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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!


Today I'm "Walk-ful" For, Part 2: I Walk Hard for My Money


Happy New Year to you and happy four-month Shanghai-versary to me!


Time flies when you are walking hard for a living! Right before Thanksgiving, I posted a gratitude blog outlining five Shanghai placemaking features for which I was  thankful. I promised you a second post the following week detailing five NYC built environment features that I'd come to herald even more after my time in Shanghai. Embarrassingly, I'm six weeks late! In my defense, I have since been to Beijing (twice), Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Bangkok; have given three talks; attended too many meetings to count; cooked a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast, complete with Cuban beans, pork and mojo; and, oh, hosted my in-laws in Shanghai (they bought up the whole city, including an extra suitcase in which to lug it all back with them!). It's exhausting just writing that sentence - no less living through it - but the good news is it provided much fodder for future blog posts. Do stay tuned. But without further ado, today's blog post:


Top five NYC placemaking features (that I hope I can import to Shanghai - and China)


1. Walking on "terra firma"


2013-11-16 12.55.20 Seems pathetic that my time in Shanghai has me longing for the simple pleasure of being able to walk  firmly on the ground. Across many Shanghai districts and in most large Chinese cities, it is a luxury to feel the earth beneath you when traversing large intersections. Some argue that pedestrian overpasses help promote safety. I counter loudly - at best, they are bestial eyesores; at worst, they are bastions of the auto-dependent landscapes that have become more ubiquitous than smart phones in China. These pedestrian bridges are inconvenient, often unkept, and help perpetuate the ethos that cars are better and have more rights than pedestrians. 


2. Eight is [more than] enough


2013-11-09 12.36.53It was difficult to find a photo that properly relayed the ridiculous largeness of the intersections in China. They are so wide that it is impossible to fully capture them in one single frame. While the US has its share of highways passing for streets, transportation engineers in China have had their way - and then some - designing streets so wide that only Olympic sprinters can cross them in the time allotted! Pedestrians are instead forced to wait mid intersection, on a ped island that amounts to little more than a life vest in shark-infested waters - if you're lucky enough to even have one. The widest road I ever came across in Manhattan had six lanes, two of which were parking lanes (and it was one of the most hated streets in the borough). Perhaps we have good ol' Robert Moses - the "Master Builder of New York" - to blame for that one. Unfortunately, in China, there are too many Robert Moseses - each with multiple mega roads under his belt - to count.


3. These "streets" are made for walking


2013-10-26 12.42.26Here, the challenge was choosing only one picture! By far, my growing image bank documenting the fruits of my labor is dominated by photos of streets with pedestrian barriers. Barriers come in as many shapes and sizes as dumplings in China. You can find them on most streets. Poles, scaffolding, construction, motorcycles, cars, street vendors (yes, as much as I love them, they are often guilty of blocking the sidewalk), consulate barricades, more poles, and even the occasional dynamite explosions (this happened right in front of me while leading my very first Walk & Talk meetup group!) all contribute to the consummate obstacle course that is walking in China. While scenes like this particular one could be chalked up to "cultural differences," I won't give China a pass on the other countless physical barriers (and psychological - see # 1 on this list) that pedestrians must navigate in order to safely and conveniently use the most sustainable (and oldest) form of transportation available to us. While weekly trash disposal and oft-narrow sidewalks do pose pedestrian barrier issues in NYC, in comparison to the myriad, egregious sidewalk barriers in China, they are small, eye-roll-inducing nuisances - perils of city living (that of course, still need to be addressed!). 


4. Apples with apples

2013-11-23 11.51.17Yes, that's a car attempting to drive onto the sidewalk, via the curbcut, right in front of my Walk & Talk meetup group! Unfortunately, I was unable to get the guy guiding the driver through this whole process in the same shot! I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried. To safely walk as a pedestrian in China, you need eyes in the back of your head. Seeing as humans have yet to evolve that particular body part, for now that means you have to look right, left, right again, peer over your shoulder, lean back, lean forward, all before crossing the street in China - heck, you need to do this while you're walking on the sidewalk! Motorized vehicles - from cars to e-bikes, trucks to scooters, buses to make-shift I don't know what - all take precedence over pedestrians. You have to look out for them at every turn - and  step. Being in a constant state of high-alert is taxing and can take the joy out of walking. I'm not saying that NYC drivers are the most obedient stock, but at least you know you're not going to all of a sudden encounter a car whizzing by you on the sidewalk in NYC! 


5. The prince of Fresh-air

2013-11-07 16.31.04Ok, fine, Will Smith lives in LA, not NYC, but you get the picture. This is my DIY filter after two days of near-record breaking AQI (air quality index) in Shanghai. That is not a shadow. That is filth. That filth was in the air. Inside my apartment. The scariest part is that a few weeks after this picture was taken, we indeed broke the record for the worst AQI in Shanghai since they began recording it. The readings were off the charts. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous; 500 was the maximum. During the Shanghai "airpocaplyse," the AQI topped 600. I cannot quite describe how trapped I felt during this time. Confined to my apartment, I actually longed to engage in the taxing battle that is pedestrian life here. Give me your ugliest most imposing pedestrian overpass, your most morbidly obese intersection, your most steadfast barrier. I'll gladly duck aggressive cars, silent ebikes, and motorbikes with their lights off in the game of frogger this country calls walking. Just let me out. Let me breathe fresh air. The kicker is, in China, the lack of the first four urban design principles outlined here is linked to the lack of the fifth. I will never again take for granted my beautiful, peaceful, clean air-filled walk from my NYC apartment to my beloved Tompkins Square park.


While this post may seem more like I'm bemoaning China's bad urban design and less like a list of what I love (or miss most) about NYC, it's actually part of my wish list for China. It's part of the change I want to see in China. It's part of the change I'm here to help impart. I have lots in store to help me achieve that aim. In the meantime, please keep walking along with me!


Learn more about my Fulbright work on walkability!

<<Read Part 1 of "Today I'm "Walk-ful" for" blog post