CHEN Weizhen: "The Real and the Imagined: Socially Responsible Real Estate in China - Context, Discourse and Practice”



The Real and the Imagined Socially Responsible Real Estate in China - Context, Discourse and Practice by Prof. CHEN from STL Lab


On February 24, 2016, Professor Weizhen CHEN from the Department of Landscape Architecture of Tongji University gave a fascinating talk entitled The Real and The Imagined: Socially Responsible Real Estate in China, Context, Discourse and Practice.  First, Professor Chen provided an overview of the conceptual evolution of the idea of "socially responsible real estate" in China.  Second, she used three real estate projects as examples to demonstrate how the specificity of each study area and the objectives of key stakeholders, including government officials, developers, design teams, etc., has led to vastly different outcomes.

Professor Chen argues that China has overly focused on technological and physical solutions for urban planning challenges, and thus has overlooked the social and cultural factors that underscore thriving urban communities. For instance, instead of embracing the unique local diversity and multi-cultural history of each city, developers and local governments sometimes replicate dramatic urban landscapes from places like Shanghai, Beijing, or even London and New York. This was illustrated in the case study of Xiangshan, Nanchang where the proposal for Xintiandi—a redeveloped historical district frequented by the global elite in Shanghai—was unsuccessfully reapplied to a renewal project for an undeveloped third tier city. 

Professor Chen hypothesizes that the "new normal" represents an opportunity and turning point for China to shift to a development model that is more community focused and responsive to local socio-cultural spaces. She used the Liangzhu development in Hangzhou as an example of a viable, community focused development initiative.  Indeed, Liangzhu was described as "a livable heaven never been seen in China" by famous Chinese writer YU Qiuyu.  Residents are proud of living in Liangzhu, and many young people are attracted to the sense of community there.

The opposite is true for Suzhou Singapore Industrial Park. While it had high quality planning, the strict zoning and rigid top-down approach led to a lack of vitality in the city. The city is not pedestrian-friendly, traffic jams are common, and retail shops have been slowly disappearing.

To encourage socially and culturally aware development, we must ask the following questions:

  • How can we align the interests of local governments, developers and communities so that we have more examples like Liangzhu?
  • What are the opportunities for promoting and incentivizing all key stakeholders in development projects to take into account existing and future social and cultural factors?
  • What philosophies should inform and structure development projects?

Professor Chen’s talk provided some preliminary groundwork to explore these important questions, and some important insight into what “socially responsible real estate” might look like in theory and practice.

Speaker: CHEN Weizhen 陈蔚镇
Department of Landscape Architecture, Tongji University

Weizhen Chen is a professor of Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Architecture and Urban Planing at Tongji University.  She is qualified to advise PhD candidates at Tongji University.  Dr. Chen is on the Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development for the Ministry of Science and Technology, as well as the Committee of Experts on Green Buildings for the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. 

The Real and the Imagined: Socially Responsible Real Estate in China - Context, Discourse and Practice 

The term “socially responsible real estate” in China lacks a clear definition. Its discourse orients towards physical and technological solutions, as seen from the “socially responsible real estate enterprise index” propagated by the central government. The 2015 China socially responsible real estate index (SRR) lists the "top 100 socially responsible real estate enterprises," including corporations such as Greenland, Country Green, Vanke, China Overseas etc. However, the most well-known SRRs represents a clear mismatch with the general public’s perception of the real estate industry. The SRR index embraces comprehensively the physical and technical measurements, but is weak on the social and cultural aspects.  While the social impact of such index system becomes questionable, it remains unclear how it can guide the practice of socially responsible real estate development. The talk will review 3 real estate development cases at three different scales of development, representing three typical developmental models:

1.    Large scale: SuZhou-Singapore Industrial Park (1994~) 200 square km by Suzhou government development corporation

2.    Medium scale: Liangzhu New Village, Hangzhou (2003~) 6.7 square km by Vanke corporation

3.    Small scale: Xiangshan Nanchang downtown renewal (undergoing), 10 hectors by Greenland

By mapping the objectives of key players (governments and developers), this talk aims to identify the value orientation of socially responsible real estate development in different social, economic, and geographic contexts. The meaning of SRR should be further developed and its operationalization should be customized to fit different geographical areas, lands use, and physical historical contexts across China. Ultimately, Chen’s research argues that a community based social value (i.e. community fatality) should be centralized on the value map of the socially responsible real estate in China.

Recommended reading list:
Review on Neighborhood Space Design in the View of Public Participation (in Chinese)
Coping with Housing Segregation in Urban/Suburban Fringe Area (in Chinese)
Talk on New Urbanization Seminar (in Chinese)
Exploring the Chinese Path of New Town Development: A Review and Outlook of New Town Development in Shanghai (in Chinese)
Mode Construction of Planning and Design under the Management Mode of Modern City Residential Community (in Chinese)
Community Building of High-Rise Public Housing in Singapore (in Chinese)
A Study on Combined Function within Large-scale Residential Communities in the Chinese Suburbs (in Chinese)