The New York Times recently published an article titled “As Beijing Becomes a Supercity, the Rapid Growth Brings Pains.” The article opens with a story in one of Beijing’s sleeper towns, Yanjiao, in which a 62-year old retiree gets in a bus line at 5:30 AM every day to save a spot for his son who will take the spot an hour later and squeeze into the bus for a 3-hour commute into Beijing. The story is meant to typify the commuting experiences of those in Beijing’s ever-growing exurbs, which are residential communities separate from actual job centers. The article then segues into a description of Jing-Jin-Ji, a newly planned supercity with a land area over six times that of New York City, which will link the main urban hubs in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei province by high-speed rail and re-organize job centers by industry in each city. By spatially redistributing job opportunities, and even the city government, planners hope to alleviate the stresses experienced by Beijing’s growing commuter population, perhaps as well as the air and the trafficked streets.
City of Yanjiao, by the New York Times
Seeing the photos of Yanjiao brought to mind the huge contrasts that can be found in juxtaposition all over the city. My daily reality looks so different from this image, but it doesn’t take too long of a bike ride outward to be reminded that most hutongs have been demolished outside the Second Ring Road, and residential and business high-rises often dominate entire regions.
Hutongs, for those who are not familiar, refer to the narrow alleys of low, courtyard-style buildings that have most prominently been associated with Beijing. While they used to cover the entire city, most have been demolished in the past decades to make way for new development, and many of the remaining hutong areas have been remodeled and designated as protected cultural areas. Having mostly visited the popular tourist-attracting hutongs in past visits to Beijing, I now get a very different glimpse of life in hutongs afforded by routine. Every day I turn left on my bike from a busy street into the alleyway, and immediately the sound landscape changes completely. The sounds of car traffic disappear completely, and instead I hear bike tire swishings on the pavement and chatter between vendors and pedestrians. So many services are concentrated here that you don’t need to go far out of the neighborhood to find three print shops, or housewares, and neither do these small businesses need to be listed on Baidu maps for those outside of the neighborhood to find. The business owners often live in their own shops, so they stay put and deliver friendly greetings. Though this behavior is unique to warmer months, many social activities are conducted right on the street, on stoops and on small plastic chairs–majhong games, children’s card games, hair washing, vegetable markets. Residents can often be seen treating the street like an indoor living room, feeling comfortable using power tools to attach fixtures on the concrete walls and into the asphalt roads. I also don’t mean to paint a totally idyllic picture. The streets of this hutong in particular are just wide enough for the width of two cars, so there are often rows of cars parked up and down the alley while other cars squeeze through the remaining space, forcing everyone else on the street to interrupt their activities and move out of the way. From what I understand, new walls have gone up in past years and blocked off certain buildings and paths from others. Still, the type of social life enabled by the built environment and distribution of services seems to mirror much of what the U.S. New Urbanist model of urban design aims for, and the process of placemaking is often seen in action by residents using their own tools on the streets. All of it may seem a world away from the Times’ descriptions of Yanjiao, but it’s worth considering that hutongs themselves, often seen as a totally organic and grassroots built environment, were also master-planned by emperors during and before the Yuan Dynasty, and even in top-down planned cities like Yanjiao, we see pictures of citizens programming the public space in their own ways, such as the scene in the article depicting women doing their morning plaza dance.
Old Beijing Hutongs by Jiri Tondl. This view of the rooftops of a hutong neighborhood should give an idea of how narrow the alleyways between are!
Hutong Life by Beijing Xingang, showing some of the social life of the neighborhood street.