Creating a Human Scaled City Among Rapid Urbanization

One of the main reasons I was interested in taking the Ford School’s class on Chinese Policy and participating in the trip to China was to better understand the way people live, work, and just generally function in Chinese cities. As we learned in class, China has undergone rapid urbanization and its major cities (such as Beijing and Guangzhou) are known for large, dense, and growing populations of urban residents.

In this sense, throughout the trip I have kept an eye out for how the built environment of the cities we visited affects how people navigate their respective city. One of the first things I noticed was that the traffic in Beijing and Guangzhou was really heavy and that there seemed to be a lot of chaos in where bikes could ride and when cars could turn while pedestrians were crossing (of course I also noticed the intense pollution and hazy skies, as well as a general urban environment with lots of concrete and impervious surfaces). Notably, both the roads and cross walks in Beijing are VERY wide, increasing impervious surfaces and likely decreasing safety for pedestrians.

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Large crosswalks and roads in Beijing

However, I also noticed that China has made several efforts to help mitigate some of the negative consequences of rapid urbanization (i.e. traffic congestion, pollution, an increase in impervious surfaces, lack of green spaces, etc.). For example, both Beijing and Guangzhou have urban design elements that work to make the cities more pedestrian and bike friendly, as well as to help to control vehicular circulation/congestion, such as comprehensive bike share programs in both Beijing and Guangzhou. Additionally, a lot of streets in Beijing are sectioned off to have designated bike lanes, helping to improve safety for bikers, drivers, and pedestrians. Both Beijing and Guangzhou have comprehensive metro systems, and Guangzhou has the largest and most comprehensive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems in Asia. These varied public transit options only adds to the ability of residents to safely navigate their cities in a variety of ways that fit their specific needs.

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Bikes bike share in Guangzhou

Another element to help promote a more human-scaled city is the creation of pedestrian malls throughout both Beijing and Guangzhou that are essentially streets blocked off to cars and other types of vehicular traffic, making it easier to navigate the city safely as a pedestrian.

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Pedestrian mall in Guangzhou

In addition, to help counter the presence of large impervious surfaces (roads and sidewalks) that are necessary for the large amount of population, there are several greenways in both Beijing and Guangzhou that allow residents to walk safely without cars or other vehicular traffic in a natural environment, while also working to help improve environmental challenges by allowing for improved drainage (as imposed to traditional impervious surfaces). Additionally, most of the medians in Beijing have greenery (as well as gates to help separate lanes of traffic) and there are several city parks throughout the city, providing additional green spaces and promoting the interaction of residents with nature (however, landscaping and upkeep of these spaces may pose some additional environmental challenges).

Greenway in Guangzhou

In conclusion, there seems to be quite a large and comprehensive push to create livable and navigable cities for Chinese residents (and visitors!) among some of the more negative consequences of rapid urbanization that these cities face such as traffic congestion and pollution.

–Michelle Rubin


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