urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Wrapping up (Week 8)

It’s hard to believe, as always at the end of something you weren’t waiting for, but it’s already my last week at BBB and of the Urban Studies Fellowship period. The past weeks really had a great routine and rhythm going, and now as we approach the end that rhythm is breaking into all kinds of new energy.

In the last few weeks I’ve been finishing up some design projects and meanwhile getting some good time in with the neighborhood kids!

We give the crew a little task every day so that they can finish their second kid-sized bamboo bike together. This day they helped each other measure and align their bamboo before sawing for the next few days.

I also got to support another one of our interns, Yuyuan, in putting on an extra workshop for some of the 5th grade kids in the community. There have always been BBB’ers who have suggested using our leftover bamboo for crafts and even bike accessories like baskets and racks, so Yuyuan took charge of organizing an instructive morning crafting workshop. She partnered with the local neighborhood committee, which is required to host events that fall under certain banners for the community and was all too happy to make phone calls to the families in the area with kids of the right age range. They presented the workshop as part of the community’s 环保 (huanbao / environmental protection) programming. Yuyuan allowed the kids to split into groups and taught three simple bamboo crafts to warm them up: pen/chopstick holders, flowerpots, and windchimes. From there it was an intergenerational free-for-all, with kids, their parents, and grandparents helping each other saw, drill, and paint.

The main takeaway I had from this event was that speaking the language of your community is everything! This project was originally one that I was taking ownership of, and it was being proposed to a bilingual research group as more of a design-thinking and somewhat mechanics oriented project. That would have been taught in English to an English-speaking group, and probably would have worked out fine that way except that it didn’t end up happening. It was amazing to see Yuyuan adapt bring this kind of activity to the kids in the community, which feels more in line with the spirit of BBB anyway. She presented everything in Chinese to her Chinese-speaking audience, and everyone else took a supporting role. I think this was key to the whole activity’s success in the end– often we are able to offer some kind of service or workshop in English to primarily Chinese-speakers, and they often seem to run smoothly, but it never feels like both parties fully sink into the activities and community at hand when that kind of language dynamic is at play.

Last night, we held a year-in-review dinner, which gathered all the BBB leaders of the past year or more since it all started in March 2014. It was a time for a leadership hand-off, lots of reflection on the past and future direction of BBB, and most of all, continual recognition and appreciation for all the people in the room. There was a no-crying rule, and some people followed it. I was reminded how important it is to spend time and space recognizing what people do, and to be emotionally invested in any work that we do.

BBB leaders, with many not present. An amazing group of people who all joined on at different times and kept coming back to volunteer time for any number of reasons. This was one of the first times we got everyone together talking big questions like this.

BBB leaders, with many not present. An amazing group of people who all joined on at different times and kept coming back to volunteer time for any number of reasons. This was one of the first times we got everyone together talking big questions like this.

"Bodystorming" to generate ideas of what the future of BBB is hoped to look like. Might look a little wishy-washy from this photo considering that I'm supposed to be a flying bicycle--but truly a helpful activity to generate insights and discussion!

“Bodystorming” to generate ideas of what the future of BBB is hoped to look like. Might look a little wishy-washy from this photo considering that I’m supposed to be a flying bicycle–but truly a helpful activity to generate insights and discussion!

During the meeting we also spent some time revising a mission-statement-in-progress and translating it into Chinese. As it stands, version 0.1, which has not been released yet, focuses on empowering and teaching people to think with their hands together and build a community that is part of a new mobility culture. As we discussed the current mission statement, I kept recalling the first blog post I wrote when I got here. I feel just as strongly as I did then that the space currently fulfills the empowering and community aspects of its mission statement, but what’s new is an even stronger sense of what a community can be in a city like Beijing. Although most of the communication among those in the community is virtual over WeChat, people at the dinner kept on stressing the importance of being called together in person to work together. The workshop as a physical space has always felt somewhat magical, and my experience in it every day is that the people there are trying to raise each other up. Everyone shows up to help everyone else be better and believe in each other, and not only in terms of hands-on learning, as the mission statement might have one believe. I feel so moved and grateful to have been able to show up there every day so far this summer, and I truly hope that any readers who get the chance to visit the workshop in Beijing will get to soak in this sense of collective belonging as well.

Thank you so much to Deland, my wonderful advisor over the last few weeks, and the Urban Studies Fellowship and community for making this incredible learning journey possible. I never forget how lucky I and we are to have opportunities like this!

Happy summer,
Geena

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Hutongs and Supercities

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

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!

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.

Hutong Life by Beijing Xingang, showing some of the social life of the neighborhood street.

What “Engineering and Social Justice” pedagogies may have in common with Urban Studies

Hello and happy halfway point of the Urban Studies Fellowship period!

The last two weeks I’ve been sinking deep into the nitty gritty of a few design projects as well as bike building and other kinds of bamboo building, so much so that when it came time to write this post I felt like I suddenly woke up in a new reality, one that prodded me loudly and asked, “Wait, what have you done that is worth sharing on an Urban Studies blog? Why are you doing what you’re doing, again?” Very good question to be asking often, it turns out, because as with any task it becomes easy to lose sight of bigger pictures when you get immersed in your work.

This question is familiar to me from being in school. I had a late introduction to Urban Studies at the end of my sophomore year, at which point I was a Mechanical Engineering major, and since then I have been attempting to combine the two majors in an individually designed major in engineering. There is a constant need to justify the existence of this major to administrators, in other words to find and articulate the relevance of each discipline to the other. In the past year, I’ve not found so many instances of technical knowledge and practice from engineering classes translating in any significant way to the questions we ask in Urban Studies classes, but I have found so-called Urban Studies or social sciences questions important in interrogating the kind of engineering work that I, my peers, professors, and others in the area are engaging in, namely: What really is the agenda of this project? Who does it benefit, and who does it exclude? Should it be done in the first place? As a side note, the leaders of BBB come from Anthropology and English backgrounds and are constantly asking these questions of their work. Furthermore, they don’t consider any of the work they do as “engineering,” even though it would fit that label by some standard definitions of the discipline (as opposed to the profession.) I find the labels we use for technical design and manufacture work to be interesting (engineering vs maker vs DIY) in the context of this quote by Donna Riley from her series of lectures called “Engineering and Social Justice”:

“The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within. This book calls upon engineers to cultivate a passion for social justice and peace and to develop the skill and knowledge set needed to take practical action for change within the profession. Because many engineers do not receive education and training that support the kinds of critical thinking, reflective decision-making, and effective action necessary to achieve social change, engineers concerned with social justice can feel powerless and isolated as they remain complicit…”

Why would this be the status quo? I see value in comparing the engineering education process at BBB versus traditional engineering education in schools. (By engineering I’m specifically referring to mechanical, to avoid overgeneralizing.) In schools you learn the core curriculum first — one that establishes a base set of standardized knowledge that can lead to a certification, and one that Riley argues originated in and continues to be funded by the military and private defense contractors — and then you work on “real-life” projects, which often does mean a majority of job opportunities at defense contractors, if college job fairs are any indication. Once funneled into these systems of management, Riley argues, it is near impossible to question the nature of the work you are doing.

I see an opposite model at play at BBB, which essentially started with one person who wanted to teach others to build bamboo bikes so that they would love and feel ownership of their chosen form of urban transportation, and then built the necessary engineering skills around that goal. To me, it is significant that the organization makes a specific engineering education accessible to anyone who walks into the door, instead of keeping it gated in what is often seen as an elite field of knowledge. (Some might argue, What you’re doing isn’t engineering, it’s Making. And some magazines say about BBB, “It’s not exactly a Maker Space.” There’s contention over these terms, the low-down for me is that at BBB you design, you CAD, you manufacture, and you constantly refine the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process for multiple people. You need to use an intuitive rather than textbook understanding of materials, stress, and failure. So to me, for all intensive purposes, BBB is a kind of engineering education workshop.) Secondly, it truly is a site in which what we build is constantly being interrogated: who is it for? Are these the people we want to reach? If the answers to these questions don’t align with the mission statement, then the project is rejected. Much of this ability to question and be flexible obviously comes from the small size and structure of the organization, but it’s still been a valuable lesson in bringing some of Riley’s ideas about transforming engineering pedagogy to life, and much mirrors what I’ve seen done in Urban Studies classes.

More questions that have come out of this reading: How does the concept of social justice change in a Chinese versus U.S. context? What does urban mobility mean here versus the U.S.? I come across these questions as there is bountiful literature and language surrounding social justice, transportation justice, and urban mobility in the U.S., mostly concerned with centering the needs of those who have been most marginalized by the racially codified planning histories of U.S. cities. As Chinese cities formed out of very different planning policies and histories, there seems to be a much different language in the (academic) literature around just transport and mobility, namely that the words used are never “social justice” but “sustainability” and “social equity.” What does this difference tell us about what the important questions are to ask of Chinese cities’ mobility futures (and histories)? What is the starting point to identify these questions? Some food for thought, and if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!

Week 3 with a mini photo essay

We kept ourselves busy this third week by welcoming three new interns with a training week in which they got their hands busy immediately making their own bikes and painting our new space. I finished my own bike as well, pictured below, and we ended the week with a bike ride to the Zero-Carbon Pavilion, a space set up by the NRDC. They furnish their space with lots of bamboo products and decorations, so they invited us to check it out.

Bamboo bike #149

Biking through an alley just wide enough for bikes, on the way to the Zero Carbon Pavilion

Biking through an alley just wide enough for bikes, on the way to the Zero Carbon Pavilion

Inside the Zero Carbon Pavilion, designed by the NRDC

Inside the Zero Carbon Pavilion, designed by the NRDC. Lots of bamboo (flowerpots hanging over the window and ceiling decor)

Later I got to thinking about Beijing’s bicycle infrastructure. It’s really wonderful. Most of them are wide enough to fit a car (which is trouble when cars actually do use them for travel, but otherwise they fit many rows of cyclists), and are partitioned off from the streets with metal fences that can double as places to lock bikes, or by raised platforms which pedestrians can use as bus stops, and every so often a row of trees. I noticed also that there are symbols of bikes everywhere on the street, although they are not always so effective as suggestions of what lanes are exclusively for bikes. Here are some photos collecting the bicycle sign visuals to be found on one popular street alone, just for kicks. To me they serve as powerful examples of how bikes have been planned for and built for in the city, even though bike ridership has decreased so significantly since before the automobile became this popular.

The sign says Parking for Bicycles is Free. Interesting that it’s one of the newest and most prominent bike signs, given that people park their bikes “for free” just about everywhere without prompting.

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These worn white bike symbols are painted on the asphalt every few meters to indicate bike lanes.

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Often the white symbols on the ground are paired also with these blue signs, and sometimes even a third sign pointing at the same lane. Despite the concentration of signs designating the lane as a bike lane, it still gets jammed with cars during busier traffic times. Definitely begs the question, why not a bollard instead?

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No cars are allowed on this street, but the sign poses more of a suggestion than a reality. Most of the parked cars belong to residents of the hutong neighborhoods. Again begs the question, if cars are seriously prohibited, why not a bollard?

Special crossing signals for bikes. Saw these a lot in NY, but otherwise they seem uncommon in the States. Does having more symbols lead to more cycling and cycling amenities?

Over the next few weeks I will be continuing to collect visual data to formulate some research questions around the cultures, behaviors, and infrastructures of bicycle mobility in the area.

Bamboo Biking – Week 2

A quick snapshot of this second week at BBB: Our next door neighbors moved out! So we have snagged this room and suddenly have so much more space. As recompense for refurbishing the room, it’s possible that I’ll end up living inside of the workshop itself, as my current housing will expire soon. That would be cool. In other news, we just hired three local high school interns, and I’ve been building my new bike at Workshop 33, designing a catalog for BBB, starting to make a visual workflow/how-to guide for the workshops, and drilling holes around the new room in preparation for some interior designing.

Workshop 34

Workshop 34, with new interns and old-time volunteers (all high-schoolers!)

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Neighboring room in transition. Check back in a week or two to see its hopeful transformation!

Ever since I started borrowing someone else’s bamboo bike last week, I’ve been learning a lot more about transportation cultures and mobility in Beijing by spending 2-3 hours on the street commuting every day. At first glance, urban biking in Beijing can seem pretty chaotic and formidable. It is chaotic — when the streets are full, especially, you can look around and see cars in the bike lane, cars parked on the sidewalk, bikers and mopeds going the “wrong” way down multiple lanes, bikes and even pedestrians in the middle lanes of major roads, and a predictable disregard for certain traffic signals.

Despite the visual mess, it’s actually very calm within the fray, because everyone is paying close attention to everyone else. When I bike down the street, I am always planning my path for the next 20 meters, and rely on everyone else around me to be doing the same, so that we can anticipate and adapt to each other’s routes. There are often status transactions going on. For example, if a single bike is going against a single car when the bike has the right of way, the car will definitely cut off the bike illegally. But if a group of twenty bikers during the morning commute decides to cut a car off when the car has the right of way, you better believe they’ll do it. For a sense of scale, here is a picture of what almost every intersection looks like outside of the central city. That’s usually enough room for 6-8 lanes of cars on a road and two bike lanes. In this moment the intersection looks like a parking lot, but when transit goes on in the middle, it becomes a huge slow jumble through which people move like a school of fish, to borrow the words of Wang Wenlan, a photographer who has published famous series of photos of China’s bicycle scene.

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Typical intersection in the outer rings of Beijing

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

Shanghai, 1991 © Wang Wenlan

More of Wang Wenlan’s amazing bike photography can be found here. Until next week!

Bamboo Bicycles Beijing: Week 1

Hello, I’m Geena!

I have been in Beijing, China for a little over a week now, working in the depths of an old hutong neighborhood in the little gem of a workshop called Bamboo Bicycles Beijing. (See here for a bio and description of BBB!) Most of my first days were something like an orientation, to get my hands working on the bike projects going on in order to get a feel for how the workshop operates. In this first post I’ll share some of the ways my understanding of the workshop has deepened through participating in it.

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

A typical view of the workshop in action: lots of peer-to-peer teaching and learning!

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop, held last weekend.

Sitting outside the workshop mitering one of the frames built at the 32nd BBB workshop this last weekend.

There are three aspects of the workshop that are really sticking with me as I end my first week at BBB:

1) Intentionality of scale: BBB has existed for about a year now and hosted 33 workshops, which have produced just shy of 150 completed bamboo bicycles and their proud owners. Though the “reach” could certainly be considered small in a city of over eleven million, the workshop gathers a self-selecting, extremely passionate bunch who end up taking ownership of the workshop in their own way and often volunteer many hours over many weekends to pass on the skills they have learned to others who are just learning how to make their own bikes. In the last week, I was in the space for three or four media outlets who interviewed and videotaped David, BBB’s founder. I heard him reflect often on his disappointment with some of the outlets’ offers to help expand BBB’s brand and image by spinning their stories on him a certain way. “That’s not what we’re about,” David would often say to any story that did not allow for the character of BBB to stand for itself. It feels very special to work alongside someone who has total conviction for what he is and is not about. So what is BBB about, then? For one thing, the small scale of the workshops allows for the cultivation of genuine loyalty and trust in its participants. Other things:

2) Community! A lot of people talk about community. It was a catchphrase I read all over the BBB website and in interviews with David before arriving. However, being on the ground in the BBB neighborhood brought a whole new understanding to the word in the ways it is used to frame BBB’s objectives. The physical space of BBB is open to any passersby for the whole workday. Curious first-time onlookers are welcomed in, and so are the young neighborhood kids who live down the street and sometimes man their parents’ convenience store. In fact, those kids have built their own bamboo bike in the space, and one of them returned to help me build mine on Friday. David’s elderly neighbors also look out for him. One day a long-time resident was just about poised to kick me out of the shared BBB courtyard with her cane, until she realized I was with David and Claudio (another workshop leader) and burst into a forgiving smile, even insisting that I come sit in her home with her. Another neighbor leaves his door open and continually offers food. On one of my first days there he shared with us a homemade lunch over hours of conversation, pictured below. Because of the care that David takes to be a positive, active contributor to the neighborhood in which he’s set up shop, BBB’s participants find themselves cared-for by the existing community. This also strikes me as very special, perhaps guided in large part by a respect for communicating in the language of the community and a general thoughtfulness.

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面 translated as "fried sauce noodles," complete with beer in bowls!

Lunch with our generous neighbor ShuShu. Pictured is a traditional Beijing dish 炸酱面, translated as “fried sauce noodles,” complete with beer in bowls!

3) Empowerment: I’ve worked as a mechanic in different bike shops in high school and college. In most bike shops in the U.S. at least, the norm is for amateur mechanics to start off learning to change flats, then do basic assemblies, then the more advanced aspects of assemblies, and finally the varied challenges of repairs. As an amateur mechanic, I was accustomed in past summers to learn two or three tasks and repeat them the entire summer, as the business models of most bike shops are most efficient if mechanics work assembly-line style. BBB has been different from the get-go because of the peer-to-peer teaching and learning that happens around the clock. It is everyone’s intention there to equip longtime workers there to deal with the entire process of building a bike, from selecting the raw material to calibrating the very last component. In fact, anyone who walks through the door can be put to work immediately by whoever has the capacity to teach. The teaching style is very couched in doing: someone will typically explain a process to me, then hand the tools over to me to do myself. This is so wonderful! Especially as a woman engineering student who has had a fair share of tools taken straight out of my hands to get the job done for me “better” or “faster.”

David has continually said that the beauty of BBB is that every new person who joins the team changes the organization in some way because of the new ideas and projects they bring — through planning bike rides and picnics, hosting photo competitions, making new arts and crafts, starting a video series, or taking ownership of BBB’s social media presence. Because the entire workshop was executed on one person’s own initiative, the norm for how things get done is that individuals must implement their visions on their own volition, all the time. This is just one more way BBB lives up to its mission to empower those who spend time there.

Well, I’m halfway through the 2-day workshop to build my own bamboo bike now, so by next week hopefully I will have something to show for it! I will also be moving away from doing bike mechanics and into doing some different projects. Thank you for reading!