Weitzman News

Posted March 21, 2016
  • Changsu

  • Tongli

  • PennDesign students with their student and faculty hosts in China

Revitalizing Historic Waterfronts in China

A Drone, Dialogue and an Urban Design Perspective

As part of a series of firsthand reports on PennDesign's Spring 2016 travel studios, students Claudia Zarazua and Katie McLaughlin filed this report after traveling to Suzhou and Changshu, China, this month for a studio taught by Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning Stefan Al.

As part of the course requirements for the urban design concentration of the Master's in City Planning program, students are required to take a design studio in the second year. Led by Stefan Al, this year’s studio is focused on canal redevelopment in the historic city of Suzhou and new development in the small city of Changshu, both in China. Suzhou is a 25-minute train ride northwest from Shanghai, while Changshu is an hour and thirty minutes drive from Suzhou. These two cities are characterized by their historic canals and gardens that were once integral to their economic and urban development, yet these canals have rapidly disappeared as water transportation became obsolete and new urban growth was directed outside of their historic centers.

The objective of the studio is to learn how these cities can still thrive using their unique water character, through new development opportunities along waterfront sites. Our six-day trip served as an opportunity to meet with representatives from local planning bureaus and planning professionals to learn more about their aspirations and existing efforts to achieve them, and for us to present our preliminary ideas for Suzhou and Changshu.

Our first stop was Shanghai, the largest city in China with a population of 24 million. During this stay, we visited the Bund--the riverfront--Yuyuan Garden, an extensive Chinese garden, and Tianzifang, a renovated arts and crafts complex. These visits allowed us to not only see some of the iconic sites in the city, but to also understand the contemporary urban form of a city of this magnitude. Through an urban design perspective, we began to analyze the contrasts in scale and density of the urban fabric, pedestrian streets and the public space in the riverfront. On our second day, we took the high-speed train at the Shanghai Railway Station towards Suzhou.

Once we arrived in Suzhou, the class explored the Humble Administrator's Garden and Suzhou Museum, designed by architect I.M. Pei. Afterwards, we walked through Pingjiang Street, the most famous canal street in Suzhou’s old city and a major tourist attraction. During our stroll through this street, we saw a diverse program of commercial activities that  directly faced the canal. We then visited Suzhou’s Industrial Park, the new development happening to the east of the old city. The quality and quantity of housing and social infrastructure that the industrial park currently offers helped us understand the rapid decay of the old city. The contrast reminded us the importance of preserving the historic district while respectfully maintaining the local culture.

Changshu, the second city we studied, is a 1.5-hour drive north of Suzhou. The site sits around Qin Lake, and the group was able to stop at various swaths of land along the water to get a better sense of the enormous project site. We then went on a tour of the historic center of Changshu, structured along canals like Suzhou’s urban fabric.

The class met with officials from the Suzhou Planning and Design Research Institute to hear more about its efforts in preserving the old city and maintaining balance between tourism demand and local culture. Students presented different proposals for new development in various sites around the old city of Suzhou. Planning officials appreciated our efforts and emphasis on preserving the local lifestyle while providing opportunities to reconnect with the canals. Later that day, we met with a branch of the Jiangsu Institute of Urban Planning and Design in Changshu where we heard about their efforts in redeveloping the area near Qin Lake. A team of students presented their preliminary masterplan for the lake that included water remediation efforts as well as a significant increase of canals among other features. Officials were very responsive to the proposed improvements to the green space and water quality.

At the suggestion of local planning officials, we also visited the water village Tongli. This village had many similarities to Suzhou and Changshu, as canals were still part of the urban fabric and tourism was the main revenue source. Yet Tongli had successfully embraced its waterways through tactful design of the public space. It was a valuable point of reference to the Changshu canals we had seen, but more so to Suzhou, where we will be designing new ways to reconnect to the canals. In Tongli, we were able to use Professor Al’s drone, which was not only fun to watch but gave us incredible aerial footage to better understand and analyze the canal city’s form.  

Back in Shanghai, we met with people from Boston-based planning and urban design firm Sasaki. They presented recent projects that introduced us to the current urban design trends for China and other Asian countries. We then explored the new commercial redevelopment Xintiandi, a model for adaptive reuse in China. In the afternoon we attended a lecture by a Suzhou expert and architecture professor at Tongji University. All of the PennDesign students then led a design charrette with Tongji University students from all over the world, using Suzhou and Changshu as sites for new development. The interaction with the students was very fruitful and many new ideas came out of the workshop. We had small group presentations and received useful feedback from professors at Tongji University.  

On the last day, the group gathered one last time for dinner and discussed the many valuable lessons learned from this trip. We are thankful to the planning commissions in Suzhou and Changshu for hosting us and providing valuable information to continue working on our projects, as well as all of those who made this studio possible at PennDesign.

For more photos of Professor Al's travel studio, visit Penn's Flickr gallery.