COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Placemaking Takes Root in China

Katherine Peinhardt
Jan 2, 2019
Jan 3, 2019
Photo Credit: TJ Maguire

Last month’s Wuhan Placemaking Week marked the beginning of the Chinese Placemaking Network, the latest to join the ranks of fast-growing placemaking groups in Europe, Latin America, and New Zealand. The conference gathered local students, practitioners, and expert speakers from all over the world to talk about the future of Chinese cities, from waterfronts and historical streets, to communities and public health. Below are key takeaways from each of the four sections, as well as the full Wuhan Declaration, a commitment to creating public spaces with and for the communities that use them.

The event was made possible by partners at UN-Habitat, ISOCARP, and Project for Public Spaces, and was able foster deep-dive conversations around local challenges thanks to partners at Wuhan Land Use and Spatial Planning (WLSP) and Wuhan Planning and Design Institute (WPDI). This event builds on seven years of collaboration with UN-Habitat, advancing public spaces and placemaking globally through events like Future of Places, Habitat III, and various Placemaking Week convenings. The next step is for the newly formed Chinese Placemaking Network to apply these conversations at the community level—charting a new path for China’s urban future.

A bustling night market in Wuhan. Photo credit: Katherine Peinhardt

Historical Streets

Wuhan is a city with many historic districts, renowned for bustling bulk markets and traditional housing. But new uses have begun to displace residents, leaving many wondering if preservation of what is historically authentic to a neighborhood might be at odds with the needs of a growing number of residents. During a site visit to Tan Hualin, one of Wuhan’s best-known historic neighborhoods, this tension became even more apparent. A declining economy, paired with an aging population and building stock are among the greatest threats to the area—likely as a result of rapid development over the last 40 years. Participants and speakers alike agreed on a few key approaches to mindful preservation of neighborhoods like Tan Hualin: protective redevelopment of streets and alleys; a focus on the integrity of living and gathering spaces; and the importance of experimentation through small-scale pilot projects.

Walkways on Wuhan's scenic East Lake. Photo credit: Katherine Peinhardt


As urban populations across China grow, waterfronts become an ever more crucial intersection between the city and the environment. In Wuhan, a city historically divided into three districts by the confluence of the Han and Yangtze Rivers, the water has been integrated into the city’s wider plans by necessity. Waterfront Session speakers highlighted the need for nature-based solutions that both improve safety and environmental quality without sacrificing social function.

Wuhan has begun to address these aims by making its riverfront parks, like Hankou Jiangtan Park, both flood-ready and highly social. Wuhan’s Garden Expo Park also serves a dual purpose, demonstrating progress on both stormwater management and high-quality public spaces. In Garden Expo Park, ecologically focused programs like rainwater harvesting and recycling were paired with ongoing public participation in park planning, which led to the inclusion of 4000+ engraved poems around the park, all authored by locals. Global public space goals outlined in the New Urban Agenda mention waterfronts specifically (see Article 37), so when cities like Wuhan adopt tactics that are human-scaled and build with water in mind, it marks significant progress towards global goals for sustainable cities.

Group exercise in Hankou Jiangtan Park. Photo credit: Ethan Kent

Healthy Communities

It is a well-known fact that cities can create enabling environments for healthier lifestyles. In the Healthy Communities Session, experts discussed the importance of public spaces in making room for healthy behaviors, like traditional markets and biking and walking infrastructure. The theme of aging in cities was also featured in many discussions, with speakers emphasizing the importance of green, socially active outdoor spaces in improving quality of life for the elderly in China. In Chinese cities, where privatization of public space is on the rise, it is more important than ever to maintain a public realm that provides space for the spontaneity and informal uses that make cities healthy, lovable places to live.

A market street in Wuhan. Photo credit: Katherine Peinhardt

Community Placemaking

Growing cities around the world face many shared challenges, from sprawl to public space access—but one thing they all have in common is that they are best addressed with the input of the community. Experts at the Community Placemaking session argued that many of these issues are best addressed through community-led experiments and pilot projects, drawing on local know-how to find targeted solutions. The key for community-led cities will be to make room for lighter, quicker, cheaper interventions, while building up capacity for local place governance. Groups like the newly formed Chinese Placemaking Network can help this process along, reinvigorating the relationship between the government and communities to create a spirit of partnership and creative collaboration around public space.

Officials prepare to launch the Chinese Placemaking Network. Photo credit: Katherine Peinhardt

The Wuhan Declaration

During the conference, Project for Public Spaces, UN-Habitat, ISOCARP, Wuhan Land Use and Spatial Planning (WLSP), and Wuhan Planning and Design Institute (WPDI) adopted the Wuhan Declaration, which outlined seven commitments to better public spaces:

  1. Create connected and accessible spaces that support mobility, social cohesion, and interaction between different neighborhoods.
  2. Create healthy places that encourage social support and interaction, play, active recreation, green and natural environments that support human use, healthy food, walking and biking.
  3. Promote streets as places that support active transportation, as well as social and economic activity.
  4. Support a community-based visioning process for public spaces, which builds capacity for communities to drive the improvement, management, and maintenance of their public spaces.
  5. Support innovative statutory planning and budgeting policies, which encourage community-lead public space improvement.
  6. Promote the development of place governance and place management for ongoing maintenance and ownership of public space.
  7. Enhance equity in access to safe public spaces for women, youth, the elderly, low-income people, and those with limited mobility.

What comes next is for the placemaking movement to grow—in China, and in new networks all over the world—as they apply the values laid out in the Wuhan Declaration to their waterfronts, historic streets, and neighborhoods.

Katherine Peinhardt
Katherine Peinhardt
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