and political arrangement and it depends on the political direction of the country. China and Russia are alike in this question: money and power want to be together.

What is the most interesting project or projects you are working on now?

Actually my main job is in protecting historical heritage, where I participate in a variety of projects, but the favourite is Beijing history protection. I don’t think it is very successful yet; unfortunately it is impossible to control it. This is my life project, the most interesting and important right now, and for the future.