Restoring Beijing’s ancient hutong means the new must go

Source:Xinhua Published: 2017/11/27 18:38:39

Capital’s urban planners, local residents design restoration plan

Construction workers restore the Fangjia Hutong in Dongcheng district on October 5 to recreate its original appearance. Previously, the ancient residential alley was filled with bars, coffee houses and small hotels. Photo: IC

 In early winter in China's capital, you can still catch neighbors chatting to each other in their Beijing dialect along the city's hutongs, or traditional alleys that are lined with what used to be charming courtyard residences built during dynastic times.

This is a scene unchanged for centuries, but the topic of conversation these days is often about how to make their communities better places to live.

Jin Dajun, 70, has lived in Dongsi Sitiao Hutong in the downtown Dongcheng District since he was a child. He has never lived anywhere else.

In recent years, his hutong has gone downhill after low-end shops and restaurants moved in, making the alley unruly and even hazardous.

Jin and his neighbors are concerned. They want a return of their once clean, quiet neighborhood.

Calling the specialists

In 2015, the Dongsi sub-district, along with planning and other local government agencies, invited architects to design blueprints for the recovery of the old city, guided by experts at Tsinghua University's School of Architecture.

Jiang Zhaoshun, deputy director of the sub-district office, says they have come up with seven plans to restore and protect hutong and ancient buildings. "Resident representatives participated in making every plan," says Jiang.

"They have the deepest attachment to the areas where they've lived for decades. And it is they who can describe the original condition of their hutong."

However, transforming public spaces inevitably raises frictions. "In order to restore the hutong, we had to remove all unauthorized structures, which triggered some resistance," says Jin.

Local government agencies and design companies had to consult the residents door-to-door and persuade them the environment would improve. "Some of the plans were discussed 30 times before they were nailed down," says Jin.

Two kilometers to the south, Chaoyangmen sub-district includes more than 30 hutong. In 2004, its local office began to work with Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design and Beijing University of Technology.

They founded and developed Shijia Hutong Style Conservation Association to create a construction and governance model that combines top-down and bottom-up consultations, through a range of public participation.

Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design planner Zhao Xing says the conservation and restoration of historic districts directly involved the residents, who had to be motivated to become partners and participants.

The association has so far completed plans to transform the interior public spaces of seven courtyards. Residents have discussed and approved every stage of the plan.

Low-end businesses removed

Since April, Dongsi sub-district has restored 74 gateways and refurbished 12,000 square meters of walls along the street, restoring exterior facades to their original gray.

Dongsi Sitiao Hutong has seen the removal of 54 low-end businesses.

Dongsi sub-district has more than 20 hutong of various lengths. "The renovated hutong have the same appearance as they did during the Yuan Dynasty, and they basically retain the same length, width and architectural style," says sub-district committee secretary Xun Lianzhong. After renovations were complete, the hutong again became the center of community life and the fly-ridden restaurants have been removed along with their hustle and mess.

To the east of Dongsi, Xinzhong Street in Dongzhimen sub-district has 1,400 buildings awaiting demolition.

Encroachment by illegal buildings into the alleyways made living conditions poor and unsafe, says Xu Weiben, an official with the Dongzhimen sub-district.

"Had there been a fire, the fire trucks would have been unable to enter some narrow alleys," Xu says.

Last year, Dongzhimen sub-district began removing 259 illegal buildings covering 7,000 square meters and shutting unlicensed businesses.

These steps unblocked fire exits and reduced risks. The hutong is decorated with flowers and has community squares. "Now it's much nicer to walk in the alley," says resident Yang Zhiguo.

In September, Beijing unveiled a city plan covering 2016 to 2035, underlining the strengthening of historic and cultural building conservation. It calls for future development to capture the capital city's style and ancient flair within a modern city landscaping.

Newspaper headline: Hutong, Beijing’s living icon

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