Understanding Urban Planning in China
I really enjoyed experiencing the huge diversity between the urban centers that we visited — namely the differences between Beijing, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. They all had such different development styles, planning practices, lifestyles, and cultures. Some cities — Beijing for example — were so different from anywhere I'd ever been, abroad or at home. It wasn't what I expected at all. I expected it to be crowded, lined with skyscrapers and more flashy. I found instead that it was quite spread out, flat, and less colorful than I had anticipated. I loved Beijing's commitment to making their large roadways safe and beautiful. All of the major streets included protected bike lanes and were planted with trees and roses.
Hong Kong, however, reminded me so much of New York City. I loved how easily navigable it was — Hong Kong has an amazing subway system and I felt extremely safe exploring on my own without the group.
We even had the opportunity to visit a model city that is being developed in Xiong'an, just outside of Beijing. This was truly unlike anywhere I'd seen before because it was being developed as a green city. There were no cars on the road, just electric, self-driving shuttle buses. The building were all multi-use connected by wooden boardwalks, and surrounded by tall native grasses and trees.
One of my proudest accomplishments was giving a presentation to a renowned transportation specialist at a transportation firm in Shenzhen. We had the opportunity to work with volunteers from this company to conduct an on-street survey, and then we got to put together presentations for the volunteers and the president of the company. Although our research was limited in scope, I felt like I was truly employing what I've been studying throughout my undergrad in a "real world" situation.
After our presentations, we had the opportunity to get feedback from the president of the company. He was rightfully critical, and also encouraging and inspiring. One thing I learned from his feedback was that the problems you may notice in a city — disconnected sidewalks, traffic congestion, etc. — are more that likely already being addressed by someone. Redevelopment moves very slowly. This led me to the realization that as a planner, you have to be anticipating, not just observing.
Academically and professionally, this trip gave me so many insights into how different people are planning for the future in such tumultuous times. China is enacting some very robust urban planning practices in the face of urban overcrowding, extreme congestion, and climate change. Frankly, I don't believe I would have come across planning practices like this had I confined my education solely to the United States. I will use this experience to inform my creativity in the future.
Personally, this trip inspired me to pursue more language learning and traveling — I plan on learning more Mandarin and I have a newfound interest in traveling to South Korea and Japan in the future. Prior to this study abroad experience, I didn't have very much interest in Asia. I would say I was even intimidated by it — the language seems so different from English, not something I could easily pick up like Spanish. And culturally it seemed very distant from what I was used to. Almost immediately upon arrival, my mind was changed. Although there are differences, they're not so hard to navigate and not nearly as intimidating as I was expecting. I can't wait to continue my relationship with this region of the world in the future.
Molly Poole went to China through the Planning for China's Urban Billion program in May 2019.