Public awareness: living in complexity—A reflection on travel to China

In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions.

Over the next several weeks, students will be sharing their personal observations and reflections on the course in a series of guest posts.


Public awareness messaging about the environment in a park.

By Emilie Hitch

What is “the hold life has” [1] on a given human? What is a life worth living? Some city and transportation planners hold this question close to their hearts and minds. Asking about what makes a life worth living always provokes reflection—for any person of any culture.

City and transportation planning do not happen in a vacuum. Culture is continually changing. Globalization challenges old definitions of marriage, of parenthood, of genderhood, of adulthood. The nature of American democracy—and Chinese socialism—evolves, as do the practices of system design. The education system, the health care system, the transportation system, the food system—so many systems. In both the American and Chinese contexts, many of these systems are old. They were systems built by people living in different—homogeneous and slow-moving—cultures who did not (and probably could not) imagine the future world for which they were designing.

I think often about how conservation—the use of natural resources, livable spaces, and places of meaning—became such a partisan issue in the United States. As an American, when I speak of the “environment,” I do usually mean the wilderness, or I’m referring to humans’ use of natural resources or stewardship—words that carry the weight of politics in the USA. Experiencing the word “environment” differently in China gave me a welcome turning sensation in my mind as to how this concept can have meaning untarnished by partisan politics.

In China, exploring the definition of “the environment,” my fellow students and I detected a greater sense of atmosphere, of experience of purposeful spaces—of placemaking—that included not only relationships between nature and the built environment or people and their use of public space, but also of alignment with natural resources. Conserve water—because we must—to create a livable space. Don’t litter—to create a beautiful place.

I began to connect this meaning of “the environment” to some of the things we heard about transportation as well. Building a city from a blank slate allowed transportation planners to think broadly about building an environment not just for the city they have, but for the city they knew could come to be. They employ innovations meant to help with issues of air quality, noise, and health issues—and not just as a step in an initial environmental assessment. In Shenzhen, the environment is built into in the ongoing evaluation system for the city: “criteria to be monitored (traffic carbon monitoring system)” and a “livability plan” is a part of the equation for how the city is “determined to develop urban transportation in a more sustainable way.”[2]

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As critical as we can be, and in some cases must be, about issues of equity in the methods of Chinese decisions and practices, a commitment to sustainability is clear—a sustainable planet, a sustainable system of governance, a sustainable way of life.

Sustainability means more than just conserving water, but a public awareness campaign in China begins there with good reason. With every sign seen on every faucet and near every set of hotel towels and toilets to flush, our “role as a human being in a complex world”[3] becomes explicitly apparent.

And living in complexity asks a lot of us as humans. It asks that we see humans as interconnected beings. Interconnected to each other—and to every element of the world around us. It screams at us that we can’t compartmentalize—water from food systems, food systems from business, business from education, education from infrastructure, infrastructure from health care, health care from water—inspiring everyone to understand that to transform something, you must understand it in interconnection and work on change from all the angles. You must be an everyday advocate.

China, from what we saw, is inspiring acts of everyday action in its citizens—which is a good thing, because there are more than a billion of them.


[1] Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the western Pacific; an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London: G. Routledge & Sons.

[2] Shenzhen Urban Transit Planning Center (SUTPC). 2017. 12 Spots for Transportation Investigation in Shenzhen. Shenzhen, May 2017

[3] Olson, Sigurd F. 1976. Reflections from the North Country. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York: New York.

Posted in Education, Environment, Planning, Sustainability

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