Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Five Asian Success Stories - 1

by Michael Bloomfield

What if the cities of the world committed to development based on these principles: reducing waste and greenhouse gases; improving air quality; conserving water and energy; improving public transportation; increasing green space; adopting environmentally sound planning and purchasing; supporting healthy food production with active public participation?

Harmony Foundation wrote “Green Cities: a Guide to Sustainable Community Development” to provide reliable, objective information on the opportunities available for cities seeking to adopt sustainable community development practices. It includes an easy-to-read overview of sustainability, inspiring community success stories, and many useful contacts, tools and resources. The book examines “the keys to successful community leadership and public participation” and it encourages people from all walks of life to work together to create vibrant Green Cities.

The five inspiring Community Success Stories that follow are creative examples of successful sustainable community development initiatives from Asia. Each story looks the challenges involved and describes the practical results achieved through the efforts of dedicated ordinary people. They demonstrate the synergies that exist within community life -- and the transformative power of a dedicated group of people working together.

One core lesson can be derived from all five stories: At the heart of sustainable community development is a commitment to live within the limitations of the natural environments which support us. Forward thinking leaders and committed citizens are working together to build sustainable communities based on trust, mutual respect and a shared commitment to the future. Many people around the world have risen to the challenge.


Community-Based Urban Management: Quanzhou in China’s Fujian Province

The Community-Based Urban Management project was initiated in the coastal city of Quanzhou, in China’s Fujian Province to facilitate dialogue between lay people and urban planners and to test the limits and possibilities of new forms of communication between lay people and municipal planners and officials.

Quanzhou is an old city with a unique history. Unlike most other regions in China, Quanzhou protected the private ownership of homes (due mostly to an official interest in not alienating expatriate owners who continued to invest locally). Building in the city, at least since 1949, has been mostly private and informal. Both of these aspects – private ownership and informal construction – presented serious difficulties in the late 1990s when the local government wanted to revitalize an aging infrastructure and address housing problems.

When the project began in 1999, 17% of Quanzhou had been subject to large-scale demolition, street widening, and construction of mass housing and commercial space by government-sponsored developers in an attempt to improve and expand infrastructure and environment. Angry reaction by local residents to the prospect of demolition, concern for the historic character of the city, and the expense of relocating private homeowners forced local officials to look for alternative approaches to development.

The project was designed to address urban revitalization in the inner-city neighborhood of Cheng Nan:

  • Assess the historic value of the buildings and spaces
  • Assess the condition of buildings occupied by local businesses and residents
  • Propose housing and public space solutions that maintained architectural identity, met local residents’ desire for “modern” lifestyles, and improved business conditions
  • Explore strategies for using local cultural resources (in particular, two important temples) for economic revitalization 

To begin to build relationships between local planners and residents, the project coordinators planned a series of activities designed to break down barriers and facilitate dialogue. Workshops/meetings were held to identify the different interests in the community and to formulate policy options that proposed various trade-offs for each interest. Residents 
and planners were placed in separate groups and asked to answer questions: Who benefits? What are the benefits? Whose interests are not met? Residents were pleased to be listened to by local officials; local officials were surprised at how articulate and civil residents were. Participants were introduced to face-to-face problem-solving techniques such as the “Planning for Real” technique developed by the Neighborhood Initiatives Foundation in the UK. At these meetings, a “core group” of residents was identified who were willing to take a leadership role and keep the community informed and involved.

Another important aspect of the project was a coordinated publicity campaign. Contacts with local television and newspapers were established, project activities were well publicized, and publicity was coordinated with local festivals.

The project hosted design clinics for residents and planners with two goals: to introduce stakeholders to a range of approaches to participatory design and planning education, and to give residents an opportunity to participate in household upgrade design. As part of the process, participants were given the opportunity to see their neighborhood visions come to life in photo-edited images. Design skills were used as a medium of engagement to resolve conflicts between resident aspirations and municipal regulations.

There also have been conferences in China and North America where municipal leaders and other stakeholders examined a range of community engagement strategies, multi-stakeholder planning processes, and participatory research techniques.

The project faced numerous obstacles. Local residents had poor organizing skills – likely due to long-standing cultural and political prohibitions against autonomous organizing into official groups – and there was very limited legal space for residents to organize into officially recognized groups. Previously, neighborhood committees acted in their own economic interests, frustrating residents and planners alike. There were conflicting agendas among various levels of government, who often gave insufficient support to resident-planner compromises.

Despite these obstacles, there were significant beneficial outcomes. The workshops demonstrated that residents and planning officials can come together, discuss planning and development, and build trust, goodwill, and enthusiasm for experimentation (it was generally other levels of government not participating in the process that resisted or rejected the compromises and agreements reached by residents and planning officials). The workshops also provided a precedent for a more transparent way of gathering information from residents than standard surveys.

Residents and planners engaged in a design process that bridged significant gaps and conflicts between municipal regulations and residents’ desires.

The project also demonstrated that initiatives intended to expand citizen participation in municipal planning processes should look for cooperation between agencies with overlapping interests. One approach was to form a temporary task force with representatives from each stakeholder to develop pilot projects and deal with contentious situations.

  • Goal: To explore how more active citizen involvement in urban planning and management can make regulatory structures more rational and easier to enforce; To increase participation of residents in local planning through dialogue with municipal government on issues of neighborhood infrastructure upgrading, self-built housing regulation and historic preservation.
  • Project Focus: Citizen Participation, Land Use .
  • Staff: Varied over length of project. Anywhere from 2 to 20 representatives from the municipal, district and sub- district governments.
  • Length of Project: 1999-2005
  • Budget: US$134,000
  • Partners: University of British Columbia, Centre for Human Settlements; Tsinghua University School of Architecture; Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design.
  • Funders: Ford Foundation, Beijing. The project was also supported through academic research grants.

Michael Leaf and Daniel Abramson
UBC Centre for Human Settlements
2206 East Mall, Vancouver, B.C.
Canada V6T 1Z3
Tel: (604) 822-9295 Fax: (604) 822-6164

  • Leaf, M. and Abramson, D. (2002). “Global networks, civil society and the transformation of the urban core in Quanzhou, China” in Eric Heikkila and Rafael Pizarro (eds.) Southern California and the World (Westport, CT: Praeger). Project Summary:

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