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Research in China: The Unexpected and the Unbelievable August 3, 2010

Posted by Andrew Broderick in China, Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Master's.
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I have several reflections about my research on urban innovation strategies in East Asian Megacities. As expected, while conducting my research, a few things surprised me and a few things limited me. However, more than a few things amazed me, and I am learning more about East Asian cities than I ever expected. This trip is an experience of a lifetime as I’ve broadened my horizons considerably. This trip has changed me. In this post I will discuss the unexpected and unbelievable lessons and impressions of my research.

The description of Hangzhou's urban best practice pavilion at EXPO 2010. Under the slogan "Harnessing Five Waters, Charming Hangzhou," the city touts its water elements including canals, a river (Qianting), a lake (famous West Lake), wetland swamps, and the sea (East China). The pavilion, however, isn't very educational about urban best practices to preserve such water elements.

The Unexpected
As with any adventure to a foreign place, one must expect the unexpected. In terms of my research,  I was surprised by the lack of quality information offered by the majority of Urban Best Practice Pavilions at Expo 2010 in Shanghai (see my previous post). I was a bit dismayed at the efforts many cities made to brand their image without putting much effort toward actual urban best practices. This was unfortunate as, in many cases, I didn’t have a substantial baseline of information in which to proceed with my research. However, I found just enough substance at several pavilions to complete my task. Additional constraints including a lack of access to government officials and some language barrier problems limited my ability to get in-depth information about urban innovation.

The Unbelievable: Developing New Eyes
The importance of on-the-ground field reconnaissance has proven immeasurable over the past few weeks. Academic research papers and quantitative analysis techniques can’t supplant visiting a place. Seeing and learning about new cities on the ground provide me with a new set of eyes so to speak. This new way of seeing enables me to really begin to make substantial observations about a particular place and connect that place back to the city’s pavilion at Expo 2010. I believe in getting the “thick description,” which is a term used in anthropology to describe both the behavior AND context of a particular phenomenon in order to understand it. In my research I seek the “thick description” of place by immersing myself in a location as much as possible and researching through field observation and analytical conceptualizations.

The baggage tag from my flight from Hong Kong to Taipei. The tag is split open to reveal the microchip that enables radio frequency tracking from central Hong Kong to the international airport. This little microchip makes life convenient for me and makes luggage easier to track for airport personnel.

For example, in Hong Kong, I used the city’s trademark Octopus Card to swiftly traverse the entire region via taxi, subway, light rail, sea ferry, bus, and tram (walking is free and easy too!).  I’ve also used the card as a city-wide, pre-loaded cash card purchasing everything from newspapers to Dim Sum. The card is convenient and easy to use. It makes the city a connected and fluid network of exchange.

When I left Hong Kong, I checked in for my flight at Chek Lap Kok International Airport from the Airport Express Station on Hong Kong Island, which is 30 km from the airport. Then I boarded a fast express train to the airport with my boarding pass but without my heavy luggage.  The entire system is made possible through the use of radio frequency identification technology which will track my luggage automatically from beginning to end. This experience will capture the very essence of urban innovation: enhancing people’s quality of life through the provision of efficient and effective infrastructure. Doing this will make my trip more hassle-free, and it will save time. The cost of this experience: $100 HKD (about $17 USD). This entire experience was documented in a great visual display as part of Hong Kong’s urban best practice pavilion at Expo 2010.

Water in Asia
Another unbelievable thing I encountered in my research is the intense and immediate pressure that rapid development and expansion from East Asian Megacities is placing on their environmental systems, especially on water as a resource. (Air pollution is also very critical.) In some of these cities, development expands quickly with little regard for the water system, and wastewater infrastructure is lagging behind. This is unbelievable to me not because I didn’t know it was an important issue, but because of how crucial it is to the immediate future of these cities. In terms of my research, the unexpected importance of water as a major theme of several East Asian cities’ urban innovation stands out as particularly timely and essential to their success in the future.

The Pearl River flows through central Guangzhou. This river is the central water element of a delta that connects 120 million people according to the 2010/2011 State of the World Cities report, published by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. The river is polluted and prone to flooding, yet it is the central artery for both agriculture and shipping.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom points out in his book China in the 21stCentury: What Everyone Needs to Know that water is the crucial resource management issue for the future of China. Water is, for the most part, polluted yet highly demanded. Tap water is undrinkable in most cases. Infrastructure is insufficient and sometimes ineffective at managing waste, and flooding is a constant threat on cities in China. Most of southern China is recovering from a huge flood event as I write this. Typhoon/monsoon rain events add even more strain on a delicate situation. “Hardscapes” such as asphalt, concrete, and tar roofs exacerbate the problem by increasing water run-off into canals, streams, rivers, and the sea. My prediction is that water will be the next major environmental crisis, and the conflict between urban living, agriculture/food systems, and water supply/quality will be most intense in cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taipei. Dhaka, Bangkok, and other Southeast Asian cities might be in even more trouble. It is paramount that planners be leaders by finding a solution.

As I end my research in East Asia, I am motivated to chart a career course that deals specifically with environmental resource issues as they  apply to urban environments. According to a recent forecast in a New York Times article, the world’s population will reach 7 billion people sometime in 2011, and the vast amount of growth is coming from developing nations including China. That is an alarming forecast considering the rising water challenges I witnessed and learned about firsthand in China.

The lake has been a major tourist destination since it was the centerpiece of the Southern Song Dynasty in the twelfth century. The lake is a national park, and it is a highly protected urban water feature.



1. James Holloway - August 4, 2010


Very interesting piece, thanks for sharing it with us.


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