Jin-gu-yuan Mixed-use Complex, Kunshan
PUBLIC SPACE, HIGH DENSITY, AND AN EMERGING CIVIL SOCIETY
The 19th-century Chinese cities did not have much consciously planned public space, especially the nodal types such as square and park. People simply used the streets, or whatever left by the traffic flow. The urban renewals brought by the Economic Reform since 1978 have changed Chinese cities completely. However, the renewals have focused on improving the cities’ economic infrastructure. The “non-productive” public space, especially the part serving average residents, has not received proportional attention. So as the first problem, Chinese cities today need more public space quantitatively. But the limited public space already supplied by the urban renewals has also exhibited three quality issues.
To begin with, much of the resources used on the public space has been lavished on a few “window-dressing” projects to show off the governments’ accomplishment. These huge squares and green areas tend to be far away from where residents concentrate and inaccessible to the masses most of whom don’t own cars. The users also often feel alienated by the large areas of lawn or sun-baked hard surface. Secondly, the few new public spaces serving the average residents, such as those in commercial streets and neighborhoods, have been impacted by a kind of privatization. Overlooked by the laissez-faire government, these profitless projects tend to be barebones, with no or few benches, shading and other amenities, and shunned by the opaque facades of nearby buildings. They have been often commercialized or even encroached by neighboring private developments. In particular, the gated community has become the dominating form of residential development, killing the street life ever since. Thirdly, the gentrification of public space has taken many free or inexpensive functions and services away from the new public spaces. For example, pedestrians and street peddlers have been treated as second-class citizens. (For a full analysis see my article “Brave New City: Three Problems in Chinese Urban Public Space since the 1980s" in Journal of Urban Design, No. 2, 2011.)
If the problems could be excused by the poor economy at the beginning of the Reform, it is no longer the case. Meanwhile, more people are living in the cities now. 51.3% Chinese are urban residents in 2011, compared with 17.92% in 1978. As a result, China has 117 cities with more than 1 million people in 2007, a rapid rise from 21 such cities in 1985. The urban population has also become increasingly middle class. All these demand a timely improvement of the urban environment, including the provision of more and better public space.
But there is one more reason. China has entered such a historical moment that the public, government officials and professional analysts have agreed that a fundamental reform in its political and social structure cannot be delayed because its successful economic development can no longer work with the other aspects of the society. It is time to accelerate the process of political democratization and of increasing civil liberties. To get more people into the process, the civil society in Chinese cities, already prospers over the internet, must be further developed into the physical world. What is more appropriate than creating adequate public spaces for the purpose, as Henri Lefebvre argued before? Even though we should be cautioned against architectural determinism, one cannot deny that environmental form does have a role in quickening or retarding the progress. It is urgent now for Chinese urban planners and designers to create incubators for an emerging civil society.
How is this to be done? This article will use the Jin-gu-yuan Mixed-use Complex in Kunshan, China, designed by this author, to illustrate a new set of design principles.
Located west of Shanghai, the historical city Kunshan has been rapidly transformed into a major manufacturing center in the Yangtze River delta. With an area of 118 square kilometers and a population of 180,000, the central city is undergoing major urban renewals. The 1.38-hectare project site sits in one of the renewal zones, between a newly completed 5.6-hectare Jin-gu-yuan gated residential development to its north and the Loujiang River to its south. The low-rise houses occupying the other areas surrounding the site will be all replaced by high-density developments, similar to the high-rise Jin-gu-yuan that has 155 apartments per hectare.
Considering a major commercial street exists north of the Jin-gu-yuan, the developer (a part of the municipal government) called for a 6,220-square-meter floor area of neighborhood shopping, dining and community service facilities, including a kindergarten. Public space is required but its amount not specified. Early schemes by others reflected the conventional design approach, they showed a long row of one to two-story building, with the narrow strip of leftover space between the building and the river as “public space”. Dictated by Chinese building codes that require the kindergarten to sit in its own parcel, the facility was placed on the ground at the west end of the row in these schemes.
THE DESIGN THEORIES
The problems in public space stated earlier can be partially attributed to the conventional design approach that blindly imitates the urban form of European and US cities and ignores the unique conditions of Chinese cities. These conditions include the larger size of a city, the limited existing public space (especially the shortage of the nodal types), the hotter and longer summer, the poorer majority of the urbanities, and the need to preserve arable land. But the biggest oversight may be on the higher population density of Chinese cities. For example, in each square kilometer of the central city, Beijing and Shanghai have 7,387 and 16,828 residents respectively in 2012, far exceeding those of the most crowded Western cities. High density brings in a host of other issues such as more intensive use of the public space and higher building density. Therefore it demands design strategies qualitatively different from the current imported ones. The first five of the eight concepts used in the project primarily respond to the high density, which were proposed in Public Places in Asia Pacific Cities (2001) edited by this author, while the rest has more to do with the economic and cultural peculiarities of Chinese urbanities.
1. Numerous Small Nodes
Many small public spaces are better than a few huge “window-dressing” projects in a dense city. The former model will create a public-space network accessible to most residents within a 500-meter walking or bicycling distance. Being able to use all kinds of vacant lots, it will also cause less relocation. The nodal type will create a more static setting that supports social gathering better. In fact, the traditional Chinese city had many courtyards in public buildings to supplement the streets as public space. In this project, the footprint of the building in the conventional design is shrunk and divided into five portions, creating five gardens between the buildings. Measured from 42X34 meters to 21X15 meters, these nodal spaces with clear boundaries will act as a more serious invitation to social groups than merely expanding the sidewalk.
2. Vertical Zoning
To carve out more public space in a dense city, spaces have to be piled up, and one has to abandon the traditional “horizontal” zoning that dictates a singular use for each parcel, either among different functions or between open space and a building site. As long as fire and other hazards are prevented from spreading across floors, building codes should allow vertical zoning. Some of the building functions in this project are juxtaposed vertically. For example, all rooms used by the children in the kindergarten, along with the outdoor play areas, are now moved to the upper level, only the functions used mainly by adults remain in the north part of the first floor. The entire kindergarten has the image of a hilltop village. An exterior stair, designed as a mountain path, provides a secondary entrance. The new layout not only makes the kindergarten more secured (a big issue in China), but also affords the children a better view of the river which would have been blocked by a wall in the conventional scheme. Meanwhile, the concept allows the southern portion of the first floor to be used as a covered walkway and shops, which will continue the waterfront public corridor along the Loujiang River. Because a variance was not issued, the developer had to give the entire Building A to the kindergarten, but the experiment shows that the concept can be realized physically.
3. Multi-layered Street
Since the curbside shops attract more people, the conventional approach has created miles after miles of commercial streets in Chinese cities. They do not only tire us physically but also make the urban environment less legible, especially in an extended metropolitan area. Research showed that a commercial street longer than 600 meters did not attract more customers. So why don’t we shorten the commercial section of a street by creating sidewalks on the second floor? To heed William Whyte’s warning that a public space works only when it is close to pedestrian flows, the proposed sidewalk must be no more than one floor above the ground and frequently connected to the ground by public stairs. Moreover, the pedestrians on the ground should be able to see the shop fronts along the upper-level sidewalk. The concept was realized as a small-scale experiment in Buildings E and B-D of this project.
4. Paved Garden
The essence of an urban park in a high-density city is not a piece of transplanted “nature”, merely to be viewed upon, but a public room with greeneries. In designing a public green area, the conventional approach favors the model of English landscape garden characterized by the large lawns, lakes and forests. It does not support the intensive human activities observed in many Chinese parks. Therefore, most part of a public green area should be paved, with as many overhead or vertical planes of plants as possible. Of course, a limited area of lawn may be designed to create a void center for a sense of relief and to allow for occasional use of a large group. Finally, associations with nature should be created but with a more symbolized approach rather than a literal one. All these ideas are used in the design of the five gardens in this project. The largely paved gardens will accommodate many residents’ activities which may not be possible in their small apartments. Meanwhile, the numerous trellises and tree pits give shades and a sense of nature to the gardens. Near each of the two gates of the Jin-gu-yuan housing, a small lawn opens a visual channel toward the river. In festivals, it can be transform into a stage or playground.
5. Hard Edges
In many Western cities, sense of territory is created by space, such as the front lawn of a home, and by non-physical means, such as customs. These “soft” edges do not work in high-density Chinese cities which posse neither extra space nor a similar culture (Chinese in a queue tend to have their bodies touch each other). In a conventionally designed park, the lawns and unprotected flower beds are quickly worn out. Therefore, we should use more physical, particularly vertical (i.e., space-efficient) boundaries. In this project, a wall, a colonnade and tall bushes divide the gardens from the northern street. Inside the gardens, conversation groups are separated by dense plants of eye-level height. The two lawns described earlier are completely rimmed by railings which can be opened for occasional use of the turf by large groups.
6. Low-cost Activities
By imitating the West, the planners often assumed gentrified functions for public spaces, such as symphony concert and artists’ village, which are unfrequented by the majority of Chinese urbanities. 60.8% (the largest group) of Shanghai residents in 2012 listed simple green spaces as the most visited public facility. As Ray Oldenburg argued, a good public space should be free or inexpensive. It was observed that low-cost recreations attracted people most in Shanghai parks. In addition to exercises that are loved by everyone, the older generation prefers playing chess/cards and talking. The middle-aged enjoy social dancing and singing. And the younger generation loves the sports. In this project, the five gardens have plenty of benches, many are arranged in a centripetal form, to provide settings for quiet social activities. There are small “plazas” for self-expressions. We also transformed the roofs of Buildings B-D into one volley ball and two badminton courts, satisfying the teenagers’ needs often overlooked by planners.
7. Spaces for Open-ended Uses
All the five buildings in this project are adjacent to a covered walkway at least three meters wide. Some sections of the walkway are further expanded. The generous dimension aims at providing more than a traffic corridor. Since only the public knows all the ways to use public space, the best design may be to provide many minimally furbished but free spaces, so people can invent their own uses, such as an English-speaking corner, bird display, and an outdoor cafe. Adding a roof will open up most versatile possibilities with a small cost increase. In particular, the street market proves to be an efficient tool to help low-income residents to make a living. With a good management, the peddlers also enrich a public space. While this project may be too small, it is still hoped that a few peddlers could be accommodated in the covered walkway.
8. Buildings Paired with Open Spaces
One of the characteristics of Chinese traditional space is coupling an indoor space with some outdoors spaces to serve each building function. In contrast to the Central Park model, today’s Chinese still prefer a more refined mixture of indoor comfort with nature. We tried several ways to adapt the idea to this project. The juxtaposition of buildings with gardens is one, which makes it easier to provide food and drink to people in the gardens, another Oldenburg’s hallmark for a good public space. Moreover, the kindergarten in Building A has a roof deck next to each classroom and a roof garden shared by all classes, and the second-floor shops in Building E all open into their own roof decks overlooking the Loujiang River.
Except for Garden 5, the construction is near completion now. We will see if the design works after the Complex opens and the plants grow. Urban design should never be reduced to fancy graphic compositions. Human behaviors should serve as the main foundation of the design concepts. It is not even merely a design issue. If the southern gates of the nearby housing estate are not opened as planned, few people will use the public facility. If the shops in the Complex do not include some inexpensive convenience stores, people in the gardens will interact less with the nearby buildings. If the management fails to regulate the peddlers smartly, street market will never occur or will become a nuisance. It takes a civil society to make a civil place, but I believe that Chinese urbanities are learning to claim the ownership of public space, a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of China.
Zhenchuan West Road (between Baimajing Road and West Cangji River), Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, China
Project Period 2009-2013
Site Area 1.38 hectare
Floor Area 6,220 square meters
Client Kunshan City Construction, Investment and Development Co., Ltd.
Architecture: Miao Design Studio (Design Architect), Pu Miao; Hanjia Design Group, Shanghai (Architect of Record), Jiang Ninqing
Structure: Shanghai Yuangui Structural Design Inc., Zhang Yewei, Li Mingwei
Engineering: Hanjia Design Group, Shanghai, Guo Zhong, Yu Yang, Wu Qiuyan
Photographer Pu Miao
Journals Urban Design (UK, Summer/2013), Architectural Journal (China, 10/2013)
但是还有一个更重大的理由要求我们创造更多更好的公共空间。今天，无论是公众，政府，还是专业分析人士都已达成共识，那就是我国成功的经济改革已经不能再与现有的政治，社会体系兼容。对后者的深化改革，像加速政治民主与增进公民权利，已经不能再继续推迟。要让更多的人参与到这场改革中来，我们必须加速群众自发的草根组织--公民社会--的形成。也就是把目前在网络上已经很红火的公众讨论延伸在实体世界中。正如法国哲学家Henri Lefebvre 所指出过的，创造能容纳这些活动的公共空间是实现这一目的的重要条件。当然，我们必须警惕建筑决定论的陷阱，不能指望只靠物质环境就可以改变人的社会行为。但我们仍不能否认是否有好的环境可以加快或拖延这一改变。现在是城市规划师与设计师为明天的公民社会创造摇篮的时候了。
由于人行道边的商店吸引更多的顾客，我国城市就出现了许多过度蔓延的商业街。这些街道不仅让购物者肉体疲劳，而且使城市中的区块难于被识别，特别是在一个大都市中。研究发现，长于600米的商业街难于吸引更多的顾客。所以，我们为何不能通过在二层或半地下层设置人行道的方法来缩短一条街的商业部分呢？美国社会学家William Whyte 曾警告，只有靠近人流的公共空间才会被人使用。因此，新的人行道离地面人流不宜超过一层，并应与地面通过频繁的公共楼梯连接。同时，地面上的行人应能看到二层人行道边商店的店面。多层街道的概念在本工程的E栋及B-D栋中得到了局部的应用。
以西方城市为楷模，我国城市规划者常为公共空间设想一些贵族化的使用方式，像交响音乐会或艺术家村。但事实上市民主体甚少光顾此类设施。一项2012年的调查发现，60.8% （最大群体）的上海市民使用最多的公共设施是简单的城市绿地。美国社会学家Ray Oldenburg指出，好的公共空间必须是免费或低收费的。我在上海的公园中也观察到，廉价的休闲方式最能吸引公众。除了人人喜爱的简易健身活动外，老年市民还喜欢棋牌及闲聊。中年人偏爱交谊舞及唱歌。年青一代则沉醉于球类活动。为此，本工程中的五个庭园中设置了大量的座椅，其中许多被布置成向心型来促进安静的社交活动。庭园中同时设计了小片集中硬地来满足自我表现类的活动需要。考虑到社区公共空间规划常常忽视青少年的需要，B、C、D栋的平屋顶被转化成一个排球场及二个羽毛球场。
除了园5外，整个建筑群目前已基本建成。当本工程交付使用，攀援植物开始爬上来后，我们将可以看到以上设计概念是否可行。城市设计不能被简化为有趣的图形设计，设计概念必须以人的行为形式为主要基础。但这甚至不仅是一个设计问题。如果附近的小区入口不按计划打开,就不会有许多人来使用公共空间。如果本建筑群的商店中没有一个大众化的便利店，花园中的居民就不会进附近的建筑。如果物业不能对小贩进行有效的管理，街市或是从不出现，或会惹得大家都讨厌。只有在一个公民社会中才会产生一个公民的公共空间，但我相信市民们一定能逐渐用好管好自己的公共空间 -- 一个在中国漫长历史中刚出现的新事物。
建筑面积 6,220 平方米
建筑：缪朴设计工作室 缪朴; 汉嘉设计集团 蒋宁清
Click on an image to enlarge it 欲放大图像请点击画面
Location Map 基地位置平面
Upper: Second Floor Plan Lower: First Floor Plan 上：二层平面 下：一层平面
Left: Building A Section Right: Building E Section 左：A栋剖面 右：E栋剖面
South elevation of Building A A栋南立面
North entrance of Garden 1, next to the northeast corner of Building A
Garden 1 in front of Building B B栋前的园1
A small lawn, with open-able fence, in Garden 1 connects the housing gate to Loujiang River. 园1中一片带可开栏杆的小型草坪将小区大门引向娄江。
The southeast corner of Building A A栋东南角
The exterior stair on the east side of Building A provides a secondary entrance to the second-floor kindergarten.
The exterior stair of Building A leads into a roof deck.
Looking northwest toward the roof garden surrounded by classrooms in the kindergarten 向西北方向看被幼儿园教室围绕的屋顶花园
Looking toward the roof garden from the crawl space under the deck of Classroom 1 从活动1平台下的矮空间内望屋顶花园
One of the classroom interiors in the kindergarten (interior decoration by others)
The multi-purpose room of the kindergarten on the second floor at the northwest corner of Building A A栋西北角二层为幼儿园音体活动室
Shops linked by a covered walkway along the southern edge of the first floor of Building A A栋一层南边为由一条敞廊连接的商店
South elevation of Building A and the multi-leveled riverbank
Garden 2 with Building B behind 园2，后为B栋
The east edge of Building B faces Garden 2 B栋东边缘面对园2
The expanded area of the covered walkway on the east side of Building B, designed for “open-ended uses.” B栋东边局部加宽的敞廊，可满足公众的自发性用途。
Southeast corner of Building B B栋东南角
Garden 2 with Building B behind 园2，后为B栋
Garden 2 with Building C behind
Southeast corner of Building C (left) and Garden 3 (right)
Garden 3 between Buildings C (right) and D (left)
From the inside of Building D looking into Garden 3 从D栋内望园3
North side of the colonnade connecting Buildings C (left) and B (right)
In the colonnade connecting Buildings D (left) and C (right), peeking into Garden 3 (left) 从连接D（左）、C（右）栋的敞廊中一窥园3
The ball courts on the roofs of Buildings C (left) and B (right)
Garden 4 flanked by Buildings D (left) and E (right)
Garden 4 in front of Building D D栋前的园4
The east edge of Building D faces Garden 4 D栋东边缘面对园4
West elevation of Building E with Garden 4 in its front E栋西立面，前为园4
Northeast corner of Building E, with one of the exterior stairs leading to the second-floor “street” E栋东北角为上到二层“街道”的室外楼梯之一。
The second-floor “street” in Building E is supplemented with roof decks.
The second-floor “street” in Building E has visual connections with the ground.
The second-floor “street” is visible behind the lighting well in one of the shops in Building E 透过E栋一个商店内的采光井可见另一面的二层“街道”。
The second-floor “street” in Building E has visual connections with the ground.
South elevation of Building E E栋南立面
North elevation of Building E E栋北立面