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Galloping toward a healthy China in the Year of the Horse: I Walk Hard for My Money

 

Xin Nian Kuaile! Happy Chinese New Year!

2014-01-27 16.28.36As I sit here in my 19th-floor French Concession flat, still recovering from the shock and awe of the apocalyptic-like display of Lunar New Year fireworks I witnessed this week, I wonder what the year of the horse has in store for China. 

 

According to Feng Shui practitioner, Raymond Lo: "The upcoming horse year is also a 'yang wood' year, when people will stick to their principles and stand firm. So it is hard to negotiate or compromise as there are more tendencies for people to fight for their ideals."

 

Granted, I’m no firm believer in the Chinese zodiac (or Western astrology for that matter) and my home is far from having good “feng shui,” but this prediction worries me. China is facing serious health threats in the year of the horse, and beyond. It is not the time to stick with the status quo.

 

As of 2013, 12% of China’s population had diabetes, making it not only the country with the highest number of people with the disease, but also the highest diabetes rate, surpassing that of the US and India. This epidemic has spread rapidly; in 1980, only 1% of China’s population had the disease. Worse, it’s poised to rise dramatically, with more than 50% of Chinese showing signs of pre-diabetes.

 

The diabetes epidemic is tied to expanding waistlines (over 11% of Chinese are obese and over 34% are overweight), which also increases the risk for other chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, and cancer. While nutrition is certainly a significant factor in the spread of obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases, we know that sedentary behavior and lack of physical activity – tied partly to living and working in auto-oriented environments that lack walkability – is also to blame.

 

Now add unprecedented pollution levels to the mix. Just a couple of months ago, Shanghai experienced record-breaking pollution during the “airpocalypse,” with off the charts AQI levels, topping off somewhere just over 600 (the maximum was 500). The negative health consequences of air pollution are staggering: in 2010 alone, 1.2 million premature deaths were attributed to air pollution. In November, China reported the youngest on-record cancer patient – an 8-year-old girl from nearby Jiangsu province. While air pollution is caused by a variety factors, the swell in the number of automobiles (China lays claim to the world’s largest car market) – from just over 3200 in 1982 to over 100 million today – is indeed a contributor.  

 

China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for cars along with the proliferation of cities better suited to four-wheeled inhabitants – other contributing factors not withstanding – will continue to exacerbate China’s mounting health issues. Facilitating walkability and more active transport is one way to lower the risk of chronic disease and combat pollution in China.  

 

As part of my Fulbright work, I've sat down with several architects, planners and developers to discuss existing barriers to walkable development in China and potential solutions to overcome them. My discussions have been decidedly grim: the notion of overcoming the myriad political, cultural, and educational obstacles standing in the way of a more walkable, sustainable China has been met mostly with cynicism. (Stay tuned for future blog posts regarding this sadly, long list of challenges). The most hopeful response I’ve gotten thus far was more of a thinly veiled skeptical one: "Yes, China needs to change. They know they need to change. It will take a long time."

 

But China simply doesn’t have that "time." Urbanization is happening now. Over 54% of China’s population resides in cities; 60% will do so by 2018, two years ahead of schedule. By 2025, urban China – with its 350 million new residents – will be, for all intents and purposes “built out,” with the urbanization rate slowly stabilizing over the following two decades. This means new auto-centric cities – over 50 of them, each with 1+ million in population – are proliferating, now. Their mega-blocks are being planned and laid out, now. Their 10+ lane roads are being paved, now. Their towers in the park are being erected, now. The West has begun to accept that this type of vision for "tomorrow" was a misguided dystopian one; they are paying a hefty price to retrofit its byproduct into more human-scaled, sustainable places that people want and value. And yet China seems to be standing firm, determined to make these mistakes themselves, because, well, they can and they believe they have the right to so.

 

I certainly understand why China's knee-jerk reaction is to rebuff what can come across as pedantic Western "advice," but just as China doesn't have the luxury of time, it cannot afford (for its own sake) a "whatever, I do what I want" approach to urbanization. Once the urban fabric (block patterns, streets, building footprints, etc.) of new cities and suburban neighborhoods are laid out, it's dreadfully difficult to fix. Don’t get me wrong, strides have been made toward advancing sustainability. For example, China has acknowledged its pollution problem (admitting there’s a problem is the first step, right?); it’s even gone as far as to release data detailing the extent of its problem. But China has yet to do much about the fact (or realize) that the built environment – or the form that urbanization takes on – impacts individual, environmental, and even fiscal health and affects its State of Place moving forward.

 

My wish for China during this year of the horse is for it to mimic its moniker - to gallop its way toward change instead of holding firmly to its current stance. It must swiftly revise outdated auto-oriented, single-use zoning codes; expeditiously reconsider its land-lease as economic development strategy; forthwith begin to think long term; and feverishly work to establish interagency partnerships so that transportation, planning, and housing policies and practices all work in tandem toward curating a sustainable future. (More on these solutions in forthcoming blog posts!). In other words, China must change its approach to urbanization just as quickly as it has been urbanizing.

 

I hope that next year at this time, as we are celebrating the year of the sheep, that the horse has given the typically anxious sheep little to worry about, and that we can celebrate the many strides taken toward building a healthier China and improving its State of Place. Perhaps this is merely wishful thinking, but you could say the horse was one of the first sustainable forms of transport - when better to trek toward this type of change? I can say that as a horse myself, I’ll put all of my effort into seeing my research leads to a dynamic and productive horse year. First trot, a trip to Guizhou’s Center for Disease Control in two weeks to speak about walkability…

 

Learn more about my Fulbright work on walkability here in Shanghai!

Learn more about the ten urban design principles that make up State of Place!

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Today I'm "Walk"ful for...I Walk Hard for My Money

Kuaile Gan'en Jie cong Shanghai! Happy Thanksgiving from Shanghai!

 

As many of you already know, "place" is a key part my personal fulfillment (and of course great places contribute critically to enhancing the triple bottom line!). Given that, this two-part blog post will outline ten characteristics of place for which I am thankful in recognition of Thanksgiving! The first five focus on the aspects of place I have come to relish here in Shanghai; the second set (to be posted next week) relay the built environment features about NYC that I've come to appreciate that much more as a result of living in Shanghai for the past two months.

 

Thanks, Shanghai, for these awesome placemaking features!

 

1. Street Food

 

2013-11-23 17.23.02While the number of street food venders has drastically declined over the past decade (especially since the Expo), as a Westerner, this dynamic aspect of place is still a serious delight! Food is a universal language (even when not all of it is recognizable!) that brings people together - a natural conversation starter, an equalizer. I am thankful that there are so many, distinct food venders in Shanghai and hope we can relay how critical they are to creating great places! Shanghai already got this right; let's keep it that way!

 

2. Dancing in the Streets

2013-10-02 19.53Ok, so you can find this in NYC too, but only because so many Chinese immigrants have brought this wonderful tradition with them! As with food, dancing imbues places with life, and naturally attracts many spectators. I still haven't joined one of the near-daily sessions...soon I hope! Sadly (for me), most people under 30 with whom I've spoken eschew this lovely tradition; it will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether it's taken up by younger Chinese when they get older.

 

3. Narrow Streets

2013-10-05 12.29.40I love getting lost in the labyrinth-like alleys and narrow streets of old Shanghai. With every turn of the corner, you get deeper into a voyeuristic-like journey in which the most mundane, daily activities like cooking, doing the laundry, and washing the dishes transform into "anthropological" observations of traditional, communal life. While at first you feel like you're invading residents' privacy,  inquisitive looks unequivocally transform into warm smiles welcoming you into their "living rooms." These discovery walks are one of the most authentic experiences I've had in Shanghai!

         

4. Markets

2013-11-18 11.48.29Many of you know that I love food about as much as I love great places and walking. It should come as no surprise then, that the intersection between food and place make up two of the five things for which I'm thankful! Markets in Shanghai are so unbelievable interesting - spectacles in their own right. They boast so many varieties of produce, grains, and tofu that I'd never seen before (even though I frequented Chinatown quite a bit back in NYC!). A flurry of excitement comes over me every time I go to the market - and that sentiment seems to be shared by my fellow shop-goers. Food is a highly valued part of life here and that's just wonderful! Sadly, food security (or lack there of) is threatening this joyous relationship...

 

 

5. Pace

2013-11-23 16.56.43It's hard to fully capture this last one. Shanghai, and other large Chinese cities alike, are experiencing an ever-constant stream of change. Many of the alley ways I've been exploring may no longer exist in a years time. New developments spring up like weeds -  shiny malls boasting the (fleeting) title of biggest commercial center in Shanghai seem to be a constant.  This might seem like a negative - and in many ways it is. But what I'm thankful for is the fact that I'm in the midst of it. I'm experiencing this rapid change, this evolution (some good, some bad), first hand and perhaps in spite of it or because of it, I feel ever-empowered to impact this change, to shape it into a more sustainable transformation.  Case in point: forty-five days ago I started a meetup group called Shanghai Walk & Talks. Today we have 85 members, half of which are Chinese! We've gone on four walks and counting. After every walk, they all genuinely thank me for bringing them together and giving them a new perspective on their city, its walkability (or lack thereof), and how their environment shapes them..."Pace" is on my side here and this is only the beginning!

Learn more about my Fulbright work on walkability here in Shanghai!

Learn more about the ten urban design principles that make up State of Place!

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The Vortex: I (have been) walk(ing) hard for my money!

 

Duibuqi duzhe! Wo hai zai zheli! (Sorry readers! I am still here!)

 

I am remiss, as it has now been a month since I promised you three months worth of blogs! In my defense, I have been busy learning Chinese (as you can obviously see from my new-found pinyin "proficiency"), taking rather odd Chinese health exams required for a resident permit (so I can actually enter and leave the country as I wish), attempting to decipher the products at Chinese supermarkets (note, congee is not the same thing as arborio rice!), finding out that service is a four-letter word in China (unfortunately during my Peking-duck birthday celebration), and scouring the city to find black beans (the Cuban kind, not the Chinese-that-never-soften-no-matter-how-long-you-boil kind). And oh yeah, I have indeed been doing a lot of walking (hard) for my money - read: dodging motorbikes, cars, buses, and unidentified moving objects while walking all over Shanghai. Sure, most of my walks thus far have been within the first ring, but hopefully today's blog about my close encounters of the first-to-second-ring kind will help explain why I haven't strayed too far afoot as often as planned (although I will!).

 

In keeping with the spirit of this blog series' namesake, I've taken to walking pretty much anywhere within a 10k radius of my Xuhui apartment. A few weeks ago, I had a meeting at the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport's (SLOCAT) office in downtown Gubei, a close-in "suburb" (although this is denser than ANY suburb you've ever stepped foot on in the the US!). I readily mapped my route on Google maps (first rookie mistake) -- 55 minutes, perfect! I could easily walk there. I was particularly excited for this walk as I had been cooped up in my apartment courtesy of Typhoon Fitow. I planned my day around this walking adventure/meeting, giving myself enough wiggle room to take pictures (and get lost - pretty much inevitable) along the way.

 

So let's get started...

 

The beginning of my walk was just lovely.

 

2013-10-09 13.09.012013-10-09 13.09.32

 

Tree-lined, narrow streets, nice-sized sidewalks, street food, outdoor dining - so many of the ingredients that make up great streets (as long as you ignore the fact that no motorized vehicles EVER yield to those of us on two legs). I also came across this charming make-shift street furniture outside of a bookstore - DIY urbanism at its finest! To boot, I was excellently navigating my way with my new-but-quickly-wearing-appendage - my Streetwise Shanghai map (I don't care that my fiance questions my adeptness as a planner for being so dependent on it!).

 

2013-10-09 13.26.49 2013-10-09 13.25.06

 

Soon, however, human-scaled intersections made way to somewhat "overweight" intersections, with barricaded medians and more curving (less yield-inducing) turning radii. While the sidewalks on these roads tended to be wider, the bloated width of the streets, the far-too-setback, towering, characterless buildings, and the lack of street trees killed the proportions of the street. Those wide sidewalks may have well been beautiful pieces of French brie on gutter-oil fried skewers. Unfortunately, these less-than-appetizing sidewalks were an omen of things to come. 

As I approached the inner ring road I was to cross to get to my destination, I started to wonder whether my tenacity to take this (entire) city by foot was somewhat ill-advised. And then I came across this. 

 

2013-10-09 13.50.37

You see, that, my friends, is a tunnel. Not a pedestrian underpass. A tunnel. For vehicles. A tunnel that Google Maps proposed I traverse to get to the Partnership on Sustainable Low Carbon Transport's office. Ok, to my trusty map I turned. All I needed to do was figure out a way to get to the other side of Xinhua Rd. I proceeded to the path intended for pedestrians - the ever-ubiquitous Chinese pedestrian overpass - and continued to document the increasingly harrowing nature of the "urban design" along my walk.

 

Look how narrow the sidewalk gets where this pedestrian is turning the corner...

Once you turn that corner, you come across this most pathetic of urban public spaces...I'll bet good money you'll never spy anyone using it.

This is the approaching pedestrian overpass

This is the entrance to the overpass. The distance between the end of the stairway and the walk is no more than two feet.

 

The good news is that I made it safely across the overpass. The bad news is once I got back on solid ground, I embarked on what I can only describe as some ill-fated beta version of Mario Brothers or Frogger (dating myself, I know) created by sadist former Sim City video game designers, in which the lead was now played by yours truly - the walkability heroine - and the ultimate aim was to arrive at SLOCAT and deliver the urban design keys that would save China, while overcoming pedestrian obstacles along the way. In spite of my not-so-great sense of re-direction, (the heroine's achilles heel), I managed to find Xinhua road again, although I had to navigate one of the largest intersections I've ever seen or crossed (although I break that record weekly here in Shanghai) to rediscover it. The problem is, I had entered the vortex in so doing. The place where Shanghai's inner ring road intersects with Yan'an Rd, a major elevated highway, and where Zhongshan Rd, one of the largest arterials in the City, runs ground-level along side the inner ring. Every time I thought I'd made it to the next level in the "game," I kept running into dead ends. Running over 30-minutes late to my meeting, I hailed a taxi (don't worry, I'd accumulated enough "points" in the game to earn one motorized ride and I had to make it to SLOCAT somehow, China's future depended on it!). I eventually got to my meeting and we commiserated over the pitfalls of my ill-fated journey.

 

Screen shot 2013-11-08 at 3.01.22 PM

 

All kidding and personal frustration aside, and as fun as playing this kind of video game might seem, this is real. Once you leave the land of milk and honey behind (AKA: The French Concession/the center city), Shanghai's urban design landscape becomes exhilarating for all of the wrong reasons. Walkability - or the lack thereof - is a matter of life and death in China, both in the here and now in terms of pedestrian safety, and moving forward as China attempts to forge its own path to sustainability. If we cannot traverse that path on foot, we're all going to face a fate much worse than being caught in that vortex - and we won't just be able to call upon cabbies to get us out of it!

 

This, my friends, is why I am in China! Stay tuned...

 

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