The Will to House!

One of the maddening obstacles to making cities both interesting and affordable in the United States is the opposition to real urban housing. Back in 1920 there was good reason to fear density: we had just figured out how to deal with contagious diseases. And apartments at that time were still cramped, dim, and poorly-ventilated. In contrast, there is the recent experience of China…


On my way towards downtown, I came across this bank of housing (like a bank of cliffs). As far as I can tell it is fully occupied. But as in Shanghai, massive housing here does not mean crowded streets. Notice the absence of congestion in the foreground. When I take photos here, I actually have to wait for people and cars to come by so that I can show some humans in the picture! I thought this was peculiar to Shanghai, but I have found this absence of congestion to be typical across much of Suzhou.


One factor that explains the lack of congestion is that people in Suzhou–just like Americans–stay at home more. Newer apartments are quite spacious, and almost all units are south-facing, with copious daylight. And with internet and big-screen TVs. So I am not saying this new world is ideal, but I can certainly refute the presumption that tower-blocks = teeming streets. If anything, this neighborhood commercial street has a homey, village-like feel. It reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ arguments about Greenwich Village, fifty years ago.


From a distance you can see two eras of housing in Suzhou.


Using higher-strength concrete, developers are now able to design buildings with very generous windows.


Still, the scale and abruptness of new housing developments is a little shocking. What was here two years ago? Farmland? A water-village?

Americans and Brits had miserable experiences with high-rise public housing. We tend to associate that scale and style of construction white flight, “urban malaise,” and authoritarian regimes. I expect that an English-language film director would look at this site as the ideal place to shoot a dystopian film. But as Kate Bristol pointed out in “the Pruitt-Igoe Myth” back in 1991, high-rise design had nothing to do with the failures of housing projects which were horribly mismanaged. The failure of Pruitt-Igoe–and all the public housing in the U.S.–boils down to racist practices of segregation and neglect. Such practices would (and did) render even a two-storey apartment complex into a dangerous nightmare.

In essence, Americans misread high-rise housing, and link them to vivid but misleading conclusions which distract us from real accountability for our very painful social failings. Worse, the dissemble-and-distract policy of avoiding open acknowledgment of our racism has another unfortunate side-effect: we have become utterly phobic about rebuilding our cities with mid-rise and high-rise housing.

Meanwhile we keep wondering why the housing supply in center-cities is so limited and expensive. “The market”, you say? The market in U.S. cities would result in buildings like the ones pictured above. No, as in so many domains of the U.S. economy, social prejudices override ‘market logic.’ Frankly, the urban housing market is freer here in China than in the U.S. Hmmm.

Reading the infrastructure

Last week I assigned an unusual text for my students: the city of Suzhou itself. In this post I am going to show some examples of what I mean by reading the city as a text.


My first examples are quite literal. I began looking at the lids that cover infrastructure immediately after I arrived in Suzhou. It help me learn the Chinese characters that are most important to me. For instance the character in the center of this lid is yu, which means rain. This is a stormwater drain cover.


In conrast the central character on this lid is “wu”, which means filth; this is a ‘sanitary’ sewer cover. The Chinese is actually more sensible in this case.


“famen” means valve. Probably water supply; possibly gas.


“gong dian” means electric supply. Red lightning symbol as a fair warning!


But reading a city–even just the infrastructure of a city–goes beyond literal reading of labels. Suzhou is now implementing a permeable-paving program. All across the city I have seen recent installations of permeable parking areas adjacent to existing buildings. Since Suzhou is built in a wetland, this makes a lot of sense. Still, I was surprised to see so much revision of areas that already had paving before.


There are also flood-control gates adjacent to major navigation canals throughout the city. Here it is important to think about urban hydrography.


The canal-system is still a major, active system in Suzhou, and so it is being dredged. In this image the filled barge on the right is heading away under the bridge where I am standing, and the recently-emptied barge on the left is heading over to receive mud from the dredging-shovel.


In this photo the infrastructure is massive and new: high-voltage transmission lines on the right, and a new highway bridge on the left.


But in this area, we might overlook the fact that there was a lot of investment in infrastructure in the past: electric supply, telecommunications, water, road.

Urbanism and Geopolitics

Today I have just completed my first month in China. Time permitting I will get back to blog-postings that include lots of photos. But for today, I wanted to reflect on issues of urban politics and what that means for my work in China.

1. Addressing some paranoias about China

When I was preparing to move here to Suzhou and teach at XJTLU, a number of people raised concerns about how I might get in trouble with Chinese authorities for speaking my mind. This blog post is a reflection on that question. And as a public posting, it is immediately accessible to a number of potentially interested parties.

First of all, as an employee of XJTLU, I was not only hired by a British university—but also by a Chinese university: Xi’an Jiaotong DaXue is a joint partner in this university. So the Chinese government has reviewed my research (and perhaps older posts on this blog) and hired me. In effect, they asked for me, critical approach and all. XJTLU has been pretty explicit about wanting a critical approach to planning, and planning is about politics at the urban scale. I have said that before and it is public knowledge. Furthermore, as a planning educator working at a Chinese university, I am part of the government of China; so I need to consider my position from multiple angles. I learned this years ago in Kabul: to some extent I continue to represent the Islamic Republic as a former professor of Kabul University and Kabul Polytechnic.

As for concern about monitoring and censorship: my role as an academic is one in which I expect to be monitored. In 2008, after returning from my fieldwork in Kabul, I flew to the Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Chicago, partly as a test of whether the US Department of Homeland Security had put me on a no-fly list. Why? Because in 2003, 2006, and for seven months in 2007 I worked for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Thus far the U.S. government has left me alone, and I appreciate that. But for more than a decade I have also deliberately maintained a policy of public disclosure of information in the hope that I will prevent Homeland Security from ever being nervous about me. I will behave the same way here in China. My travel history is a little weird, and a matter of public record for national governments. I think they have fair reason to check on why I was in Haiti in 1988 when a coup happened; why I was in Tashkent and northern Tajikistan in 1992; and so forth. My job, in this respect, is to pursue my relentless curiosity about urbanism across the world, and not get paranoid about it. Self-censorship based on imagined hypothetical futures would be paralyzing.

As it is, being a planner means living with the curse of Cassandra of Troy. I am still struggling to imagine the radical implications of climate-change and resource depletion on massive future cities. I have plenty to worry about already. As for the People’s Republic, they just had a typhoon sweep across several provinces. On that scale I am completely insignificant; and if I ever do become significant, it will be in an effort to help the PRC plan for their cities to be more sustainable. That may involve some harsh criticism of current local urban policies, but as I understand it that is the job the People’s Republic itself has hired me to do.

2. Kunduz, Mosul and the intersection of urban and national politics

As my colleagues say, urban planning is about politics with a small ‘p’, not a capital ‘P’. Generally I agree with that. The planning of bus routes, sewer lines, and housing affordability generally does not cause the same level of concern as questions of national sovereignty. But politics at both levels tends to be mutually reflective because people from the same environment of governing expectations (what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’) comprise the staff and group-thinking at both levels within any country. And every once in a while the national significance of cities themselves becomes apparent.

Several days ago the Taliban took over Kunduz City in northern Afghanistan. From their point of view, they are probably arguing that they recovered the city from the infidel-backed, corrupt government now based in Kabul. The news coverage I get from here (BBC, CNN, and China’s CCTV) focuses on the military struggle to take back the city from the Taliban. What I want to know, though, is: How will the Taliban govern the city while they control it? and What impression will that leave on the citizens of Kunduz?

Seven years ago, when the Taliban started taking back a few rural districts in remote provinces, I heard reports that they immediately started collecting taxes and used them to fund their governing. Part of their governing process was to set up courts to resolve disputes. Generally, Shari’a courts focus on things like real-estate property disputes, inheritance disputes, and divorce cases. In 1989 the current President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, wrote a great paper about such court-practices in Jalalabad. Western media tends to portray Shari’a as something utterly alien and anti-modern, like Klingon jurisprudence. In fact, women have had property rights under Shari’a for 1300 years, whereas women under Christian rule have only gained many of their rights since 1789. I am not going to go into a detailed comparison here; rather, I need to point out that men and women might prefer Shari’a jurisprudence. In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul actually incorporates Shari’a into the legal system, especially for property disputes. It is worth noting that the constitution of the present Islamic Republic was drafted with consultation from American lawyers and it incorporates both Shari’a and the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

The problem across Afghanistan is not the inclusion of Shari’a, but the failure to implement justice in practice. The Islamic Republic’s courts are slow, and prone to charging exorbitant ‘clerical fees’ before a case sees trial. In contrast, the Taliban courts begin to consider cases immediately, and the fees are paid by the general tax. In one district, after the Taliban were driven out, interviewees commented that disputes which had languished for years where resolved by Taliban judges within a few days. As far as I can tell, the decisions were not annulled when the Taliban were driven out, probably because both they and the government use the same legal system. Instead, the lasting impression seems to be that the Taliban are harsh, but they oppose corruption and they implement justice. In other words they are building up more credibility than the Islamic Republic, because of the way that they govern local affairs. Politics with a small ‘p’, you might say.

I also noticed that the province of Kunduz had been dominated by the Taliban for more than a year, but what got international attention was the takeover of the city. This reminds me of the attention that ISIS began to receive after it took over Mosul. Control of turf, in itself, is not so symbolically important. Control of the people and the resources of urban space is what matters today. This was the lesson that the Taliban learned inadvertently in 1994. Mullah Omar was motivated to drive out several grossly corrupt mujahideen commanders from Kandahar. When they fled without a fight, the Taliban suddenly had control of a whole city. So far as I can tell they did not imagine what it would mean to be a governing authority until that moment, because anti-corruption had been their whole agenda. Two years later, when they took Kabul, they had to reimagine themselves again as the government of an entire country. Their initial behavior—storming the UN compound and executing Najibullah—indicates that they were indifferent to, and perhaps ignorant of international diplomatic protocol. Stomping on the sovereignty of local UN facilities came back to haunt them. It is not a good idea to piss off UN staff if you want to gain international recognition as a legitimate government. But 20 years later I expect they have learned a lot about what it means to govern, how to win hearts & minds by working at the local scale, and the symbolic significance of governing a city. I hope the Islamic Republic has learned those same lessons.

Shanghai (上海): first visit

On Saturday, the 3rd-year urban design class visited the “M50” site and the surrounding area in Shanghai, which they will be redesigning for the semester. The instructors, Chris and Yu, invited me along! Before showing pictures, here are some maps to orient you. In the first map above, M50 is just below the center of the image. The relatively empty area to the north and west of M50 is the site of a former furniture factory complex. That is going to be the site for the semester’s exercise. Only a few buildings, deemed historic, have been kept. The rest of the site has been cleared for new development. The river which bounds the site is called Suzhou Creek.
In the next series of maps (courtesy of BaiduMaps), I zoom straight back out. Suzhou Creek is still visible running from west to east (left to right) across this area. Why is it called Suzhou Creek even though we are in the middle of Shanghai, you might ask? Glad you did… Whereas Shanghai dates back to 1843, Suzhou dates back to at least the 8th century; so for more than 1,000 years Suzhou was the main city in this region. People used to travel from Suzhou to Shanghai and back mainly on this creek.
The center of Shanghai is where Suzhou Creek runs (eastward) into the HuangPu River, which is flowing northward. It is the larger river on the right side of this map. Suzhou Creek runs into it at the rightward bend, which is the location of the Bund in Shanghai. In classically logical Chinese geographical thinking, the area west (Xi: 西) of the HuangPu (黄浦) is called PuXi (浦西); and the area east (Dong: 东) of the HuangPu is called PuDong (浦东). The mega-scale financial center, and the international airport, are located east of the river, so both are called PuDong.
At this scale SuZhou Creek is no longer shown, but you get a sense of the overall layout of the whole city. At top center, the HuangPu River flows into the Yangze just as the Yangze itself is flowing into the East China Sea. You can also see the rail lines running west from the city center towards SuZhou.
In this last map, I zoomed out further and shifted westward a bit so you could see SuZhou, located on the left edge of this image. Much of the land between both cities is farmland, interspersed with industrial compounds and the occasional cluster of high-rise residential towers.
So here we are arriving by chartered bus in Shanghai, for my first time. I was expecting serious density, like Manhattan or Bangkok, and a bit more chaos than the highly-manicured SuZhou Industrial Park. To some degree I got what I expected; but the traffic congestion is not as bad as downtown San Francisco. Note the illuminated congestion-indicators in the sign above the roadway.
This older building amidst towers reminds me of a scene in the film Inception. Anybody with me on this?
Here we arrive at M50, which is a series of preserved older buildings now used as art galleries.
The M50 district definitely caters to foreigners.
M50 is bounded on the east by SuZhou Creek. The pipe in the foreground is significant: the ground (grade) in M50 is the same elevation as SuZhou Creek. As in New Orleans, I suspect they have to do a lot of pumping to prevent the water-table in M50 from rising to the surface.
Behind the riverside wall is a lovely garden. The table and chairs are carved from solid stone, and beautifully polished.
This preserved and restored building reminds me of Faneuil Hall in Boston.
A bit of commercial photography at M50.
This photograph did not turn out well, but look! Double-decker bike parking! And we, in California, were so proud when we put in double-decker car parking…
This image is for my wife. Electric scooters are very popular here, and many are shaped like Vespas. The Union Jack is a popular decoration. Oy!
We walked around the corner from M50 and into the cleared site of the former furniture factory. As I mentioned in previous posts, it seems to me that vegetable-gardening is the most sensible use of urban space where there are not actual buildings. I don’t mean this only in the case of China, but more generally because vegetable gardening is labor intensive, and in a city, the labor is living right there. Here, where no-one is looking, the caretakers of the construction-side are acting sensibly and crowing corn and other crops.
One of the historic buildings which will be kept. In the foreground is the lumpy terrain of demolished building rubble.
Apparently the building in the foreground-left was the factory-owners mansion, so it is being kept. Meanwhile the housing on the north side of SuZhou Creek, in the background, gives some sense of the new scale of development in this city.
In this portrait-view, Chris and Yu provide more of a sense of scale to this scene.
Another building that will be kept. Note that after just a few years as a cleared site, vegetation is reclaiming the area in the foreground.
Yu and Chris contemplate a potential site for a pedestrian bridge from the neighborhood on the far side of the creek to the park on this side.
SuZhou Creek has been cleaned up considerably in the last ten years. The water is still green and opaque, but it has no odor. Even though there are clearly tens of thousands of people living just across the creek from this spot, the feeling was quite serene. If you can imagine the apartment towers as tall cliffs, somewhere in southern Utah, that gives some sense of the unexpectedly non-urban feeling of this setting.
Apparently September 12th was an auspicious day among Buddhists in this area, and as an act of devotion they release fish into the creek. The security guard for this site, however, prefers to catch and eat said fish. Yu tells me they are excellent in soup.
The third-year students interviewed another caretaker for this site.
Yep, cornstalks and high-rise towers.
At the west end of the cleared site is a bridge over SuZhou Creek. Given the scale of development on both sides of this bridge, I was surprised at the lack of congestion.
Buses are well-used, but I have not yet seen any bus nearly so crowded as the 30 Stockton in San Francisco, nor the buses I used to ride in Kabul.
As one of the studio-leaders, Chris was looking at access to open-space near the study-site. This is the park on the north side of the creek. Access to the park is difficult, and it is also very underused.
I was expecting much more of Shanghai to look like this intersection above. But even in this case, the traffic is pretty mellow compared to many, perhaps most of the cities I have seen.
During our exploration of a massive furniture mall, Chris found a fire-exit corridor that was open and let out out onto a rear fire-escape stair. From here we could look at potential connection points between the redevelopment site and the city to the south. But I also noticed something else: when someone lowered the partition wall between these two properties, they simply jackhammered away a carved stone freize. In California it is rare to find anyone willing to pay for cut stone, let alone decorative carved stone. Here it is treated as cheap.
…speaking of stone: these mushrooms are carved granite. I cannot even guess their function. I wonder if they were once commissioned as part of a display in the mall, and were then salvaged by the staff once that display was taken down.
Here is my art photo. Most of Shanghai is so new that it is rare to see a real “patina” formed from layers of old paint and moisture, despite the frequent rains here.
This is how the furniture store advertises one of its beds: each side is adjustable to suit different-sized people. I am amused–but also bemused–by the choice of a Swedish beauty-contest winner as one of the models.
I love the cargo-bikes here. This is an especially fine model.

Finding China

On Tuesday, after being in Suzhou for one full week, I accidentally found China.
It began with an early-morning jog. I shot this image from the 15th floor of my apartment building in the middle of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Looking west towards the Moon Bay development, you can see a not-yet open office tower, gleaming in the morning sun.
But two things have bothered me ever since I arrived here. First, where are all the people on the streets? Second: why the fancy landscaping? As a Californian, I marvel at a place which has enough water. It has barely rained at all in Berkeley in four years; but here on Monday I was caught outside in a torrential downpour. Combined with the local climate, my guess is that one could grow practically anything here–such as crops.
And yet the planning ideology of SIP is to devote this precious land to decorative office-park landscaping. Even an undeveloped parcel (pictured above) is mowed and maintained basically as a lawn, with the small exception of a pond. Based on what my students found in our study of Mountain View in the spring of 2015, I (we generally) think there are three reasonable uses for urban ground-space:
1. Food crop production. Especially vegetables.
2. Useable openspace for humans to play in.
3. Native shrub/scrub environment for local native species–especially pollinators–to live in.

Decorative landscaping is not on this list. What we found in Mountain View was that Google, LinkdenIn, and the Mountain View city planners all agreed that the office-park pattern of the North Bayshore neighborhood was a mistake. It was a nice idea–in 1975–but now they want real urbanism rather than an office park. The tech employees have voted with their feet, seeking out the most urbane environments in San Francisco as their preferred residence.
So: lots on my mind as I jogged southward to see some of the new housing that is being developed in SIP. My own building was opened in 2013. All the new development to the south is still under construction. I greatly admire China’s willingness to develop massive amounts of urban housing.
Even here at the southern edge of the developed part of SIP, the landscaped roadways go in immediately. I noticed that here, there was a bit more traffic than in the area near my apartment.
And where SIP ends, it ends abruptly. Here is the bleeding edge of new urban development.
But when I looked across this temporarily dammed canal, I saw that new urban development (on the left) was not replacing farmland or wilderness. This is a fundamental lesson about urbanization in East, South, and Central Asia: new urban expansion is only possible by either:
A. building up within existing developed areas, or
B. erasing/destroying existing urban areas and replacing them with new urban development.
As I learned in Afghanistan, there is no such thing as ‘blank’ or ‘undeveloped’ space. All useable land is already claimed, so any ‘brand new plan’ means taking space away from existing people and uses.
Directly across the canal, the land uses and building types were dramatically different.
So I walked over to the next intersection and continued further south. In the foreground in the picture above, there is a seam in the asphalt and the end of a curb: beyond that is un-redeveloped urban China.
And it looks like many places I have seen in Afghanistan, India, and Thailand. Ironically, here at the edge of this older district, most of the shops sell construction-supply materials. It seems like they are making a living off of supplying the materials for their own erasure and displacement.
Here I should amend the title of this blog: what I found, after a week living in the 21st-century ideal of urban China, is the 20th-century version of urban China. I don’t want to sentimentalize it: this ‘old school’ urban China contains some pretty scrappy environments. But it feels like a real-world, working urban district.
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SIP has expanded southward on either side of this settlement, so in the background you can see the new housing-towers in the gaps between all the nearby buildings.
I also don’t want to infer that this is ‘historic’ China. This area may have been developed in the 1980s or 1990s. But at least it makes sense to me: there are people. There is traffic.
As my colleagues pointed out, the office-park formula of SIP means that there are only a few neighborhood business centers. Over the vast majority of SIP, street-side retail is not allowed. Hence no street life and no people. I am not going to argue that this street should win a beauty contest. But it is working as a street; it feels like a place were one could live a life.
In fact, this is precisely the kind of setting where I was hoping to find housing before I arrived in China. However the whole urban landscape in the foreground is scheduled to be replaced by the urban landscape already visible in the background of this photo.
Canal-side 20th-century Suzhou.
Again, this picture looks a little too scenic. Let me temper it by noting that the two fellows in the boat are manually dredging the canal bit to clean out the garbage. I noticed that the canals here have practically no odor, even though the water is green and opaque. At this point I don’t know enough to judge whether this is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ urban hydrology.
But as an urban landscape, it is pretty scenic and distinctive. My fear is that young Chinese may dismiss this a ‘backward’ or ‘undeveloped.’ I am going to be digging into this question about ideologies of modernity in my research.
At last, here I found the kind of urban land-use that makes sense to me: where buildings are not covering the ground, there are vegetable gardens. This scale of agriculture might not make sense for grains that can be farmed on massive fields, it does make sense for vegetable crops. Even in dense urban spaces, we need space between buildings; and in dense urban spaces, labor-intensive agriculture makes sense because the laborer lives right there, next to their garden. And they can enjoy that garden as their own green-space, even as they are getting use out of it.
2 kilometers north, I am back on the grounds of my apartment complex. In a country with 1.5 billion people, this lush urban space is being used for nothing except the expression of an ideology, as far as I can tell.
At the end of the day I went out to the Moon Bay development shown in the first photo. It is beautiful: a gleaming expression of modernity, a powerful declaration that China is a modern, developed country–a peer with the United States and any country in Europe. Part of my purpose here is to educate a new generation of Chinese planners to further the implementation of that vision.
But in California we have come to doubt some of the ways that modern urban landscapes use resources like water and open space. China’s own recent urban past may hold lessons in how to do this better, more sustainably. As I was biking back to my apartment, I saw this one space, this one exception where someone is gardening just outside of the construction-perimeter fence of a new development in central SIP. On the left you can see XueTang Street, with its willow-trees and empty ground-space landscaping. Not only could nutritious vegetables be grown in the many hectares of roadside landscaping in SIP, but it might make the space more interesting; it might make us think more about a sustainable urban future.

JinJi Lake SouthWest

One of my colleagues lives on JinJi Lake Avenue, at the southwest corner of the lake. So on Saturday, I got to see this area which is opposite the Times Square/Ferris Wheel Paradise that I visited on Thursday. The tower that you can see below the tip of the lance of DonQuixote is the same Times Square tower that I showed in the previous post. More about the goofy horse below.
I took the 146 bus west across the causeway–JinJi Lake Avenue–that separates JinJi lake on the North from DuShu lake on the south. The new Oriental Gateway figures prominently in this landscape.
JinJi Lake Avenue, like many of the arterial roads in SIP, is huge. It has 4 lanes each way, separated by landscaped medians, with accompanying side-lanes, and with at least 30m setbacks beyond those to the buildings. So there are ranks of high-rises on the left, but it feels spacious.
I like these apartment towers. Look at the octagonal corners! Those make for some pretty fun room layouts, like the corner-turrets in San Francisco Victorian houses. But in this case, lots of them stacked on top of each other.
On the north side of the avenue is a low-rise commercial district on the canal-side. The arched bridges are new, and beautifully wrought with stone finishes. But the buildings are older and considerably cheaper, like the cheap waterside architecture in Marin County.

The waterside park on this corner of the lake is also nice and well-used. In principle I think that bridge will admit small boats into the marina in the foreground, but I think its main purpose is to give tourists a better view.
My colleague Sophie Sturup is fascinated by the public art in SuZhou. Here we have Don Quixote and Pancho, rendered as cartoons. I am glad they fund lots of public art, but I think I am about as mystified by this sculpture as that kid. Maybe his dad will explain it to him.
Clowns seem innocuous in pictures, but if you have ever stood close to a live clown, the experience can be unnerving. Likewise there is something uncanny about this rendition of Pancho.
This seems to be a fusion of the Wizard of Oz, with the Lion as the ‘welcoming cat,’ and other characters turned into WickerMan abstractions; and then all touched by Midas and turned into gold. I invite further speculation.
From here you can see the Oriental Gateway from the side, along with three other towers going up to the left. The Oriental Gateway is a parabola in profile, and the arch between the two towers is also a parabola. Or maybe they got really serious and made it as a catenary, the way Gaudi did in Barcelona. Very cool concepts, but I wonder how they will keep those angled windows from leaking.
Schoolchildren sculpture.
Some mashups don’t succeed. This seems to be a restaurant that went out of business or maybe never even opened, after a great deal of money was spent on a not-so-good-rendering of a European castle. What pains me is that the finish is actual stone; this must have cost a fortune.
Meanwhile, the regular apartment buildings are pretty great.
Local designers don’t embrace the Bauhaus-Modern pretentiousness of designing featureless sterile slabs. No, these developers decided to have fun with lots of corner windows and octagonal bays. I suspect there may be problems heating these flats in the wintertime, but the view and the light from inside are marvelous.

Ferris Wheel Paradise

Sept 7: Yesterday, after posting the blog about my dorm, internet access to all non-foreign sites slowed down considerably and I could not update this site at all. It seems that the Great Firewall fluctuates in intensity. That is going to cause a problem when doing online research. During our orientation on Friday, the world wide internet also slowed to a crawl, preventing our presenter from showing us how to use some classroom software. That is not encouraging. So this posting is off to a grim start.

What I wanted to talk about in this post is much more silly: the JinJi Lake “Ferris Wheel Paradise.” My colleague Raffaele Pernice pointed out this area as a place to think about for planning, so I headed out there promptly on the evening of 3 Sept, in part to figure out how to get around the city by bus.


Oriental Gateway: the landmark tower/arch of the Central Business District of SIP.

There are many large lakes in SuZhou, including several within the SuZhou Industrial Park alone. XJTLU is on the east side of DuShu lake. Immediately to the north of DuShu is JinJi lake, which you are looking at in these images. On the west side of JinJi lake is the Central Business District of SuZhou Industrial Park–or in planning parlance, the CBD of SIP. Like most high-rises in this region, the Oriental Gateway is a mixed-use development of retail, office space, hotel, and luxury apartments in a stack.
On the north shore of JinJi lake Science and Cultural Art Center, visible on the right in the image above. The lighting on the outside of the Center cycles through the spectrum; at the moment I took the photo it was fuschia. The Center also has a large music venue; we could hear the rock band from a kilometer away across the lake.
The trees in the lakeside park are illuminated in green, and the glare from the Center caused the local sky to glow vividly. The overall effect was surreal.
Beyond the trees was a set of steps along the shore of the lake. Not sure of the expression for this kind of feature in American; I think Brits would call it a quay or quayside; Indians might call it a ghat like on the shores of the Ganges at Varanasi. In any case it was lovely and romantic.
Behind this quayside plaza is the Times Square area of Suzhou. I will discuss that district in other posts, because we will be studying that area for our urban design studio. As you can see from the office tower under construction, it is a major business district.
Back to the lakeside: this is the eponymous Ferris Wheel of Ferris Wheel Paradise. Like the London Eye, it is huge and runs very slowly, giving passengers a private and marvelous urban view for at least 10 minutes. Maybe 30; I didn’t time it.
Adjacent to this amusement park is a free pier that extends into the lake. At least 100 of us decided to go out onto this pier and enjoy both the lake view, and the view of the roller-coaster in the park. I think maybe the park developers built this pier to entice people to pay and come into the park; but with our close-up view of the roller coaster, my sense was that the crowd was thinking ‘No, let’s not ride that.’
As you will see below, the roller-coaster car goes upside-down (and backwards) on this track. I call it “the screamer.”
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Yeah, I don’t think I’ll be paying to ride that anytime soon. I would rather turn around and enjoy the lake view:

My Apartment in Suzhou

Map of local area; overlaid on BaiduMap

Map of local area; English labeling overlaid on BaiduMap

As mentioned before, my posts may be image-heavy and text-lite for a while; lots to do here. But one piece of overlap is the map above: I want to improve the maps available to faculty when they arrive at XJTLU. This map started as a screen-capture of a Baidu Map; hence the Chinese place-names. I overlaid English place-names while retaining the Chinese. Hopefully this will help recent arrivals get a sense of the district immediately surrounding XJTLU. It could also be used for bus and taxi directions, and then for beginning to learn Chinese place-name characters of the area. This is a first draft, so I am going to invite my colleagues to give input.


My humble 15-story apartment building!

In the map above, Parfait International Apartments is at the bottom right. It is recently opened, so many fellow faculty are not familiar with the location. The city continues to expand in epic fashion to the south and east of my apartment, which you will see in some images below.

The overall area of XJTLU and the surrounding district shown in the map above is the DuShu Lake Higher Education Area, which is part of the SuZhou Industrial Park (SIP). The SIP is a massive eastward expansion of the city. I will be studying this, so expect more about it in future posts.

You may notice that I am capitalizing every character in Chinese names. This is to help fellow newbies think about how many words are compound, written with two discrete characters. SuZhou is written as two characters: 苏州. SuZhou city (苏州市) is the capital of JiangSu (江苏) province (省). Note that the character for Su () is the same in both the city and province name. So! A first lesson in Chinese.

This helps for writing addresses. In China they start with the most general–the name of the country–and then get more specific. The full name for China is the People’s Republic of China, but in addresses they usually just write ZhongGuo (中国). So the first part of my address is:
(中国 江苏省 苏州市), Which translates as China, JiangSu Province, SuZhou City.


Living area of my apartment. Rather nice.


Parfait International Apartments, WenCui Plaza; looking east


Main allee through the middle of the WenCui Plaza apartment complex, looking north


View westward toward Moon Bay business district. West gate of our apartment area visible at bottom center.


View southwest; recent expansion area


View southeast just after morning rain; a fairly clear view


More typical hazy view of the same area as the image above

Arrival in Shanghai

September 01, 2015

Toll gate leaving Shanghai Pudong International Airport

Toll gate leaving Shanghai Pudong International Airport

Hi all! I have decided to blog-in-haste about my experiences in China. Some of these postings may only be pictures, or very hasty impressions (with typos, alas), because I need to get up to speed with teaching here at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.

The first thing I need to say is that this is a lot less exotic than it might seem. I have often argued against the exoticization of Afghanistan. Here in China, even more so. There are differences, which are fun; but I imagine this is like being hired to teach in Germany or some other developed country where I don’t know the language. Arriving at Shanghai-Pudong international airport, I felt like alot of what I encountered was a mashup of prior experiences.

In the photo above, we are about to go through the electronic fare-collection gate, which seems to work exactly the same way as FasTrack in the Bay Area and similar systems in Chicago and New York. I was picked up by a driver from the Human Resources Dept of XJTLU. He was driving a white Buick minivan. Yep, a Buick.

Middle-class housing along highway south of Shanghai

Middle-class housing along highway south of Shanghai

We did not pass through central Shanghai. I think we passed south of the downtown on a belt highway. Suzhou is due west of Shanghai, I think about 80 km. In the photo above I managed to catch some of the character of the landscape along the highway: intensive small-plot gardens (“truck farms” was the old U.S. term for these) and middle-class housing. The housing sometimes clusters in rows along the streets with plots behind. My guess is that this is single-family housing, but I am not sure of family-structure in this area at this time.

Sun through haze at 6:00 pm, with housing on the horizon

Sun through haze at 6:00 pm, with housing on the horizon

The air is thick here on the Chinese seacoast. This is not even pollution; or mostly it is not. It is humidity. Like New York in August, the air has a pea-soup quality. At 6 pm I could look directly at the sun, as this photo indicates.

Bridge, power plant, colling towers

Bridge, power plant, cooling towers

In the U.S. these big cooling-tower structures are generally associated only with nuclear power plants and a bit of anxiety. In most parts of the world (including the UK) they are a standard part of any power-plant. As we approach this bridge you get a sense of the intense degree of industrialization and development here. I only got a glance (and no photo) of the river below, and it was busy like Rotterdam.

Sun through steam and bridge cables

Sun through steam and bridge cables

Like the eastern span of the Bay Bridge (and the Brooklyn Bridge), suspension-cables radiate out from the tower- tops on this bridge.

Going to China: first reflections

This May I was hired by Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University to teach in Suzhou, China for three years. I am thrilled for three reasons: first, because the Lecturer position within the British system is the equivalent of an Assistant Professor in the U.S. system. Second, I am aiming to use this “scheduled shake-up” of my life to shift back into intensive writing and (I truly hope) publishing. Third: as an urbanist, this is one of the great moments to be in eastern China. Not only will I be able to observe the largest-scale process of urbanization ever undertaken by humans–but even better: I will participate in it. This fall I am scheduled to co-teach urban design to third-year students at XJTLU. Since I am deeply committed to participant-observation as a research method, this is an ideal way for me to learn about urbanization and urbanism in China.

What makes me sad is that my family is staying here in California.

Lizzie is getting a lot of auditions, and Sophia is really looking forward to starting Berkeley High. That was also our aim for our children. There are very few school districts in the United States as diverse as Berkeley, and we wanted our children to experience an integrated environment. Even though our children are young, this is a moment when we need to think of family-logistics with all four of us as individuals with discrete paths. Before I accepted the offer, I asked my kids about this. They said they will be sad to be apart, but they are really glad that I will be able to do the work that I love to do. I don’t know how we will all handle this in practice, but at least I know that the kids understand how important meaningful work is to me and Lizzie.

I know I am not processing all of this emotionally yet. I acquired a habit of ’emotional firewalling’ while I was doing my PhD, just to handle the stress of that process. However, I still get indirect indicators from my subconscious about how massive a shift this will be. I have started going through my paperwork, storing things I may want to keep for years from now. But it is really eerie to be packing to move, when the rest of my family is not.