First Stop Goes to China, Part 1: Context is (almost) Everything

Submitted by: Sarah Iannarone
Assistant Director, First Stop Portland

Last week, I traveled to Siping City in the Jilin Province of Northern China at the invitation of Mayor Shi Guoxiang, who toured Portland with First Stop in the summer of 2011. Mayor Shi was convening a panel of global experts, and I was there to share insights from Portland as they related to the redevelopment planning of Siping’s urban transportation networks. I was honored to be invited yet slightly intimidated by the task. I study Portland for a living and comment on the strengths and weaknesses of its policies and practices weekly to visitors from around the world. However, commenting on another city’s plans for the future without understanding its history or current context felt daunting.

At first glance, the clover-shaped ring road plan as proposed by Siping’s leaders seemed outdated by American standards, a throwback to the Robert Moses era of urban transportation planning: visionary, undertaken on a grand scale, and covering wide swaths of the urban landscape with asphalt. It’s certainly not how we do transportation planning in Portland today, where we have policies to insure access in our urban core for transit, bicycles, and pedestrians. Despite its shortcomings, Siping’s plan smacked of what I call Portland’s aspirational approach: we don’t just try to accommodate future growth; rather, we try  to build the city of our dreams--sometimes more successfully than others. Siping’s dreams for its future were evident in its new transportation plan, however different they might be from Portland’s.

The interior of Northern China is growing rapidly and Siping is an important regional transportation hub. Although still primarily agricultural (corn and livestock, mostly) Jilin Province, where Siping is located, is rapidly industrializing, its population rapidly urbanizing, and its urban areas rapidly developing. It even boasts a booming automotive industry. It’s no wonder, then, that many of the values expressed in the Siping plan were related to promoting economic growth while making room for more people and their new automobiles in Siping’s urban spaces.

 What a challenge, then, for a relatively affluent Westerner like myself, who has conscientiously spent the last few years downwardly mobilizing (from auto to bike, from single-family home to co-housing) to comment on Siping’s industrial-age visions of condominiums with modern appliances and a car for every family.

Fortunately, addressing the same questions we continually come up against here at First Stop Portland came in handy while in China. Which ideas translate well from place to place? Are there universally applicable ideas and others which are purely contextual? How do we share stories about what works well for us without seeming pedantic and how do we learn from others by listening to their stories? These were the questions that informed my approach while in Siping and here’s what I ultimately shared from Portland with them:

  • Intentionally build the city you want to live in. In Portland, we’ve collectively determined, as reflected in the recently released Portland Plan, that we value a place that is healthy and accessible for all of our citizens. This is evident in the investments in transit, recycling and waste reduction, green building, sustainable food systems and civic engagement we’ve made the last few decades. In addition, Portland’s Climate Action Plan is our road map for lessening our city’s carbon footprint and we’re consciously choosing, through policy and action, to de-prioritize the automobile in urban space. We hear repeatedly from local experts that investments work when they result in a place where people want to live.
  • Integrate transportation and land use planning. This is something First Stop makes sure its visitors hear time and again during their visits. At the regional scale, centers of employment can be connected with transit; in neighborhoods, housing patterns can encourage walking and biking. 

  • Think in systems. Building on the previous point, thinking about the relationships between 20 minute neighborhoods and regional economic development, between good neighborhood schools and public health, between housing and transportation are all part of Portland’s goals. While we’ve still got a long way to go in realizing them, understanding these relationships and working to optimize them is essential.  
  • It’s all about the relationships. Connecting people to place and to each other in place is a key to Portland’s livability. From block parties and farmer’s markets in neighborhoods to the complex public-private partnerships that result in Portland’s largest ventures, reliable, place-based relationships underscore many of Portland’s successes.  

Rapid development in China is a given; whether the country will transition to a greener way of growing remains to be seen. Many aspects of the Siping plan hint at a more sustainable future, like reducing the number of automobile lanes on their arterials to make room for separate bike and pedestrian thoroughfares as well as an emphasis on improving public transit, including a bike-sharing program. More troubling is Siping's means of assessing transportation demand: forecast population growth and add a car for every adult and a downtown parking space for every car.

Development in Siping's West End

Special thanks to Dick Feeney, Andy Cotugno, Peter Koonce, Richard Brandman, and Todd Borkowitz for sharing their transportation planning insights prior to my trip.

A slideshow of my favorite images of the ways people move themselves about Siping City.

Coming in Part 2: Lessons for Portland from Siping

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