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The Protection and Upgrading of the Ancient City of Suzhou
Urban and Regional Planning:
- cultural heritage conservation
-localizing Agenda 21
- ecological sustainability
- access to housing finance
-homelessness Level of Activity: Metropolitan Continental
Summary Suzhou is one of China's most famous ancient cities. It is a city steeped in history with a rich ancient culture and is famous for its scenic spots, water canals, and its traditional Chinese rock and water gardens. With 35 km of waterways and rivers criss-crossing the city, it is often referred to as the "Venice of the East". Bordering Shanghai on the east, Wuxi City on the west, Zhejiang Province to the south and the Yangtze River to the north, Suzhou covers 1,730 square kilometers, with the inner city covering 14.2 square kilometers and a metropolitan area of 102 square kilometers with an inner city population of 1.11 million. In the year 2000, the city's GDP reached RMB 145.1 billion (US$17.6 billion) or just over RMB 26,400 (US$3200) per capita.
Suzhou has witnessed the vicissitudes of more than 2500 years since its establishment in 514 B.C. By the early 1980s, however, the ancient city was in urgent need of extension and upgrading owing to rapid economic and demographic growth. But it is not easy to upgrade an ancient city. How to combine the modernization of a city with the protection of its ancient architectural and cultural heritage is both a matter of local and international concern. Fully aware of these difficulties, Suzhou Municipal Government initiated a project geared towards the prudent yet rapid expansion and modernization of the city.
Lessons learned from other cities, such as Beijing where modernization has destroyed much of the city's character and architectural heritage, led the Municipal Government to adopt an approach based on preserving the ancient city's style and features in a comprehensive rather than piece-by-piece manner. The Municipal Government worked out a detailed program for the rehabilitation of 54 neighborhoods in the inner city. A planning and consultant commission was set up with the assistance of domestic and foreign experts to help design the projects. A phased approach was adopted through the implementation of pilot projects in order to gain the necessary expertise and experience and to fine-tune the overall upgrading strategy. This led to the establishment of guidelines, which included the objectives of: improving the overall living conditions of the city; protecting key architectural elements; preserving, restoring and reconstruction where necessary. The policy of operating the entire project based on economic and financial sustainability was also adopted, leading to a combined approach of commercial viability and the use of targeted subsidies.
Years of painstaking efforts have resulted in the equitable resettlement of a substantial portion of the city's population, the betterment of living conditions and improvements to the overall environment. The city has witnessed impressive improvements in terms of urban green space; water quality; road networks and mobility; and basic infrastructure and services. At the same time, major efforts and investments have been undertaken to protect and preserve the city's architectural features and cultural heritage in order to pass on to future generations an important legacy of Chinese culture and history. This comprehensive approach to preserving the cultural environment has placed Suzhou in a leadership role in terms of culturally sensitive and sustainable urban development.
Narrative Situation Before the Initiative Began The old neighborhoods of Suzhou have been suffering from poor infrastructure and services, congested living conditions and poor environmental quality for a long time. Nearly 50 percent of the state-run and publicly owned housing stock was in serious disrepair with more than 60,000 households having to resort to the use of bucket latrines, communal baths, and coal-burning stoves for cooking and heating. Congestion and traffic jams were an everyday occurrence owing to a poor road network. Power supply was erratic and insufficient to meet demand, as were water supply, sewage and gas. An attempt to install a gas network in 1984 failed miserably with constant breakdowns and complaints of inadequate supply.
Families resorted to burning coal and thus exacerbating air pollution. Green space was practically inexistent and what did exist was left wanting in terms of maintenance. Many old historic sites cultural relics had been damaged through neglect, disrepair and pollution.
Establishment of Priorities
The municipal government established priorities in 1986 further to a series of consultations with experts, citizens, developers and district governments concerned. These priorities were formulated in the form of an Urban Development Plan subsequently approved by the State Council. The highlights of the plan included the special characteristics and historic value of the cityscape and of selected buildings. The plan involved the upgrading of the inner city including the renovation of historic buildings. This required that the residents move out of the buildings with some opting for alternative housing within the framework of a re-housing policy and others opting to move back again after the completion of the works.
It was clear from the start that the comprehensive conservation of Suzhou's architectural heritage and cultural environment would have to benefit first and foremost the people living in the old neighborhoods where much of the historical legacy was to be found. Owing to very congested living conditions, inadequate road access and many buildings beyond repair, it was necessary to provide alternative housing for 60,000 households, half of which moved to new houses while the other half benefited from upgrading of existing housing stock and neighborhood infrastructure. At the same time, improvements to living conditions in terms of infrastructure and basic services had to benefit other residents of the city as well in order to
secure their support and ownership of the project. This resulted in the establishment of the following priorities:
(a) Living conditions: improvements to the city's overall infrastructure and services including roads; the broadening of streets to ease congestion, improved water supply, sewage disposal, power supply, telecommunications and cable TV, street lights and gas;
(b) Improvement of water quality including the dredging of old waterways, sewage collection and treatment plants and the removal and relocation of pollution-producing factories;
(c) Improvements to and increase of urban green space.
Formulation of Objectives and Strategies
The master plan was submitted to the State Council for approval. The Council, in its reply, suggested that that the style and features of the ancient city of Suzhou must be kept intact in the upgrading and that new development be started to the east and west sides bordering the inner city, thus creating "an ancient city with two modern wings". It also suggested that pilot projects be implemented first so as to gain and build upon experience in a gradual and phased approach to rehabilitating the ancient city.
Mobilization of Resources A special planning commission and an advisory committee were established including such celebrated architects and planners as I.M. Pei, Wu Liangyong, Zhou Ganchi and others from both home and abroad. It was agreed that the whole initiative was to be implemented on the principle of commercial and economic viability, with the careful use of targeted subsidies and fiscal incentives so as to ensure its long-term sustainability.
Funds came from: the Municipal Government; private institutions and individuals; bank loans and foreign direct investment. Profits were realized through the allocation of real estate development rights, providing a cross-subsidy for subsequent phases of the initiative.
Households that opted for new housing benefited from a one-time grant of free housing equivalent to 3m2 per person, a 14% discount on the price of housing, as well as preferential treatment in terms of choice of housing in accordance with their specific needs such as proximity to the workplace. Households remaining within the old neighborhoods benefited from subsidies for the repair of housing aimed at improving the livability, infrastructure and services. Special attention was paid to the needs of the elderly, of mothers with young children and other disadvantaged groups, including daycare centers, health centers, the location of kindergartens and primary schools as well as other recreational and sports facilities.
A total of 54 neighborhoods within the inner city core of 14.2 square kilometers were earmarked for intervention. In accordance with phased approach, a pilot project was initiated in the late 1980s involving No. 50 Shizijie Street with an area of 931.23 square meters involving 85 people in 17 households. The objective was to create a new settlement out of an old residential neighborhood. The rehabilitation effort involved the restoration of houses by preserving their external appearance, improving their interior living functions and improving local infrastructure. In early 1990s, a larger-scale reconstruction project at Shiquanjie went into operation with the traditional pattern of "building houses along the rivers and making the roads and the rivers parallel". This project covered an area of 25,000 square meters and involved 2880 people and 720 households. Next came the reconstruction project at Tongfangxiang designed to renew a whole area with surface of 27,800 square meters involving 1811 people and 665 households. The area was transformed into a unique residential district complete with infrastructure facilities and modern conveniences while the traditional pattern of "small paths opening-up on enchanting vistas" and the traditional architectural features of "elegant pink walls and black-tile roofs" were kept.
The comprehensive approach to conserving the cultural environment necessitated nonetheless the restoration of certain historic buildings and cultural monuments. This involved the restoration and maintenance of Song Dynasty (960-1279), Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasty (1616-1911) buildings of cultural value situated in the neighborhoods, making these communities more attractive and lively. Some more recent historically valued buildings, relics and timehonored trees were also restored and protected in order to maintain the overall cultural environment of the ancient city.
In order for the rehabilitation effort to benefit a maximum of citizens, parallel projects were implemented to improve infrastructure and service facilities throughout the city. A road network was established involving the broadening of ten streets. Major improvements were also made to the city's water supply and sewage network, power supply, telecommunications, cable TV, streetlights and gas supply. The readjustment of land-use also provided allocations for community facilities such as schools, kindergartens, office space and recreational centers for the aged. Parking lots, green spaces, parks and gardens and green belts were created to ease congestion, improve the urban environment, and improve access and mobility.
A unique feature of Suzhou is the fact that it is criss-crossed by a waterway system including 35 km of rivers within the city center. Efforts in preserving the architectural heritage of the city only make sense if they were integrated with the riparian heritage of the city. A comprehensive approach was adopted by connecting the waterways and rivers and in improving water quality. More than140 polluting factories were closed down, retro-fitted or relocated outside the city center and the city's sewage treatment capacity increased from 42,500 tons in 1994 to 197,500 tons a day, to reach 377,500 tons by the end of 2002. Green space, including public parks and gardens, walkways and residential green space was increased from 4.66 square kilometers in 1990 to 26.4 square kilometers in 2001, bringing the per capita green space to
5.47 square meters. A green belt around the city was developed through the ecological re-mediation of low-lying land.
Original walkways and trees were preserved and all new housing estates were encouraged to develop residential gardens and ponds in line with the city's tradition.
After ten years of hard work, some welcome results have been achieved in Suzhou's upgrading. The inner city's population has decreased from 350,000 to 290,000, relieving the pressure and congestion in old neighborhoods. More than 30,000 households have been resettled in ten years in new housing estates. This resulted in a per capita increase in floor space from
16.5 m2 to 22.4 m2. Housing estates, replete with modern infrastructure and services, account today for 79 percent of the housing stock, up from 40 percent in the late 1970s. The city's sewage treatment rate increased from 12.9% to 80.7%, and gas connectivity from 52.3% to 98.5%. Considerable improvements were realized in terms of air quality. Particulate matter was reduced from 0.307 mg/m3 in 1991 to 0.095 mg/m3 in 2001 and the content of SO2 and CO2 from 0.069 mg/m3 and