China is experiencing major urban expansion and urban planners should shoulder greater responsiblity in development. However, urban planners in China have little freedom or final say on projects, as the government and the developers are the main decision makers.
Since 2011, urban planners have found a new way to make their voices heard: they use Weibo (China's twitter) to communicate their work to the public and to criticize improper planning strategies forced upon them by the government. They are essentially attempting to transfer Chinese urban planning from a closed government establishment into an open public participation platform.
Frustrations of Urban Planners:
According to Southern Weekly [zh], there are around 16,000 registered urban planners in China, theoretically responsible for everything from the layout of the city to the planning of a small road. However, according to a recent interview in Southern Weekly, most city planners admit that their work in China is often compromised. One urban planner stated:
Government leaders usually have a strong opinion about the projects, although sometimes their ideas are not scientific. For example, leaders like wide roads and large squares.
Huang Hu, a urban planner with 8-year work experience complained to Southern Weekly:
We sometimes have to go through 20 assessment meetings for one project, the meetings will never end until the developer and the government say yes. Since the planning concerns the interests of many parties, we often have to go to a lot of meetings during the daytime, and work on our draft at night. As a result, there's not enough time to focus on real work. Compared with western city planners, we only use 1/3 or less of the time to finish the project. Real research is also a luxury.
Another problem is the lack of public participation. Although public participation mechanism was introduced to China by the end of last century, it still remains just on paper instead of in practice. Urban planner Mao Mingrui also told the Southern Weekly:
There's no technical tools to evaluate public opinions, and it's very hard for city planners to make their voices heard through drawings
Wang Peng from Planning and Design Institute of Tsinghua University added:
“The leaders have the final say, there's no opportunities for ordinary citizens to voice their opinions.”
Building change through Chinese social media
Since 2011, more and more city planners have found a new platform to communicate with the public by using Weibo, which helped urban planning become more transparent and involving.
According to Southern Weekly, 80 percent of city planners use Weibo. They are the most critical group towards urban planning in China. For Ma Xiangming, chief engineer of Urban and Rural Planning Institute in Guangdong Province, his tweet changed the fate of the old buildings in Guangdong. In 2011, Ma tweeted about the demolition of old buildings on a street in Guangdong. Little did he realize that his post was soon retweeted thousands of times before it elevated into a public debate. Media[zh] also reported on it. Within 7 days, the city planning bureau decided to keep the old building due to pressure from the public.
This might be the first time a planner has realized the power of public opinion. Yin Zhi, Dean of Urban Planning and Design Research Institute from Tsinghua University, told the journalist: “A good urban planning is the joined effort by government, planners and the public.”
City Planner Wang Peng wrote on his Weibo calling for more public participation:
It's more effective to use social media to hear all citizens’ voices to ensure their right to protect the city they live.