Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.95.2: THE PLACE OF THE STONE

The following is excerpted from a chapter on teaching in China in a book in progress by the author.

  I had been doing a lot of lecturing about planning and urbanism in China, but without any opportunity, as the cliché goes, to “walk the walk.” In 2002 a small opportunity to turn from jiaozhou (professor) to urban planner presented itself by way of my association with the Fulbright Program in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong-America Centre located on the campus of the Chinese University, Hong Kong .  A grant had been made by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the city of Guangzhou and universities in China and Hong Kong to produce “sustainable” alternative redevelopment and revitalization solutions for an area in the city known as Changdi.

Changdi is an old area that sits on a branch of the Pearl River Delta.  It dates back to the days when Guangzhou was called Canton and when well before British gunboats pried open trade with China in the Opium Wars, Arab dhows made their way up the Pearl to dock at Changdi to trade more peacefully with the Cantonese. There is still a mosque, known locally as the “smooth pagoda,” that dates from the Tang Dynasty period (618-960 AD). Today the docks are gone, but the surrounding area is old, congested and in physical decline. There were several interrelated planning issues, but historic preservation, a consideration that is often literally “bulldozed” owing to land value appreciation in economically-expanding Chinese cities (Guangzhou is one of the “Special Economic Zones) is one of the more difficult to implement.  Guangzhou has a history going back to the 3rd Century BC, which makes the period when it was a destination on the “Silk Road of the Sea,” comparatively “current.”  Today it population is in the vicinity of fifteen million.

From my experience during graduate school working for a planning consulting firm I knew all about charrettes.  A charrette is a small, two-wheeled tumbril, an open cart that tilted backward to empty out its load, in particular one used to convey condemned prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution. Ergo, in a “charrette process” the participants have a limited amount of time to complete their task. The Changdi charrette was to be undertaken by six “teams” composed of professional planners, architects, professors, students, and public officials over four day period. I was appointed to be the “facilitator” for Team 5, a varied cohort that included sixteen members and a student translator.

All teams were given he same background information and the goal of producing a plan for the district that included the objectives environmentally sustainable design, traffic facilitation, and “to design a place of visual, cultural and environmental quality,” however that might be interpreted.  Frankly, the idea of such a charrette, in service of such lofty goals struck me a rather un-Chinese from what I had come to understand as the urban decision-making process in the PRC. This was, after all, a country governed by an authoritarian one party system that did not have to call upon multiple professions and the local public citizens to ratify urban development and redevelopment plans. It was either a responsive approach to the grant criteria of Rockefeller Brothers fund monies, or perhaps a harbinger of an adoption of Western modes of decision-making. It reminded me of a point that I used t make to my grad students regarding “citizen participation” in the planning process: that it was like a ratchet that once you gave citizens a voice in the decisions affecting them, it only moved forward, not in reverse.

The creation of six teams for the purpose of generating alternative approaches to the Changdi redevelopment also added a competitive element. If the Chinese penchant for ordinality seemingly all things applied to charrettes there was likely to be a “winner” or “best” plan selected at the conclusion of the process. Still, although the teams worked in different rooms, there was plenty of visiting and eavesdropping and collegial.

 It is always interesting to observe the power dynamics in the formation of groups composed of strangers, something that I had some experience with through a simulation that I had developed for my Planning Theory syllabus several years earlier.* As the nominal leader of my group I already had some degree of authority, but to use a position defined as “facilitator” to push a particular agenda would be improper.  Nevertheless, I felt that having and agenda, or at least a “focus” in a group circumstance that could easily fly off in several directions was necessary.  Taking a cue from what I had gleaned from many “plays” of my simulation, I decided to facilitate the hearing of as many ideas, proposals and propositions as there might be. The likelihood was that they would be contradictory, or at least difficult into coalesce into a focused plan.  Democracy and participation are desirable features of planning, but they are enervating and time consuming, and charrettes have a deadline.

In fact, I did have an agenda, or at least a focus, that I hoped to advance. The first morning had been spent on walking tour of the project area that straddled the river between the Yuexiu and Haizhou districts of Changdi.  The planning issues that were evident were not untypical of many old areas of Chinese cities that now were overcrowded, had outmoded infrastructure and were congested with traffic. But one feature of the area especially caught my interest.  There was an excavation underway of a very large stone that had once been part of an island in the river, Haizhou Island, but had long since been buried by the siltation and expansion of the shoreline.  Haizhou (Pearl in river), was only about he size of a football field back in the 15th C when, as the legend has it, Arab traders who were docked up there dropped some pearls into the river and it was accordingly named Zhujiang, Pearl River.

Source: Urban Environmental Design Charrette In the Pearl River Delta (Briefing Book) June 2002, P. 63

Source: Urban Environmental Design Charrette In the Pearl River Delta (Briefing Book) June 2002, P. 63

So, the stone that had disappeared some time in the early 20th C, had a story.** From what I could determine most of the other teams were con entreating on the “plannerly” matters that called for rather obvious attention: cluttered streets needed to be opened up, dilapidated structures taken out and replaced with open spaces or passages that facilitated pedestrian movement, architectural and landscape improvements proposed, and traffic re-routings and one-ways implemented,  in short, a modernization of the area that retained its essential Chinese village character. Team five came up with many of the same planning concepts and strategies.  But I felt that, if choices were to be made among the proposals of the various teams, something might be needed to make our stand out.

 My thoughts kept returning to the Haizhou stone; it had sort of lodged in my consciousness somewhat in the same manner that that black slab of stone that Kubrick used in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a mysterious element Whose purpose and meaning has yet to be discovered or defined. The Haizhou Stone was arising from the silt and somewhat the same manner as the excavated slab had in that movies moonscape. I was also captured by the narrative of the pearls being dropped in the river, And the suggestive symbolism of the excavation of the stone consonant with the concern about the revitalization of this old section of Guangzhou. The stone created a curiosity, a linkage with the past, an historical focal point for a people who are strongly wedded to place, a specific item of totemic of identity for a district that is now embedded in an expanding metropolitan area in the tens of millions.

I proposed not only giving our plan a name—“The Place of the Stone”—but employing the stone as a focal point in it, and connecting it to a proposal for a nearby building to be dedicated as a museum to it and its history in the early development of the “Silk Road of the Sea.”  A “place” is not just a space or a location, but where something has happened. It is a space with social memory, and is distinguishable and unique—in some cases venerable—because of that significance.  Accordingly, our team included a “Haizhu Stone Garden” as a public space in the plan.***

Changdi redevelopment plan of Team 5, including signatures of team members (bottom left), and the proposed “Haizhiu Stone Garden” (lower right)

Changdi redevelopment plan of Team 5, including signatures of team members (bottom left), and the proposed “Haizhiu Stone Garden” (lower right)

The plan needed assurances that the stone would not become an obstacle to the free flow of traffic, so we had to design it in such a way that traffic flowed around the stone as the Riverhead wants flowed around it; but pedestrian access had to be designed to draw and facilitate movement toward it.  There was objection from the rest of the team to this idea, but I nevertheless felt an obligation to explain (perhaps because I also felt that I had been rather “strategic” in getting it into play) my reasoning.  For years I had taught graduate seminars in both Urban Theory and Planning Theory.  Urban Theory involves the “substance” of urban life, its origins, forms, historical development and social features.  It is descriptive.  Planning Theory treats the normative process of decision-making.  It relies upon the validity of urban theory to move rationally from what is, to what ought to be.  The Haizhu Stone presented an excellent opportunity to apply urban theory—the way in which a symbolic element (the stone and its story)—can be applied to galvanize community support and provide a spatial focus to a planning redevelopment plan.  By giving our plan a name—The Place of the Stone—and a rationale with a compelling strategy.

In the end the team went along with my suggestion, some of them no doubt because I was charged with writing it up for the presentation.  When I presented the plan and our schematics took their place among the others there did not seem all that much of difference in the final results of the teams.  If the Haizhu Stone that had captivated me would ever make much of a difference it would not be known for some years.

The charrette was closed out with the customary congratulatory speeches and gifts from local officials, customary group photos, and a general feeling that earnest work had been done, god ideas for sustainable redevelopment had been generated, and international relations had been positively advanced. Given the parameters of the project, the time restrictiveness of the charrette and the composition of the teams we might not have come up with anything much different than a class of good urban design grad students. Still, in China one wonders how much of this is window dressing, a bit of a charade that screens the real powers that be over such decisions. I can’t seem to get over that there is something beyond the ken of we Westerners in dealings with the Chinese, that the have their inscrutable ways, like the cops told Jake Gittes in the move: “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” I like to think that’s the reason I focused on the idea of the place of the stone; it’s just a little idea, but ideas are like a free particle, one can never be sure it won’t set off a fissile reaction. Even if that reaction is just in the way we think about how we think about cities.****

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©2015, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.9.2015)

*See, J.A. Clapp,  LIFEBOAT 15: An Simulation for Education and Training (1979).  Revised and expanded 2009
**Though they are hardly the only people to associate mountains with metaphysics, the Chinese have long since had a predilection and feng shui favoritism for mountains, like Huang Shan, and many others with legends, stories, and Buddhas. Mountains  are celestial “pagodas” of, myth, superstition, folklore and pilgrimage. The Haizhou stone was no Mt. Fugi, Ayers Rock, or even Stone Mountain, Georgia, but it deserved at least as good as a terracotta warrior.
***These aims of our plan were also consistent with those articulated in the Preface of he briefing book prepared for the charrette which stressed that in addition to the “concern for environmental sustainability [to] play a more significant role in fostering urban conservation and redevelopment . . . but also to ‘design a place’ of visual, cultural and environmental quality.”
****An Internet search for information about the current status of the Haizhu Stone at the time of this writing turned up nothing on the subject.

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