37 The sustainable renewal of a historical community in Beijing’s Old City

Shangyi Zhou and Shaobo Zhang, Beijing Normal University, China

Nanluoguxiang (NLGX) is a community space located in the central part of old Beijing. As an important commercial space dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, it was placed at the backside of the Forbidden City according to the specific spatial patterns designed for the country’s capital in Zhou Li (Rites). The distinctive spatial pattern of the streets and roads in the old city of Beijing is in a chessboard-shaped layout organized in a very neat order. Hutongs (lanes) are the lowest level in the city’s road system. Residents of hutongs face one another in public spaces; these are spaces where children play and neighbours chat.  NLGX has many such hutongs. In the process of urbanization and as a part of the old city, NLGX needs renovation to revitalize its regional economy and living conditions, and at the same time, preserve its unique identity.

The renovation of NLGX has been going on for more than twenty years. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, the first stage of the renovation focused on some courtyards. The poor housing conditions were the major focus of this period. The key change was altering the design from one to two storey houses which not only preserved the public space in the courtyard’s centre but also enlarged the living space for the growing population. From 2005-2010 the government focused on the rebuilding of the main lane, which provided an appealing historical image for tourists. Shortly after that, a new project was initiated which aimed to rebuild the banks of the Yuhe Canal which also runs through NLGX. The main market area of the capital city in the Yuan Dynasty flourished at this time by the commodities flowing through this canal. Yuhe Canal is at the north end of the Grand Canal in China. NLGX is located at the harbor. This renewal phrase emphasized the function of the market harbor in the ancient capital. All of the three remolding stages of NLGX sought to retain the area’s historical heritage.

Comparing the three renovation stages, we found that the last one has been the most important.  The courtyard rebuilding in the first stage could not be copied by other residential districts, because the government budget is unable to cover the costs for the old courtyards needing repair. It would be unfair if the city’s limited financial budget went to a specific courtyard. Since 2005 the image of NLGX has been likened to a fish-bone street pattern. Whereas Beijing’s inner city has a chessboard road pattern, other quarters in the inner city have a fishbone road system. It made the renovation in the second period that occurred did not get promoted. After 2007, however, scholars discovered another historic cultural icon in this area, the Yuhe Canal. The ancient Yuhe Canal connected the main market and the old canal dock; it was, as noted above, an essential part of commercial spaces in the ancient capital. As the old saying goes that: “the more a place has its own functional meaning, the more it becomes embedded into Beijing’s cultural spatial structure,” which means that there are a number of spatial nodes unique in the whole city. Also that the more historical and cultural associations one discovers in NLGX, the more they are similar to other parts of the city. It is with some sense of justice that local government has financed NLGX’s renewal which has a shared cultural meaning for all city residents. It is better than financing the rebuilding one of many courtyards with shabby courtyards or repairing its fishbone road system.

Another objective of the city’s sustainable renovation efforts is to promote or maintain local social capital. During the second phrase of renovation, many former public spaces such as grocery stores for local people were turned into souvenir shops for tourists. Before the remodeling all of the residents whom we interviewed, regardless of income, felt an attachment to the neighborhood and devoted themselves to creating a harmonious communities. However, with tourism development and the occupancy of outsiders moving in, many businessmen do not consider NLGX as their own community. They consider it only as a place to make money. The local residents themselves remain divided into two groups – one supports and is involved in the tourism business, the other opposes it. A harmonious community needs to find some new social collaboration.

The experiences and successes of the renovations of NLGX provide some encouragement. Residents need to consider two points as they continue to contemplate future renovation. The first is a sense of justice. A cultural meaning or image of an historic community would be retained if its meaning is identified by more people. The question can be asked: why was the last stage of NLGX’s renovation successful?  It was because the Yuhe Canal links NLGX to the commercial network of ancient China.  In this way the community is identified by more Chinese people. They like to preserve this historic community and associate it with their historical heritage. And such a historic community designation can aid in obtaining financial support from the government without debates of unfairness. The second is retaining the social capital of an historic community. The community’s public spaces are important for social networks of local residents.

Author Biography

Shangyi Zhou is a Professor of human geography  in School of Geography, Beijing Normal University and the director of Institute of Urban and Regional Planning at same university. The major titles of her are as following: executive member of GSC (The Geographical Society of China), committee member of Cultural Approach in Geography in IGU, director of Cultural Geography Committee in GSC, executive member of ACLA (Asian Cultural Landscape Association),  committee member of China Society of Territorial Economists, etc.. Her research interests are the issues related to social and cultural geography.

Contact email: shangyizhou@bnu.edu.cn

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