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.
In this guest post, student Emilie Hitch reflects on Suzhou, the second Chinese city visited by course participants. In particular, she examines the differences in planning and public participation between China and the United States and explores what each country could learn from the other.
By Emilie Hitch
What is the relationship between planning for the built environment and the voices of people who will live in it?
After a guest lecture from architect Guang Wang, an expert in high-density and new town urban design, about architecture and city planning in Suzhou, I had questions. The renderings of his designs showed symbols—embedded in the buildings—meant to represent prairies and mountains as well as a chlorine pool designed to represent a relationship with water.
But before you build a pool, do you first need to know who wants to swim? To design and build high-rise, dense urban housing, do you need to know about the lives of the people who will live there? By incorporating Chinese values into his designs, Wang said he envisions a “distinguished culture, complex transport system, and continuity of open space” that would allow cities to be designed with “humanity.” But from what we could tell, this process of design didn’t include any steps that involved actually talking to anyone.
The Rethinking I-94 Initiative in Minnesota offers an alternative look at the role of the public in planning processes. At an event hosted by a local bicycle advocacy group that aimed to illuminate the little-known history of the corridor, I spoke with a corridor resident. “It occurred to me,” he said, “as I was listening to how city planners had made decisions in the 1960s without any public input, that the opposite is happening right now. I’m being asked for my input, my reactions to what I’ve learned, and my ideas for how the corridor I just rode my bike through could be improved.”
In China, I heard many of my fellow students asking questions about public participation and displacement, and I heard few answers other than comments about displaced people being compensated and moved to new homes. We were also told that China is just starting to practice public participation with community meetings here and there. However, the Chinese do build symbolism of their cultural values into the infrastructure and built environment. “We should see the mountains and the water even in the city, and see the meaning of the rural areas,” explained Sherry Grey, a Humphrey School professor who accompanied us on the trip. In other words, as you walk through the garden, you know not just where you are, but who you are. You are beauty; you are tranquility; you are history.
In the practice of transportation planning, I continue to wonder about these tensions between vision and reality. In my work with the Rethinking I-94 engagement team, I’ve heard what the people living, working, and driving in the corridor want. They want to be safe; they want to see beauty. They want to be and see their values. They want to be asked their opinion, and they want to know that their opinion will not only be heard, but that it will have an influence on the technical matters of engineering infrastructure and on decision making and policy. In the past 12 months, the Rethinking I-94 team members have spoken to and/or elicited comments and opinions from over 2,000 people, asking them about their values and their vision for their communities early enough in the process for their opinions to have influence.
I think China and the United States have much to learn from each other when it comes to the relationship between the processes of infrastructure planning and the public. The United States could learn from China about the value of culturally reflective design for the built environment. And from the United States, China could learn how public input processes can be designed to create value and facilitate community ownership.
A vision of poetry in pavement is romantic and comforting, but when people’s lives are impacted by what is—and might have to be—sustainable development for a rapidly growing urban population, a public conversation about the realities of the situation is crucial.