May 26, 2023
BEIJING – Beautification work in Beijing brings wide range of improvements
The first thing that Wang Caili does immediately after she gets out of bed in the morning is to check the fish tank in the courtyard of her home.
“I recently installed the tank, which houses various kinds of goldfish,” said Wang, who has lived in Dongzhong hutong, or alleyway, in Beijing’s Xicheng district for more than three decades.
She also grows several plants in the small open space, including orchids and Monstera deliciosa, also known as the Swiss cheese plant, which adds to the courtyard’s beauty. “It is nice to wake up and see a small, delicate garden on your doorstep,” Wang said.
Her family shares the courtyard in a classic hutong property with three other households, who have praised Wang’s efforts to make the place more attractive.
Sitting in the courtyard, sipping tea and swapping stories about daily life have become an enjoyable routine for Wang’s family and their neighbors.
“I feel that in this way we have grown closer to one another,” said Wang, who owes her new relaxed lifestyle to significant changes that have taken place in the hutong neighborhood, especially in recent years.
In the past, residents in the area faced a rising number of illegal constructions and related clutter that reduced their living space.
“In some places, two people were unable to pass at the same time, and it was difficult to move past bicycles in the courtyard,” Wang said.
In addition to overcrowding, residents faced many other problems. The ground became bumpy and particularly precarious for the elderly, while the drainage system was old and often became clogged, producing an unpleasant odor in summer.
“The communal toilets also left a lot to be desired, as they were slippery and hard to access, making them difficult to use for people with special needs,” Wang said.
However, life changed for the better at the start of last year, when the authorities in Xicheng launched a neighborhood development program.
Tan Daoliang, an official with the Xijiaominxiang community, which stretches for more than 6 kilometers and claims to be the longest hutong in the Chinese capital, said the program was aimed at solving difficulties in urban management. It was also designed to establish model neighborhoods to drive overall improvements in hutong throughout the district.
“In recent years, the general environment of our backstreets and alleys has greatly improved, and we need to do the same for local courtyards,” Tan said, adding that the goal is to further refine and enhance alleys and backstreets in the district.
Local residents discussed related problems and decided on the renovation plan for public spaces in the courtyards, thus enhancing their participation, Tan added.
Urban planning experts and authorities at community and street level went door to door to seek public opinions before jointly coming up with the renovation plan.
In Wang’s courtyard, makeshift coal sheds, kitchens and pigeon cages were removed after a series of consultations with all those involved.
“We once cleared away so much clutter one day, that it needed to be transported by 60 sanitation trucks,” Tan said.
Ground and wall repairs, waterproofing work, and a lighting system upgrade were then carried out.
“We also tackled issues such as protecting old trees in the courtyards, rearranging electrical wiring, and revamping leaky roofs,” Tan said.
The district authorities aimed to use the courtyard beautification program to address hutong residents’ urgent problems.
Wang said she appreciated the effective communication with the renovation team each day.
“They put in anti-slip floor tiles and temperature control facilities, and replaced the water and ventilation systems in our courtyard, just as we suggested,” she said.
Wang is just one of numerous residents to benefit from the facelift. About 5 kilometers north of Xijiaominxiang, Sun Jiuqiang is now enjoying the best of traditional and modern lifestyles at his courtyard in Yindingqiao hutong.
Sun’s home is less than 100 meters from the city’s landmark Yinding Bridge. Although the courtyard is tucked away in the depths of a quiet hutong, it is within walking distance of a number of renowned tourist destinations in the downtown area.
These include Yandai Xiejie, a famed cultural street for antiques, paintings and stationery in the late 19th century, and which is still frequented for its gastronomic delights, along with antiques, books, paintings and ancient buildings.
The courtyard at Sun’s home covers 300 square meters and is shared by three households.
Sun said an illegal extension to a bar business from the neighboring Houhai area was removed in 2018. Peace and quiet returned to the area, but only for a brief period, before the courtyard residents decided to occupy public space for cooking and to store their goods.
“Conditions in the neighborhood started to change after work began on the courtyard beautification program,” Sun said.
A plan was developed based on the courtyard layout and the preferences of the residents, who were provided with kitchen and bathroom facilities, Sun said.
The authorities also helped repair the exteriors of properties and leveled the ground.
“The courtyard is now much more spacious and better organized following the demolition of illegal buildings. We put a considerable amount of thought into arranging our surroundings in an appropriate way,” Sun said.
The residents put up a table tennis table in the courtyard to improve their fitness levels.
Sun now sometimes finds it hard to believe that such a dramatic transformation has taken place in the area.
“Communication and interaction among neighbors have increased, and everyone has been willing to manage the courtyard,” he said.
“Our neighbors took the initiative to maintain sanitation in the courtyard by organizing regular cleanups and collectively managing the public facilities, while we often come up with ideas for improvements,” he added.
As a building designer, Sun was given the chance to use his expertise to improve the neighborhood.
“To make our living space more aesthetically pleasing, I explored new ways to blend traditional and modern elements of Beijing’s courtyard houses,” he said.
Sun added skylights to sloping roofs to increase natural lighting, and a sunroom equipped with a tempered glass roof was fenced off to create a terrace.
“In our spare time, we go up to the roof to watch the sunset over the hills,” he said.
Neighbors, inspired by Sun’s initiative, carried out similar improvements to their properties.
Moreover, Sun’s hobby of growing crops such as scallions, cilantro, small chili peppers and mint in pots under his window has been encouraged by community workers.
Residents turfed a corner in the southeast of the courtyard to grow crab apples and roses, adding a touch of greenery to the area.
“Everyone is getting out more to enjoy spending time in this public space,” Sun said.
Changes have also been made to many other courtyards in Beijing’s hutong areas as part of continuous efforts made by the city authorities in recent years to improve such environments.
In 2017, the Beijing Urban Master Plan (2016-2035) was approved. The plan states that the old city should no longer be demolished, and that restoration and reconstruction should be carried out to preserve as much of it as possible.
By the end of 2019, comprehensive improvements had been made to more than 3,000 back alleys and streets.
In 2020, the city launched a new action plan to renovate small alleys and streets, and by the end of last year, more than 3,200 of them had been given facelifts and upgraded public facilities.
Wu Chen, chief architect at the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, said that over the years, the preservation and enhancement of the city’s historical blocks have retained the layout and appearance of hutong and courtyards, the historical context of the ancient capital, neighborhood bonds, and the way of life of old-generation Beijingers.
The courtyard has been a traditional part of local architecture throughout Beijing’s history, and an important part of traditional blocks in the city, added Wu, who has led a team involved in protecting and restoring such blocks for nearly two decades.
Wu said renovations are now aimed at bringing modern life to old hutong.
“In planning and design, it is important to strengthen protection of the authenticity and integrity of heritage, and highlight the rich values and connotations of the hutong,” Wu said.
Efforts have been made to preserve the original features of courtyards and hutong based on the study of maps from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and to maintain their original scale, Wu added.
His team has also made a point of displaying old objects found during the renovation work.
During courtyard beautification work in Dongzhong hutong, Wu and his team explored solutions with local communities, paying special attention to the problems they raised.
Speaking about future renovation, Wu believes this work will feature progressive upgrading on a small scale and that a fresh method will be needed to use newly released courtyard space and deal with intricate hutong conditions.
He added that more efforts should be made to improve the quality of small and micro spaces, and that each case should be treated on its merits.
Tan, from the Xijiaominxiang community, said he was impressed by the positive feedback received from residents after the renovation work. They proposed growing more plants in courtyards, installing foot mats in front of toilets, and introducing storage cabinets.
This feedback helped the construction team leave “no stone unturned” in the renovation process, Tan added.
“As the courtyard environment is improved and beautified, residents’ enthusiasm for such work clearly increases,” he said.
In Tan’s street, residents take turns to maintain toilet hygiene, manage public facilities in the courtyard, and encourage good behavior.
All residents are asked to provide ideas and suggestions for their shared courtyard.
“We will also host courtyard storytelling events, invite the elderly to talk about the history and architectural features of the courtyards, and pass on the culture of the hutong,” Tan said.