Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Urban Conservation in China: Historical Development, Current Practice and Morphological Approach

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Urban Conservation in China: Historical Development, Current Practice and Morphological Approach

Article excerpt

Relatively little has been written about urban conservation in China, despite the fact that it is facing great challenges in both research and practice. It developed from a focus on individual sites and structures in the early 1920s to a concern with entire historic cities and sizeable historical areas within cities by the end of the twentieth century. A major defect, however, is that morphogenetic and analytical approaches are largely lacking. Conservation of individual buildings is poorly connected to appreciation of the wider historico-geographical environments in which those buildings are located. A morphological approach of a type developed by M. R. G. Conzen, hitherto largely limited in its application to Europe, provides a means of rectifying this defect. This approach is illustrated by an examination of a historical area in Beijing. It demonstrates the way in which an understanding of urban areas as historico-geographical entities can strengthen the theoretical basis of conservation.

Chinese cities have been undergoing major physical and socio-economic transformations since the economic reforms initiated by the central government of China in 1978. Large-scale redevelopment has generated great pressure for conservation in many old-established towns and cities (Dong, 2006, 196-97; Fan, 2004, 36; Fang, 2000, 24-30; Wu, 1999, 5). However, in contrast to the extensive documentation of urban expansion, restructuring and economic development, very limited research has been carried out on urban conservation, particularly its history, methods and theoretical basis.

In response to the destruction of historical areas in many Chinese cities and threats of further destruction, the preparation of conservation plans has become a major undertaking of city management since the mid-1980s (Wang et al. , 1999, 10). However, without a sound theoretical basis, the plan-making process has lacked firm foundations. As a consequence a great deal of inappropriate historical restoration and redevelopment has taken place. In seeking more effective strategies for urban conservation, it is important first to assess past and present research and practice and secondly to consider how methods and ideas developed elsewhere can with advantage be applied in China. This paper is a contribution to achieving these twin aims.

Urban conservation in China developed from a focus on individual sites and structures in the early 1920s to a concern with entire historic cities and sizeable areas within cities by the end of the twentieth century. However, the process of change has not been a smooth transition. It can be divided into four stages: first, from the 1920s to 1949, when preservation and conservation policies and preliminary research on historical protection emerged under a combination of Western influences and traditional Chinese cultural ideologies; secondly, from 1949 to 1982, when growing tension developed between urban conservation and socialist industrialisation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, and there was large-scale destruction of the legacy of records and relics from previous periods; thirdly, from 1982 to 1999, when concern for urban conservation underwent a revival; and, lastly, after 1999, when more comprehensive programmes of conservation were undertaken. In this paper particular attention is given to conservation planning after the early 1980s, especially methods and practices. In the light of the weaknesses that are identified, consideration is given to the application in China of the urban morphological approach to conservation developed by M. R. G. Conzen (1966; 2004; see also Whitehand and Gu, 2006; 2007).

Pre-1949 antecedents

Key features of China's cultural environment in the early twentieth century were the strong influence of traditional intellectual values, the rise of nationalism, the 'new cultural movement' (xin wenhua yundong) and conflicts between, and to some extent the reconciliation of, Western and Chinese cultures. …

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