First Stop goes to China, Part 2: Lessons for Portland from China

Submitted by Sarah Iannarone
Assistant Director, First Stop Portland

First Stop Portland is an interesting beast. Launched in 2009 to take the burden off local agencies and firms who were being inundated by requests for tours of Portland,  it's since morphed into a comprehensive, international urban knowledge exchange program. Leaders from around the globe are visiting Portland not only learn firsthand what to do (and what not to do), but also to share their most valuable lessons from back home with Portland's brain trust.

Recently, our standard protocol went in reverse, when I was invited to by Mayor Shi Guoxing to share First Stop's version of Portland's sustainability story in Siping City, China. I wrote previously about what I shared while there. This week, I'm sharing observations and lessons from my brief visit to Siping that might be of use here in Portland.

Siping feels similar to Portland in a lot of ways. It's a mid-sized city situated near the edge of the country along a major transportation corridor. Our urban and regional populations are relatively similar. Siping is growing rapidly, albeit somewhat in the shadow of its larger and more economically thriving neighbor to two hours drive north, Changchun.

The decades-old design of  Siping's urban neighborhoods reflects many of the values Portland espouses in its current planning: density, walkability, transportation options, access to affordable local food, parks and active spaces. Even the "reduce-reuse-recycle" ethic is ubiquitous.

An average Siping housing complex connected to adjacent streets by courtyards and pathways.
Windows open for ventilation and people grow food in every inch of available land.

I observed examples of "Nature in the City" throughout Siping.
This pathway was adjacent to a major arterial road near the city center.

Public Art at Heroes Memorial Park in Siping.
Much of the park was in active use throughout the day.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle...
But Portland has density and urban parks and wildlife in the city and pedicabs and buses and recycling. So what can Portland learn from Siping?  Here's what I saw working well for the city while I was there.

1. Think about public health when you think about public space. One of my favorite activities while in Siping was sneaking away in the early morning hours to the park across from my hotel to join the locals for their morning exercises. I observed several hundred people in dozens of group activities--dancing, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, aerobics, stretching, badminton, even card playing and bird watching. At 5:30 am. In addition, public health nurses were stationed at the edges of parks where people gathered to offer blood pressure screenings and informational packets about health and wellness. After working out, I noticed many people from the parks walking to nearby markets for their groceries. These morning activities brought people together in healthy ways, socially and personally.

A form of Qi Gong involving fans and bean bag-like mitts.
One of the ladies loaned me her props and I worked up a sweat in no time.

A public health nurse administers blood pressure screenings near a park's edge in the early morning hours.

2. Design for inter-generational interaction. Closely aligned with the prior observation, we know that interaction between people of different age groups is an important feature of healthy places. In America, we've observed the declining cohesion in the social fabric as our society has "advanced" the last 100 years and some research indicates that a similar trend could be possible in China. In Siping, I saw several examples of design effectively bringing  people of different ages together.

A piazza where elderly people gathered for afternoon dances and card games located near the pond where children like to fish for goldfish with tiny poles and buckets stored on site.

 A game that looked similar to croquet seemed popular with Siping's elderly folks.
Their field was situated adjacent to the childrens' play area.

3. Don't forget about the block scale in our sustainability policy. 
In Portland, there's a lot of talk about sustainable activities at the household, neighborhood, eco-district, and municipal scales. But beyond the parties during which neighbors take to their streets every summer, there isn't much talk about blocks. In Siping, I observed a lot of activity taking place at the block level. There were many blocks with uniquely decorated entryways, many appeared to have places for community announcements and even mail delivery. In some blocks, there were community composting bins and garbage bins at the ends of blocks.

The woman with the green bin is taking out her composting to the bin at the end of the block. (It seemed everyone on the block opened their doors for fresh air for an hour or so in the morning,)
It did not appear that Siping has household garbage collection. I saw people putting their trash in small bins near the ends of their blocks. A man with the yellow cart would pick it up and roll it to these neighborhood collection stations. Not sure how frequently this occurred, but I never saw trash piling up.

4. Leave room for informality. No one can argue that Portlanders don't value their neighborhood farmers markets and libraries, their community centers and parks. Portlanders work hard to keep their city livable. But sometimes, less is more. In Siping, I observed many informal activites that seemed to function quite smoothly with very little "official" intervention (and hence very little capital investment). Similar to the varied physical activities I observed  throughout Siping's parks, there were many informal markets and gathering spaces where people congregated, recreated and exchanged ideas and goods on a daily basis. Likewise, I saw a variety of people and activities occurring in the same spaces at different times over the course of several days.
Afternoon motorbike repairman sets up shop after the produce vendors from the morning "market" close up.
An example of a sidewalk vendor from the "morning market" near my hotel in Siping.
Men play cards at the end of the sidewalk near the edge of a housing development.

5. Seek outside advice. It's said that in Portland, we have meetings about meeting. We talk amongst ourselves about planning and politics and governance and community engagement. I found it admirable that Mayor Shi invited many outsiders to comment on his city's plans for the future. I hope Portland will continue to engage in a healthy, actively dialogue about its vision as a city. I also hope that Portland will stay receptive to feedback and critiques from outsiders about what we could be doing differently or better. Perhaps that's where First Stop Portland comes in, facilitating an inter-urban dialogue about sustainability and livability between Portland's best and brightest and the rest of the world...

Planning meeting in Siping as Portland's streetcar runs through PSU campus in the background.

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