Chapter One: The Right To Produce The City


How do one’s urban consumption habits affect the further development of their given city? Does what we buy on a regular basis have a hand in how we will live in the long-term? If so, then how does this development via consumer behavior take shape? How much say does the average urbanite have in these processes?

While working together in a collaborative Urban Design/Architecture studio last semester, my project partner, Jordenn Stewart, and I focused on the conditions of urban living for a community in West Harlem. While examining the concepts of “the right to the city” and “the right to produce the city,” as presented by Henri Lefebvre and expanded upon by David Harvey, respectively, we dived into what it means for someone to have a hand in making their own city.

It seemed as though after every corner we turned in our research, we kept running into fascinating, appalling, and often downright deplorable case studies of Chinese urban development. In our midterm presentation, when everyone else was showing architectural drawings for interventions they had already created, Jordenn and I showed this image to the class, which we accompanied with an explanation as to why we as the future makers and builders can’t just simply design without remaining critical and curious.


The home of Wu Yang, who refused to give up his home despite new development; 2004. Photo via:

The home of Wu Yang, who refused to give up his home despite new development; 2004. Photo via:

We believe that when designing, one must understand the people and culture of the given place, what they may be experiencing, and how their lives can and should be improved by the work that is done—not for them, but with them.

Thus, after the studio ended, we decided that we wanted to further understand these processes of capitalist urbanization by broadening our perspective and researching communities within Chinese cities. This summer, we will embark on our research trip to Shanghai, with possible excursions to another mega-city such as Beijing or Hong Kong.



Waste Management in Guangzhou

While observing the waste management of Guangzhou I was most surprised by how similar it is to the American system. In Guangzhou, residents and businesses place their waste into bins on the curb. From what I can tell waste is separated into recyclables, kitchen waste (compostable) and all other waste. Then, garbage trucks come by and collect the waste in the bins.


Nearly all of the street corners have the same public waste bins with one for recyclables and one for non-recyclable waste. Sometimes in parks and privately owned areas the bins look different, but for the most part I have seen the same set of bins throughout the city.


I also came across a few pickers looking for valuable materials in the waste that was set out very similar to the pickers in New York who look for bottles and cans to take to redemption centers.


Despite all the similarities to the system in New York, the Guangzhou system seemed to be much more complex and varied in many ways. First of all, they have many more employees that work at many more scales. For example, besides the large trucks used for curbside collection, the Guangzhou City Cleaning department also has scooters and bikes that are able to haul waste. Additionally, there are employees out sweeping the streets at all hours to collect litter and other debris on the sidewalks and streets of Guangzhou.


Beyond the official waste management system, I also noticed people scavenging for materials other than just bottles and cans. Cardboard seemed to be a particularly hot commodity as well as woven plastic feed bags and wood. Indeed, many Chinese residents have assured me that all valuable materials are removed before being sent to landfill or incinerator.


I think that New York City could learn from the waste management of Guangzhou. Right now DSNY only collects garbage in large, energy inefficient trucks by a limited staff. Why not have collection of the public bins be done by staff in electric scooters at least in the most populated areas? In certain Business Improvement Districts, private staff are hired to pick up litter and help keep the streets clean, but I think this task could be added to DSNY’s duties so that it happens throughout the city and not just in the neighborhoods that can afford it. Also, it would be a great way to create good jobs in New York.


Nansha New Area

Nansha turned out to be a very intriguing urban situation. My first morning I was awoken by the sounds of construction out the window and it seemed to persist for the duration of my stay. The whole district seems to be under construction and new developments are everywhere. My friend said that when she first moved to Nansha, she described it as a sleepy town. Now however, it can best be described as a city-in-the-making.


It turns out, Nansha has been a municipal “no fee zone” since 2005 to lower business operating costs and was declared a State-level New Area in 2012 (the first in South China) which has led to tremendous investment and development. New Areas in China are defined spaces that are given special economic and development privileges by the central government in order to promote growth. And it has definitely worked in Nansha. Roads, bridges, high rises, malls and parks are all a part of the district’s vision for a planned “eco-city.” And so, an island that is primarily wetlands and in a prime location for shipping and logistics is being transformed by filling marshland and tearing up small agricultural parcels to create a brand new city. It was incredible to be able to witness land restructuring at such a large scale.


From talking to people about Nansha I heard a few opinions that are skeptical of this plan. The first observation had to do with the efficiency of construction. My friend has noticed that several projects have been redone almost immediately upon completion. She is unsure if this is because of quality concerns, or a change in plans for other reasons but resources are definitely not being used to their full potential when they are only used for a few weeks. Another friend from Guangzhou expressed concern that with all of the new residential towers going up, there would not be enough jobs for the people that are expected to live in them. It seems they may be operating under a “if you build it they will come” ethos, but with the state of the Chinese economy will this still be the case once all of the developments are completed? And finally a planner in Shenzhen said that sometimes with the “eco-city” model that is supposed to be a live/work lifestyle, the income level of the available jobs and the cost of living do not align. For example, the only jobs available may be low-skill factory jobs, but the housing is high-end which means that even though the area has both residential and commercial uses, people are still commuting long distances.

DSCF6587 DSCF6614

All this and I haven’t even gotten to how all this landfilling and construction waste logistics operate. I think Nansha could warrant an investigation all its own, but that will have to wait. Up next, Guangzhou!

Hong Kong and Ferry Ride

After over 17 hours of air travel, one bus and a ferry, I have arrived in China. I first arrived in Hong Kong and took the bus over the longest rail and car suspension bridge in the world from the airport to Kowloon where I stayed for the night. The next day I basically only walked around for an hour before I had to head to the ferry terminal, but I am very excited to return for a workshop there my final week to explore and learn much more about the city.

I am here for three weeks to study waste in the Pearl River Delta. My aim is to understand how the waste systems here operate from the moment something is decided it is no longer wanted all the way to its final resting place. I plan to take pictures, videos and audio of waste systems at all scales and create an interactive map. I have found that looking at the waste of cities can be a very fruitful lens to learn about the social, cultural and political lives of its inhabitants. This topic became much more relevant in this region in particular after the recent landslides of construction and demolition debris in Shenzhen. I hope people are still willing to speak candidly with me about their views on waste.


Tonight I am staying with a friend that lives in one of the suburbs of Guanzhou. My ferry ride from Hong Kong to Nansha gave me my first look into another type of waste in the region: smog. I was very much looking forward to documenting some of the port and shipping activity from the water, but unless we were close to the shoreline, the ships and cranes were just ghosts because of the dense smog. It made the whole experience feel a bit other-worldly.


Tomorrow I will be a guest speaker in my friend’s classroom where I will share information about the waste systems in New York and get opinions from her students on what they feel are the biggest issues surrounding waste in the region. I’m hoping their comments will help guide my explorations in Guangzhou where I will be for the next two days before I head to Shenzhen.

Chengdu and Sichuan

My intuition was correct that I would find a more immersive experience in Chengdu than in Beijing.

Ir started with the flight from Beijing to Chengdu.  Instead of flying out of the large capital airport, my travel agent booked me a slightly cheaper ticket to the Nanyuan airport in the south of the city.  This airport is only reluctantly a passenger terminal, catering mostly to the Chinese Air Force   Almost nothing was in English when I arrived, and I also found out that my travel agent omitted my middle name on the boarding pass, meaning I needed to get issued a new ticket to get through security.  Thankfully pointing to my name on the passport and the name on the ticket was sufficient to have them understand what needed to change.  The best part though is that instead of issuing me a new ticket, they just wrote in my middle name in pen, which I then smudged 30 seconds later en route to handing it back to security!  By heeding the first piece of advice on the Beijing hostel wall to smile kind of dopey when problems happened, I was able to charm the security agent to let me through despite the smear.

The next part was also amusing.  For domestic flights, they don’t post the flight information on the gate until the plane is ready to board.  And at Nanyuan, they don’t have a  status board updating about flight delays   So when my flight was delayed, I had to maintain a constant watch over each of the three gates to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight, and be ready to rush to the front of the boarding line before a crowd of Chinese tourists took all the good carry-on slots on board the flight.  The lack of queuing does not pose a problem to me, as I’m used to being cutthroat with the train in New York, but I was quite worried I’d accidentally board the wrong plane in my rush.  It took me until my plane was rolling away from the gate before I could actually confirm with anyone that I was on the right flight.

It took me a day to get used to being in Chengdu.  The city core was much smaller than Beijing’s, but the scale of development and building is far greater.  Everywhere you look there is a 30 story apartment building or 10 story shopping center being built.  Traveling from the airport alone I counted enough new development to house tens of thousands of residents.  Jane Jacobs would find no home in many of these neighborhoods as the scale dwarfs the natural environment.

Things to write about in the future:

Day 1 Interview with Jane at Habitat
Details of each visit to the different village
Remarks on government led rebuilding/housing policy
Loneliness in a new place
Sichuan hotpot and communal dining
Interpreting between non-native speakers of English (i.e. Chinese and Spanish speakers)
Distance from expatriate life
Difficulties booking train tickets!

Habitat for Humanity – Sichuan Province

My attempt to write one post dealing with my Chengdu experience and my Habitat experience has failed, so I’m breaking them up into pieces to get it all out there.  And to think I haven’t even started on my current location of Xi’an yet!

These are some of my guiding project questions for Habitat for Humanity in Sichuan province.  The preliminary answers have been gathered through an interview with Jane Li, Government Relations and Resources Development Manager at the Sichuan branch of Habitat for Humanity China and visits to three different project sites that serve earthquake survivors of the province. This is an initial write-up with some additional fact-checking to be done, so please use this information only as insight to what I’ve been working on so far in China, and not as gospel 🙂

1. Where does Habitat build in Sichuan province?  

After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Habitat for Humanity has been engaged with 10 different rebuilding projects in the earthquake zone and helped build or fix 1,700 houses in the area.  While I took notes on this during the interview, the Habitat China website provides a much better write-up than my attempt:

“In May 2008, Sichuan experienced an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed approximately 90,000 people. Over 1.5 million people lived in the affected area with 3,476,000 houses destroyed or damaged according to government statistics. 1,263,000 houses are in need of complete reconstruction and 2,213,000 are in need of repair. Some of the families hardest hit were those living in poverty in rural areas.

Habitat for Humanity China began its operation in Sichuan province in 2008 in response to the devastating earthquake. To date, HFH China has built 1,400 houses in ten villages in the townships of Xioayudong, Bailu, Jiexing, Zhuyuan and Qionglai working in partnership with the local government.

These houses, which include single detached, row houses, townhouses and apartment buildings, were all built using the government’s quality standard for earthquake resistant housing and designs from the Architecture Design Institute in Chengdu from which the families could choose. In an effort to increase income generation for the families affected by the earthquake, many of whom lost their farm land because of the disaster, 297 of the houses were constructed with livelihood in mind. In Taizi and Yangping villages, houses were built as bed and breakfasts to accommodate the many tourists that visit the area. The houses in Luoyang and Changzhen villages were constructed so that the families would have space for a small business on the ground floor and could live comfortably above.

Habitat for Humanity’s approach to community development in China is holistic, accounting not only for the homes of families, but the education of children as well. In Zhuyan township, Qingchuan county, Habitat is building ten apartment buildings, which will house 236 families, as well as a nursery school to help replace the more than 7,000 classrooms that were lost during the earthquake.”


2.  How do volunteers participate in the Habitat builds?

The volunteers come from many sources, from high school students and professionals across China looking to do service to help their country, to Global Village builds that are organized by Habitat to bring disparate volunteers from around the world to work together on local construction sites.  In Sichuan, the volunteers are primarily doing a lot of the heavy lifting for seasoned construction workers.  This means that they carry bricks from one worksite to the next, clear areas of debris, and assist with farming and landscaping tasks in a particular village.  They don’t do the primary bricklaying of the houses, as the houses must be built to a strict standard in order to withstand future high magnitude earthquakes.  For the most part the volunteers take it in stride, knowing that they save the construction workers valuable time as they prepare worksites for bricklaying and other construction.

3. Which families receive houses from Habitat for Humanity?

In the case of the Sichuan Habitat office, families who are selected for the program had their homes destroyed or severely damaged by the 2008 earthquake and have applied for a new Habitat home.  Additionally, even if their home is intact, they may be chosen to participate as part of a land swap with the government, to encourage them to move closer to a centralized village where electricity, gas and sewer services can be provided.

To participate, they must have some savings to contribute to the construction of the house, but they also receive subsidies of 15,000 yuan from the government and also an additional 15,000 yuan per family member from the Habitat office.  These subsidies are not paid in a lump sum, but are sort of like matching grants to the family once they achieve certain milestones for home construction, such as the foundation being laid on the house.  Once a milestone is achieved, the family receives the next portion of the subsidy.

For families that need additional funds beyond the Habitat and government subsidies, they would apply for a mortgage from a local bank that provides a 3-5 year mortgage for the gap financing.  I was quite shocked to learn how short the loan repayment terms were!  In the United States most mortgages have small down payments and 15-30 year terms.  This likely has a lot to do with the sky-high savings rate in China and the terrible savings rate in the United States.

4. How much do the new homes cost?

On average, the building cost for each house is 900 yuan per cubic meter.  China has regulations for new buildings that require each family have 30 cubic meters of space for each occupant, so the cost runs around 27,000 yuan per occupant in a family.  Given that most families have 3-5 members, the average cost of a new Habitat one family house is about 120,000 yuan.  This is about $20,000 US dollars and is considered quite expensive for the region due to the materials used in construction and the tight earthquake building standards.

5. What style are the houses built in? What materials are used?

The new houses are very simple structures and are standalone brick one-family homes.  While brick is the primary building material, the important sections are reinforced with concrete and rebar to provide earthquake protection, and wood is used for interior and exterior finishes.  The roof is primarily made of concrete.  While the Chinese government does use more expensive and sustainable materials in some houses for earthquake survivors, it is not common because the scale of destruction was so vast that it needs commonly available materials to rebuild houses rapidly.  Additionally, these materials are a significant upgrade from the previous homes which were made of dried bamboo, clay and bricks made of sunbaked mud.  These materials were not very insulative and often exposed homeowners to the elements.  They were also incredibly fragile when subjected to a major earthquake, which accounts for 80% of the structures in the area being decimated in 2008.

Old House:

New Construction (This is a multi-family unit built at a different site.  All the houses at Mayan Village where the old house is pictured were still under construction at the time of my visit):

The Chinese government provides the design for the houses and also arranges the contractors to do the actual construction.  In this way, the government takes a primary role in the home building process that is distinct from how Habitat operates in the United States.  Habitat serves as the primary builder and lender for houses built in the states and also solicits designs from architects across the country.

6. How much money do homeowners spend on energy in the new houses?

For most of the homes, electricity costs about .57 yuan per KW and natural gas costs 1.89 yuan per cubic meter.  If a house is primarily occupied by elderly residents, they could spend as little as 5 yuan a month on electricity, as they use few appliances or electronics in their households.  For younger households, the monthly electric bill could approach 80 yuan as they use air conditioning, computers and appliances such as refrigerators.

As an aside, I have to remark on how energy efficient the Chinese people are in almost all the cities I’ve been.  Even as I write this in Xi’an on the top floor of a modern high-rise condo building that I’m staying at with a family member, almost all appliances are unplugged from the wall, the windows are used instead of air conditioner, and the lights remain off.    My host even unplugs things such as the cable modem and router at night to save electricity!  As I blogged earlier, this is likely to change with younger generations of Chinese citizens who become acclimated to Western taste in electronic usage, but for now it still impresses me greatly.

7. Does Habitat for Humanity refurbish houses in Sichuan province?

As soon as I learned a little more about the earthquake, I realized how foolish of a question this was!  Given that 80% of the houses were rendered uninhabitable in the earthquake area, there was very little to rebuild after 2008.  And even the structures that remained were often abandoned due to susceptibility to future earthquakes (and the aftershocks from the 2008 earthquake that continued at up to magnitude 6.0 for months after the initial quake).

However, Jane did tell me that the Habitat branch in Shanghai has a project to refurbish “old-age” buildings in the central city.  I will investigate this further during my trip.


I’ve waited far too long to update here on my academic project and experiences in Sichuan, so while I continue to work on that several page long entry, here is a fun aside from my visit to the Chengdu Panda Research Base today. These photos are from early this morning around 8:30am when they are eating and still have energy to do something. Otherwise they lie around all day.

Morning feeding time for pandas.

Red panda that snuck through fence and ran by me.

Pandas up in the trees.  Interesting videos of how they clumsily scale the trees to follow on Facebook.

The visit today confirmed my belief that pandas should be allowed to die out as a species. Watched an informative video about panda reproduction at the center and essentially the folks in Chengdu have to combine both artificial insemination with a special massage to even have a shot at starting the reproductive process.  Then if the near miracle occurs and a baby panda is born, it is only 100g (1/1000 the size of its mother) and faces the indignity of its mother smacking it around on cold concrete like a doll.  Without human intervention there is simply no chance these animals can survive, even if we gave them the entire country of China to wander as a human uninhabited playground.  I suppose I could be convinced that having a cute animal as the figurehead of a global environmental movement is good for fundraising and provides a net beneficial impact for conservation, but in the long run we probably need to learn to value ugly life intrinsically, like the ugly toads that are dying everywhere from global warming.

Colorful Kunming

Since last 13 days I stay in Kunming, it really a colorful experience for me. Life here take a shape like a fair. For my project work daily I meet lots of new people, lots of new thinking, lot  of fresh aspiration. It is a really a huge learning experience for me. Kunming people life style, their Charm, excitement, lots of young folks fun, people’s food attraction, people fascination on different pets all these things make the city more illuminated. Another  things which give the city an extra flavor which is the weather, Kunming is really a eternal spring city.

Xu Jia’s new hope

When the dream suddenly come ? Last time you climbMeiliSnowMountainwith a lot of strange Tibetan people, you stand at the top of one mountain , a sea level of 3500m. That moment you can seize your own freedom, which seems like all dreams can come true. And this time ,after today’s interview , your heart be fired again. She is right ,since you are so young , what the reasons for worrying about registered residence ,why not just give yourself a chance and have a try ,why not just believe in yourself. God will bless me . These days we do many interviews of professors, NGO officials and journalists. They dedicated themselves to the public career and without any pay. It is with passion, courageous conviction and strong sense of self that take our next steps into the world. So congratulations, these are good signals .Wish me have a good job .

Xu Jia's new hope

When the dream suddenly come ? Last time you climbMeiliSnowMountainwith a lot of strange Tibetan people, you stand at the top of one mountain , a sea level of 3500m. That moment you can seize your own freedom, which seems like all dreams can come true. And this time ,after today’s interview , your heart be fired again. She is right ,since you are so young , what the reasons for worrying about registered residence ,why not just give yourself a chance and have a try ,why not just believe in yourself. God will bless me . These days we do many interviews of professors, NGO officials and journalists. They dedicated themselves to the public career and without any pay. It is with passion, courageous conviction and strong sense of self that take our next steps into the world. So congratulations, these are good signals .Wish me have a good job .

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