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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.



Expo 2010: The Urban Best Practice Area in Review July 13, 2010

Posted by Andrew Broderick in China, Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Taiwan.
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Over 70 cities from around the world are exhibiting their “urban best practice” at Expo 2010. This area of the Expo accounts for less than one-fifth of the total area of the Expo grounds, yet I spent a day and half here exploring and researching each city’s display. The Expo did a very good job introducing a diversity of cities ranging from Zurich to Makkah (Mecca).

Expo 2010: Urban Best Practice Area

With the title "Harmonious Water, Harmonious Guangzhou," the city of 14 million people in southern China focuses its exhibit on its recent efforts to reduce water pollution in the Pearl River Delta.

What I found was a vast range of interpretations on a relatively loose theme. What “best practice” actually means varies from city to city, as the spectrum spanned from social entrepreneurship to waste management to wireless infrastructure with everything in between.

What I was looking for was innovation, cities that are blazing the trail in a new direction. We paid especially close attention to the exhibits for Chinese and Taiwanese cities that we will be traveling to during this trip (Suzhou, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taipei).

Finally, I critiqued exhibit designs based on the interdependency of style and substance. Overall I was impressed by the vast range of cities and ideas on display, and I found that there are cities in other parts of the world that U.S. cities can learn from. (San Diego was the lone representative for U.S. cities, while Canada had two – Montreal and Vancouver). There are some excellent ideas in theory and practice out there.

However, I also found that in many cases style trumped substance to the point that exhibits were going for the quick “wow” point (think flashing lights, 3-D videos, water features) or blatantly and overtly fashioning their “best practice” as nothing more than tourist marketing (“See you in Rotterdam!” or “Come to Liverpool!”).  At points I felt a bit dismayed, but I must remind myself that I am not the typical audience for an expo. As an urban planning student, I viewed all exhibits with a critical and interested eye–going beyond the average tourist. Having said that, the Urban Best Practice Area was a very positive experience, and I hope that the Expo’s efforts to educate and initiate a dialogue about the importance of urban innovation to solve complex urban problems reached the average visitor in addition to me. The following is a review of what I liked and disliked.