In Beijing Old City, An Alternative Revitalisation Strategy Conserves Vernacular Heritage Yet Invites Gentrification
Since the 2010s, a new mode of urban renewal has been gradually changing the built environment and social character of the traditional ‘hutong’ neighbourhoods in Beijing. Unlike the previous wholesale redevelopment often involving complete spatial restructuring and massive displacements, this new trend of revitalisation is being undertaken on the basis of individual courtyards with micro urban interventions, and it largely preserves the urban fabric of the historic quarters.
The Dashilar Project (“大栅栏更新计划”) is one of the pioneers. Launched in 2011 within the scope of Beijing Design Week and endorsed by Xicheng District, the project aims to find an alternative approach to organically integrate new development into the traditional way of life. Although this new practice is still a top-down design initiative lacking active participation from local community, it nevertheless requires more negotiation and collaboration among multiple stakeholders. The residents are gradually relocated to affordable housing with compensation; residents who wish to stay are encouraged to participate in the renovation process. To ensure the quality and originality of the revitalisation, a rigorous selection process is adopted for assembling suitable and worthy businesses – creative industries are strongly preferred. A few pilot examples were showcased during Beijing Design Week, such as, the “Micro Yuan’er” designed by Zhang Ke, and the “Courtyard House Plugin” designed by PAO.
However, the project still faces a range of challenges. Like any other dilapidated hutong neighbourhood, many of the traditional courtyards in this Dashilar area have become mixed compounds shared by multiple households, full of self-built physical structures, with mixed ownership and tenure status. The most difficult task for the planners and architects seems to be not so much improving the physical structure, but tackling the problem of ill-defined ownership, overcoming the prevailing antagonism towards the planning authority, and building a sense of community between residents and newcomers.
Similar projects can also be found in other government-designated historic areas, e.g. ‘Baitasi Remade’ (“白塔寺再生计划”), ‘Encountering Shichahai’ (“遇见什刹海”), etc. Such practices are no doubt meaningful efforts to explore new ways of revitalising the old city centre. However, questions remain, particularly, whether such regeneration contributes to the gentrification of these historic quarters? The planners’ implicit stance to re-make these neighbourhoods into new creative hubs aggregates newcomers like design ateliers, fashion boutiques, independent cafes, organic restaurants, etc., which indeed bring new business opportunities and new energy to the atmosphere of the old streets. However, these trendy shops seem to be out of tune with the local way of life; it can lead to overcrowding with an influx of tourists and gradually squeeze small local businesses out. How to reconcile the needs of conservation and the demands for development, and restrain commercial gentrification, remain key obstacles in Beijing’s new approach towards a sustainable urban renewal.