Spotlight on China: Portland seize opportunity

Submitted by: Nancy Hales
Winter 2013

When I travel to other cities I count two things 1) building cranes and 2) bikes.  To me, building cranes mean economic activity, and bikes livability.

I know, it’s an imperfect measure.  But by this metric the bustling Chinese cities I visited recently as part of a diplomatic mission from Portland--Shanghai, Suzhou, Kunming, Chenggong, Xi’an, Changsha and Huangpu River District--are exploding with activity... and opportunity.

Street market, Shanghai

Full disclosure – I am biased.  China holds a special place in my heart.  Ten years ago, my husband proposed marriage to me in China, on the North Wall of Xi’an.  We married a year later in Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, and another kind of crane, the great blue heron, flew auspiciously over our ceremony.

This year’s visit was our first trip back to China since that time. In addition to Mayor Charlie Hales and myself, several Portlanders joined for different portions of  the trip: an ambitious contingent from our Portland-Suzhou Sister City Board of Directors (below); Lincoln HS Principal Peyton Chapman and one of her students; Charlie’s Chief of Staff Gail Shibley; NASEO Director Bill Nesmith; and company officials Raymond Chen and Rob Frederick from Thompson Vaivoda Architects (TVA).

Taicang City Port, with Portland-Suzhou Sister City group
I was struck with how profoundly different China is today. Those ubiquitous choking two-cycle engine scooters have been replaced by their electric equivalent. Downtown skylines are now crisscrossed with giant building cranes. Gone are those tiled holes in the restaurant women’s bathroom floors (um, you get the picture). At street level, the cacophony of cars, buses, scooters, and bikes feels a little less chaotic. While bikes never left the urban core, they are no longer just the “transit choice of last resort.”  Street trees line most of the main boulevards.

Streetscape in downtown

First Stop, Shanghai: We arrived late the first night and were whisked off to a dinner meeting with EB-5 investment experts, including our good friend from Portland, Jim Mei.  Dinner was graciously hosted by Ms. Linda He, Chairman of Wailian Overseas Group, the largest immigration consulting firm in China and the US. Portland.  Would Portland benefit from more EB-5 investment from China? Absolutely, affirms Peter Englander, of PDC, which has a strategy focused specifically on Chinese EB-5 investments.  Over dinner, Charlie spoke of Portland’s strengths and economic vitality, encouraging investment.  

Night sky, Shanghai
Suzhou and Tongli: The next two days in Suzhou included a mix of diplomacy, relationship-building, and site visits.  We joined our Portland-Suzhou Sister City hosts, toured the UNESCO world heritage site of Tongli, celebrated the cultural installation of Portland artist Grace Lim (below), and promoted PSU scholarships to both the Suzhou Education Bureau and the China American Chamber of Commerce. Can the Portland-Suzhou Sister City partnership, primarily focused on culture and education, expand to include economic development and trade?  Absolutely, says both current Chair Bob Fraser and future Chair Cathy Chinn, who is also the Director of ECI Group.  The 25-year sister city friendship between Portland and Suzhou is an excellent platform to springboard a trade strategy.

Portland artist Grace Lim, left, with Cathy Chinn, center, and Mr. Zhang Lu 
Kunming, and its ‘new city’ Chenggong: Portland recently received a hefty grant from the China Energy Foundation to help Kunming ‘green up’ its new city.  We met the Foundation staff and the Kunming/Chenggong leadership.  If Kunming can build sustainably, we were told, it will be the demonstration city for the entire country.  The China Energy Foundation compared Kunming to Portland – what Portland has demonstrated to cities throughout the US, Kunming could demonstrate to cities throughout China.

Rooftops of Kunming
Much is at stake.  Party Secretary Fengyue Zhou (Mr. "Joe") is leading the effort to build a more resilient, sustainable city.  Last year, he hired Calthorpe Associates to overhaul the city's master plan.  Tapping Portland’s expertise (through the Energy Foundation grant) is next. He outlined specific goals:
  • Develop a Climate Action Plan for the city, including measurements
  • Create a pedestrian and bike plan
  • Clean-up Dainchi Lake (would PSU’s Dr. Pan consider advising, he asked?)
  • Create an eco-tourism plan
  • Build one TOD development by the end of 2014
  •  Host at least one joint “marketplace” event to meet Portland firms and learn of their expertise
Chenggong presentation outlines Portland's tasks
There is both clarity and momentum here.  “We need to build this,” Mr. Zhou said, pointing to the scaled rendering of Calthorpe’s master plan.  “Do you have firms that can do this?”  Absolutely, we replied. First Stop Portland would happily introduce our green companies to Kunming. These are the same firms that built much of the internationally celebrated neighborhoods of Portland, I advised.  

Chenggong's master plan on display in city park
A side note: If my husband has a soul mate in China, it is Mr. Zhou.  Both are passionate about their cities; neither is interested in seeking higher political offices; both are committed to municipal leadership and believe strongly that cities (not national governments) are the locus for shaping a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly world. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with “Mr. Joe” and are anxious to help begin the work.

Party Secretary and Chenggong's leader Mr. Zhou (left) with Mayor Charlie Hales
Xi’an: Our short visit to Xi’an to see our friend Mr. Huo Baozhu included a tour of his bronze foundry and a chance to catch up with many of the same employees we met 10 years ago.  Mr. Huo is Portland’s benefactor as the donor of the striking Elephant sculpture in the North Park Blocks.  Even though it was nightfall when we arrived, we also squeezed in a quick detour to see the North Wall.  Dinner was smiles, toasts, and good wishes.

Bronze of Sun Wukong,  the Monkey King fairy tale (click image for story) 

Huangpu River District, Changsha: Our last two days were back in Shanghai, meeting with officials from the Huangpu River District and the city of Changsha. Our first stop was to Shanghai’s Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a 6-story building, a teaching laboratory dedicated to urban planning.  Imagine urban planning as a tourist attraction (I thought of Carl Abbott and Ethan Seltzer)!  A giant scaled model of Shanghai covered an entire floor of the building.  An employee updates it each month, adding new buildings and streetscapes by dangling from the ceiling in a trapeze.

Scaled model of Shanghai in the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall 

The Huangpu River District is redeveloping one section of its waterfront at a time. The developers, Mr. Xu Ru Qing and Mr. Yu Li envision the next section (about 1.2 M square ft.) to be a transit-friendly, sustainable development. Would a streetcar work in this part of Shanghai, they asked?  Absolutely, advised Charlie. It would spur development as much as provide connectivity.  Come to Portland, he offered, to see firsthand.

Discussing development strategies in the Huangpu River District 
The “pinch me” moment from our visit to Huangpu River District came later that evening over dinner. Our conversation steered toward the creation of a non-governmental organization (NGO) to provide education and community outreach for the district.  Really?  Using an NGO to provide the nexus between community and place?  As a former NGO executive for almost two decades, this topic spoke to my heart.  Our conversation steered towards deTocqueville: we debated the role of government; we pondered how to motivate citizens; and discussed the challenges of shared leadership in the 21st century. Toward the end of the evening, Mr. Li asked, would I consider joining the Shanghai Waterfront Sustainability NGO?  What an honor, and an extraordinary opportunity for PSU.

Presenting on Portland's regional land use plan
On our flight home, Charlie made this observation:  If the cities we visited (combined pop. 58.9M) reduced their energy consumption by just 2% it would equal more than the entire City of Portland’s energy consumption for a full year.  Talk about a game changing metric.

Portland should embrace its place in the global marketplace, not just in China, but where we already have relationships and opportunity that fit with our city’s values.  Arriving back home in Portland, I was struck with how little multi-lingual signage there is in our city.  At a minimum, we should fix this (especially since we’re hosting an international sports competition in 2016). 

Portland’s deep ties to sister city Suzhou (pop. 10M) could leverage additional trading opportunities.  Portland’s assistance to Kunming could be a catalyst for other Chinese cities.  PSU’s deep understanding in urban planning, environmental restoration, and public/private partnerships should be marketing opportunities for increasing PSU’s international student numbers.

Portland, seize the opportunity.  First Stop Portland is ready to get to work.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating trip, Nancy! Its hard to fathom a scale model of Shanghai tha is continually updated.