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Postcard from China: Urbanisation full speed ahead


17 December 2012

Traditional courtyard houses in China are under threat from modernisation, says Dr Paul Jones.
Traditional courtyard houses in China are under threat from modernisation, says Dr Paul Jones.

Dr Paul Jones writes from China about how urbanisation is affecting heritage neighbourhoods and public spaces.

Recently a University of Sydney planning alumni, now based at the School of Architecture at Tianjin University, invited me to experience firsthand the juggernaut of China's booming urbanisation phenomena. Sally Wang, who returned to China after graduating from the University of Sydney, asked me to visit her colleagues and share my experiences of heritage planning in Australia and explore opportunity for research collaboration.

Located some 300 kilometers south east of Beijing, Tianjin is China's sixth most populous urban centre, with an estimated population of some 15 million. Like Beijing it is a bustling city dominated by new construction sites and a mosaic of high rise offices and residential buildings. As new areas are master planned, often on a site-by-site basis, a recurring challenge cited by Chinese academics and practitioners is ensuring these individually-planned developments become vibrant and usable spaces for people to enjoy.

In an era of modernity, when many of the new buildings and spaces look and feel the same, neighbourhoods can struggle to achieve strong identities and a sense of place. While the country undergoes rapid modernisation and high rates of urbanisation, preserving China's cultural heritage has become a paramount planning and design challenge. This is most visible in the old laneways and courtyards of the traditional low scale housing areas - often called courtyard housing - that dominate Beijing and many other northern cities such as Tianjin.

Dr Paul Jones: "In an era of modernity, when many of the new buildings and spaces look and feel the same, neighbourhoods can struggle to achieve strong identities and a sense of place."
Dr Paul Jones: "In an era of modernity, when many of the new buildings and spaces look and feel the same, neighbourhoods can struggle to achieve strong identities and a sense of place."

The traditional courtyard houses are impressive for their human scale and the sense of Chinese culture they embody. Their distinctive features include the detailed brick, wooden and brass carvings dotted on the prominent interior and exterior walls and doors, plus an array of strategically placed flower boxes and trees. Ornaments and decorations, including drawings and paintings, are the symbols of custom and traditional culture, which point to the pursuit of happiness, good health and prosperity as a way of life in a bygone era.

Over the last 30 years, large swathes of old city housing, including courtyard housing, have been demolished. Planners are now left with the challenge of preserving the courtyard housing that remains, as well as a sense of connectivity - including social, emotional and spiritual - to the new developments surrounding and now dwarfing them.

Staff and students at Tianjin University's School of Architecture are very much involved in researching the above, especially in understanding and defining the meaning of culture in the preservation of courtyard housing, as well as designing new public spaces which link many of China's commercial and residential public streets and spaces.

Increasing numbers of Chinese students are now undertaking the Master's in Urban and Regional Planning Degree and Masters of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. My week-long collaboration with staff and students at Tianjin University - the first modern institution of higher learning in China, established in 1895 - provided important insights into not only understanding their cultural heritage, but also a better understanding of Chinese academic life.


Paul Jones is Associate Professor and Program Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, a board member of the University's recently established Sydney Southeast Asia Centre and a member of the University of Sydney Pacific Expert Group convened by Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International).

Urban planners in China need to balance cultural and historical identity with the needs of modern urbanisation when developing public spaces.
Urban planners in China need to balance cultural and historical identity with the needs of modern urbanisation when developing public spaces.


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