Some Suggestions for Improving the Quality of Urban Space in Harbin

by Dieter Hassenpflug (Germany)
Image, tourism, centrality, sustainable development, best practice, local identity, renaturalization,
disabled friendly, public space
In this article my suggestions for the spatial improvement of Harbin city are based on best
practice examples from China and neighbouring countries. These examples are:
· the “Golden Corridor” of Shenyang as an example for a linear centre in Harbin called “Crescent Moon Corridor” in order to improve spatial form and organization of the entire city
· the Lilong housing estates of Shanghai as examples for dealing with ingyu-Blocks in Dao Wai District, Harbin
· the renaturalization of Cheonggyechon creek in Seoul, South Korea as an example for the urban use of Ma Jia Gou River which is crossing the entire southern city of Harbin
· the Songhua Jiang promenades of Jilin city as a best practice example for the improvement of southern river bank of Songhua Jiang
Questioning the urban form
Being a visiting scholar and doctoral advisor at the department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) and being invited several times by Harbin Urban Planning Bureau as a foreign academic expert I got chances to visit this city every year since 2002. So I have been able to observe the changes during the past seven years, and I have to say that the city has improved significantly. Not only new administrative and commercial buildings have been added, and new development areas with numerous new housing estates arose, but also new urban public spaces and new parks have been designed and built. Most significantly, many historical buildings have been preserved, bearing witness to the awareness about the cultural heritage of Harbin by the city government.
I am in favour of the main planning strategies of Harbin Urban Planning Bureau, aiming at shifting towards a sustainable path of development and at improving the image of the city in order to boost the tourism industry. I agree with the main  trategies for the image improvement of the city such as promotion of
· the built heritage,
· ice and snow events,
· city of music and theatre,
· city of fashion
· city of entrepreneurial spirit.
The more I consent to most of the 20 key projects elaborated by Harbin Urban Planning Bureau which are reflecting these main targets. So far so good.
It is agreed by all experts who participated in the International Seminar on “Impression – Harbin Planning” that strategic urban development needs a holistic and omprehensive approach. In2 other words this means that a city should not only be regarded as a kind of container which could be filled up by numerous single projects, but also as an entity, i.e. as a complex social and cultural organism which indicates its inner condition by its form or its urban body in the whole. In order to pick up main  trategic goals of sustainable growth and good city image we should give our attention to the idea of “sustainable urban form”. Sustainable urban form means according to Stephen Wheeler in detail (Wheeler 2004):
· compact city - compact or high density growth in order to reduce consumption of arable land. In China at present urban growth takes away about 1.5% of arable land every year which is threatening the agricultural base of highly populated China.
· centred city. According to a definition of the Chicago School of Sociology the city centre is the space of highest symbolic meaning, the place of best accessibility, the scarcest space and thus usually the most expensive space.
· nature integrated city. While respecting its nature and landscape resources, each city should try to make best use of them by making the nature capital and its features a part of its image and its civic space.
· diverse city. The notion of “diverse city” refers to a functionally highly integrated, multi functional urban space, especially a functionally diverse city centre. The more it refers to an ethnically and culturally diverse urban space.
· connected city. Big cities, i.e. cities with more than one million inhabitants need a diverse mobility system and infrastructure. The private car can be only one mobility option. More important for the mobility performance of big cities is the quality, accessibility and speed of public transport systems such as bus, tram, city train and underground railway.
The reports given by the representatives from Harbin Urban Planning Bureau show a strong awareness of most of these sustainable development features. For the purpose of improving the public transport capacity an underground railway has been built up. The functional, cultural and ethnical diversity has been integrated into  trategies of image improvement. Many leisure and public space projects such as Sun
Island and Songhua Jiang northern river bank have made use of the natural environment of Harbin.
As to my experience the weakest points are the features of “compact growth” and of “centrality”, which incidentally are closely interrelated to each other.
“Crescent Moon Corridor”
At first glance Harbin appears to its visitors as a polycentric urban fabric. Centres seem to exist in every city district such as Central Avenue (Zhong Yang Da Jie) and Sophia Cathedral (Suo Fei Ya Jiao Tang) in Dao Li District, Square of Red Exertion (Hong Bo Guang Chang) in Nan Gang District, Red Flag Aveue (Hong Qi Da Jie) in Xiang Fang District and the south-western 3 parts of Dao Wai District. New centres are emerging in the development zones north of Songhua Jiang.
However, an outstanding super-centre as well as a clear hierarchy of centres are missing. This lack of centrality structure is not only weakening the urban form of Harbin or affecting its compactness but also influencing the decision making on the location of prominent public and cultural buildings. Important buildings that host top political, cultural, educational, commercial and recreational functions require the most important spaces such as urban super-centres. Centrality attracts such buildings and these buildings on the other hand also support centrality. In Germany we call this ensemble of prominent architectures that form the city (super) centre the “City Crown”. In Harbin a distinctive, readable and exclusive city crown is missing. This situation causes a problem for the spatial image of the capital of Heilongjiang Province.
Centrality is related and affected by culture. Each culture has its own idea about centrality. In Europe for example you cannot find a true Central Business District (CBD). All efforts to develop such CBD‘s have been more or less failures, most prominently La Defence in Paris. Those few skyscrapers in the inner city of  rankfurt/Main in Germany or in the eastern parts of London in United Kingdom provide quite weak images of centrality. CBD is first of all a feature of North American urbanism. This kind of centre is produced by liberal market activities: Important
entrepreneurs or companies of financial, production and retail businesses prefer to locate their headquarters in urban (super) centres so as to make use of the image capital of centrality for branding or corporate image construction. In addition they tend to take advantage of the accessibility, the informational density and functional diversity of downtown. As space is rare and price of land is high, they carry out their spatial needs in vertical buildings (skyscrapers). That‘s why CBD‘s are mostly  dentified by a collection of high rise buildings and a vertical shape  embedded in a strong grid structure that has to be regarded as a typical North-American spatial layout.
In contrast the European idea of centrality is quite different: European urban centres are socio-cultural centres located in the midpoint of a radial-concentric structure. In medieval times the centre of the European city has been marked by a dualism of sacred space represented by the cathedral and profane space represented by the town hall. Both, cathedral and town hall have been integrated by a central or main market place (piazza, plaza, square etc.). This ensemble has been expanded in the period of fast urbanization in Europe during the 19th century by adding theatre and concert buildings, public libraries and universities, train stations and central bus and trap stations and etc. That‘s why we call the 19th century the golden time of European urban centrality.
Both types, the North-American and the European centres or super-centres are unctual or nodal, located in the middle of a radial-concentric (Europe) or orthogonal (North-America) spatial structure. What about the Chinese idea of centrality?
At present China seems to be on the point of reinventing its cities and their basic urban layout in general. China is going in search of its future city image. Thus the ideas about urban 4 centrality are not very precise. Under these circumstances it is necessary to trace to the ideas and practices of urban centrality during the emperors time. Here we find Chinese urban centre that exposes the notion of “linear centrality”, i.e. a hierarchical organized spatial sequence of meaningful buildings and functions. Until today the capital city of China, Beijing, gives us a clear idea of this kind of linear centrality by exposing the north-south “Dragon Axis” and the east-west “Golden Axis” of Chang‘an Road. It is not by chance that the government decided to locate the new facilities of Olympic games on the Dragon Axis and the new “CBD” with CCTV tower on and close to Chang‘an Road. These new developments respect the old Chinese urban feature of linear centrality, and they contribute to their reactivation.
It‘s not long ago when the city of Shenyang decided to enhance the urban form of the capital city of Liaoning Province by developing a so called “Golden Corridor” based on a suggestion made by planners from Tongji-University Shanghai. The Golden Corridor provides a strong incentive to locate all buildings of high cultural, political, social, economic and civic meaning in its area.
I think this idea should be reconsidered regarding the situation in Harbin that is characterized by a missing super-centre, a weak hierarchy of centres and the absence of any linear centre. This absence reflects the specific foundation and evolution circumstances of Harbin. On the other hand, in times of reinvention of the Chinese city and of putting more emphasis on reasonable urban form it would make sense to take into consideration a figure of centrality that match to Harbin, and that could be able to reorganize its functions in an efficient way. In order to link the sub-centres mentioned above I would recommend a linear centre that I call “Crescent
Moon Corridor” extending over the city in south-north direction forming a slight curve like the crescent of a sickle. Harbin “Crescent Moon Corridor” will be the space of highest symbolic meaning that collects and organizes all buildings of high cultural, political, commercial and social meaning, including existing and future flagships. The city of Harbin needs such kind of backbone to support its image in order to make the city jump higher in the local, national and international media thus making it more visible for people inside and outside China.
Built Heritage
The preservation of extraordinary built cultural heritages of Harbin has been an important and intensively discussed topic of the international seminar. Good to know that the city of Harbin started to mine this cultural capital for touristic purposes and, of
course, for improving its Image as a Chinese city with a strong Russian background that provides the most important ingredient for a strong image: distinctiveness and uniqueness.
While exploring the built heritage of old times I strongly recommend not only to look at exceptional buildings such as cathedrals, churches, public service facilities, schools,department stores and buildings with outstanding architectural styles and features but also to some everyday life ensembles such as the so called Jingyu-Blocks in Dao Wai District. Comparable to the well known Lilong settlements of 19th and beginning of 20th century at Shanghai the Jingyu-Blocks are also Hybrids of western and eastern spatial concepts and styles. The combination of western extroversion, represented by strongly decorated facades framing public streets (“Chinese Baroque”), and eastern introversion, represented by courtyards is exceptional and really deserves to be preserved.
“Ma Jia Gou”
It has been mentioned frequently that the south river bank of Songhua Jiang has not yet been developed according to its natural resources. Stalin Park and the existing promenades and alleys are not reflecting the spatial opportunities adequately. The use of the Sonhua river bank in Jilin city gives a remarkable example of best use of this kind of site. My suggestion is to follow this example and to built a public promenade along the south river bank of Songhua Jiang which meets the needs of the local population and national and international tourists as well.
In times of huge pressure of development and tremendous economical opportunities quantity dominates quality. But times are changing rapidly. While pushing ahead industrialization China is already on the threshold of the post-industrial society, when people are not only asking “what do I want?” but also “what pleases me?” When societies get richer and the standard of living climbs in general, people of the new middle class are searching for more comfort and quality of life. Thus Harbin too has to take up the challenge of a growing demand for high spatial quality.
As of a result of the process of urban growth and densification the spatial situation of Harbin is as follows: Urban space is heavily built up and open green spaces and corridors are still rare and mostly not available in the city. This is proved by a glance at the map of Harbin showing only a few of green spots in the inner city of the southern part. The urban fabric is not spatially balanced according to the quantities of sealed and non-sealed land.
Because of the disadvantages in return on investment there is no strong private interest in construction and maintenance of open green areas like parks, biotopes, fresh air zones and corridors etc. The private green areas to be found in the city are mostly hotel gardens, greens of compounds such as neighbourhood courtyards and facilities for sports and recreational or cultural activities like theme parks, golf resorts, zoos, botanical gardens etc. These spaces are exclusive to those who can and who are ready to pay. Other green areas belong to public or private organizations such as
schools, universities, official buildings etc. and are either closed to the public or exclusive to those who are able and ready to pay. There are public recreational spaces existing like already mentioned Stalin-Park or the recreational area across the river called “Sun Island”. Located at the edge or the north of the city these areas are mostly far away from it’s core and not easy to reach for most of the inhabitants of Harbin. Open and real public green space in the neighbourhood, in the nearby, just around the corner where people are living and working is still severely missing.
Open green space accessible for everybody without paying, space which is built and operated by public authorities, is very important for many good reasons. These reasons are of social, ecological and even economical provenience:
·Open green space is pure public space like urban places, sidewalks etc. and represent as such the “open city”. Open public space symbolises advanced modern civil society.
·Public green space invites people to walk, to hike, to jog, to meet in abundance, to
communicate, to relax in the summer sun and so on. It gives children, youngsters and
6 elderly people save place for playing, chatting and feeling convenient. Thus open green space is very good for health, for enjoying life and for the quality of social life as
·In times of heavy pollution deriving from the emissions of rapidly increasing traffic and industry open green spaces in considerable scale give “lungs” to the city and serve for fresh air. The more they let rain water seep into the soil which is important for the ground water regime in general.
·A good amount of open green spaces contributes to the spatial quality, to its atmosphere and meaning. Thus it raises the image of a city considerably. Being assessed as strong “soft” site factors open green spaces serve for creating first class sites which contribute strongly to the success of private enterprise.
· When analysing the locations of remained green spaces in Harbin you can find many of them close to a river - or better: a former waste water canal partly still in use - called Ma Jia Gou. This clustering of the few existing green areas near the “river” gives rise to the idea to make it a kind of backbone for a new open green zone serving for all features mentioned above: walking, relaxing, meeting, playing, recovering, breathing, image and ground water regime improvement etc. The course of the “river” seems to be ideal for this purpose. It crosses the city from one edge in the south to the other in the north and runs just through the middle of town cutting the southern city into two parts of similar extension.Because of this exceptional course the “river” could provide a short-way access to a majority of the inhabitants of Harbin.
·The task: Conversion of the Ma Jia Gou river site on the territory of the city of Harbin in whole length and at a maximum width of about 300 metres into a public multiple use open green space including the renaturalization of the creek.Referring to the vernacular name of a lovely flowering plant growing all along the edge of the canal I would like to give the Project the operative name “Harbin Eight Leaves Flower Project”.
The project aims at creating a green corridor serving for improvement of social, economical, hygienic and ecological quality of the urban fabric of the City of Harbin. The Cheonggyechon in Seoul, Korea, which has been covered by a broad freeway built in the sixties and reopened in 2005 could be regarded as a best practice example. A multiple leisure infrastructure for cycling, skating, hiking, gym etc. combined with park areas in English, French, Chinese style and a variety of individual modern styles could attract a huge amount of people from all age groups to enjoy, relax and communicate. Sealing of soil should be avoided as much as possible. The park-character should be given priority over place-character.
In this area several places combined with flowerbeds are already existing. Because of their positive impact on the urban micro climate forest plantation areas should be created in suitable areas. The riverbed should be cleaned and reshaped for carrying clean water and a water flora not only for giving a pleasant view but also for keeping water clean and for establishing a smoothly working micro-ecosystem. In winter the
dammed up sections of the river will serve for ice skating activities. For to hold the water in the artificial basins or parts of the river, a fresh water regime is needed. For this regime an artificial lake on the upper course of the river could be crucial. In addition constructive precautions should be taken so that the river can expel temporal overloads of rain water.
Existing uses like new residential and commercial areas, theme parks, designed public recreational spaces, children playgrounds, sports facilities, school campuses etc. will be respected and fully integrated into the shape of the new urban space. Removal of slums, informal settlements and undefined unhygienic sites has priority. Discharging of litter, garbage, waste water or sewage has to be stopped by taking suitable measures. Saving of free public and private space in combination with a stop of private investment should be given priority.
While discussing about the city image, we should not forget to talk about “identity”. “Image” refers to the media, to outside, to the connotations of foreigners and strangers. In contrast “Identity” refers to the sense of belonging, i.e. to the emotional ties that connect the dwellers of Harbin with their city. In order to strengthen this sense of belonging of the local people all measures that are able to improve the quality of urban space, i.e. enhance the use value of its places and buildings are crucial. According to my suggestions for strengthening local identity Harbin needs
· better access to green space on the neighbourhood, community and district level
· more attractive public or civic places for abundant meeting like piazzas, pedestrian streets, promenades etc.
· “access for all” (title of Schindler Award), i.e. disabled friendly functional and civic public spaces such as ubiquitous sidewalk lines for blind people, acoustic signals at pedestrian crossings, and etc.
· an architectural culture of respect for local colours, scales, rhythms (context sensitive construction)
· strengthening the local memory by preserving and respecting the built heritage
· a significant multi-functional and vibrant super-centre and a readable hierarchy of centres
· not only quantitative but also qualitative growth. As a rule the construction of today should be the built heritage of tomorrow. High quality, energy saving construction is a precondition for sustainable urban growth.
I have been seven times in Harbin since 2002. In Harbin I became friends with many excellent scholars and professionals. I express my thanks to Harbin Urban Planning Bureau for inviting me to the International Seminar on ,Impression - Harbin Planning‘ thus giving me a chance to learn more about the urban development of Harbin, to contribute some of my ideas and to meet some old friends.
Dieter Hassenpflug
Weimar, 22 June, 2008
Wheeler, Stephen, Planning for Sustainability: Toward Liveable, Equitable, and Ecological Communities. London and New York 2004, Routledge
Data source:哈尔滨市城乡规划局 2009.07.07