Hutong, Beijing's living icon

Updated 2017-11-23 16:31:12 Xinhua

In early winter in China's capital, you can still catch neighbors chatting to each other in their Beijing dialect along the city's hutong, or traditional alleys.

This is a scene unchanged for centuries, but the topic of conversation now is often 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 left this place.

In recent years, the hutong have suffered substantially as low-end shops and restaurants moved in, making them chaotic and hazardous.

Jin and his neighbors are concerned. They want a clean, quiet neighborhood.

Deciding Call

In 2015, Dongsi sub-district, along with planning and other local government agencies, began to invite 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 implemented 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 shape of the hutong."

However, transforming public spaces like hutong inevitably raises frictions. "In order to restore the hutong, we had to remove all unauthorized constructions. That 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 covers more than 30 hutong. In 2004, its 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 patterns, through a vast range of public participation.

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

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

Original Style

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

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

Dongsi sub-district has more than 20 hutong of various sizes. "The renovated hutong have the same appearance as they did in the Yuan Dynasty, and they basically retain the same length, width and architectural style," says sub-district committee secretary Xun Lianzhong.

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