Hutongs and Smart Cities: paradigmatic shifts in the way of life


beijing-2Water, the indispensable element for human existence, has been and continues to be the organizing principle of human living arrangements. Communities evolved around the source of the water. Water wells naturally drew people around them. These wells compelled communities to negotiate among themselves how they would live harmoniously and how they would responsibly consume this indispensable resource – water. Hydraulic despotism (Karl Wittfogel) is very much part of the human experience, then when societies were evolving along the rivers and now when the “powers to be” build water dams.
Regarding water resources, which are subject to the vagaries of nature, people deal with all the evolving dynamics of human living in a community. In our 2017 Winter Session visit to China the graduate students of the International Communication program visited the city of Beijing, which is a good example of the evolution of an ancient city into an old city, then into a modern city, and subsequently into a hyper-modern city. Our visit to the Beijing Hutongs was eloquently fascinating. We attempted to understand the place of hutongs in the Beijing “polis,” then and now, and its role in shaping communities and the living arrangements in general.

Our conversations with the current residents in these hutongs indicate that the consumption of water factor led either for community members to live amicably or engage in interminable internecine low-level warfare. Water wells call everyone to order. Historically, life flourished in these hutongs, which created private spaces in the residential quarters and public space in the narrow network of alleys. The narrow alleys fostered familiarity, camaraderie and a sense of community (the transforming power of space).

Currently, most of these hutongs are becoming casualties of modernization. Modernization has re-shaped people’s understanding of what is the Aristotelian “good life” and how to live and experience the “good life.”   The present degradation of hutongs in Beijing is intentional as they have been designated as “slums.” Nonetheless, there are faint efforts to revitalize and re-brand these historical hutongs, especially by those who begin to develop an awareness of sustainability of the product of modernization. The “smart cities” are the new dream and epicenter of the modernized communities.

Every technological development has reorganized human communities, including the hutongs (technology of water harnessing). To a large extent humans have adapted to technology and what it has to offer to people. Smart cities are first and foremost hubs of economic productivity and secondarily places for living, where a sense of community may be absent. While the designed spaces in hutong called for a sense of community, the designed spaces of mart cities invite individualism where external agents organize special events for the residents to congregate and have a “good time.” Hutongs hinge around water, the smart cities hinge on electricity, ICT, engineering innovations, where the notion of interdependence has morphed into self-sufficiency.

Smart cities are turbo-engines of modern economies and of extravagant consumption. Do they foster a sense of community? Are smart cities sustainable? In hutongs the courtyard houses brought the family together, and the network of the narrow alleyways brought the community together to live life outside, where unplanned self-generated amusement erupted in its glory. The smart cities, the engines of economic wealth and yardsticks of nations’ prosperity, with vertical living arrangements, connected but isolated, where self-sufficient individuals amuse themselves to death (Postman); they mill around in a soulless architectural environment in anonymity with the assistance of digital technology.

Indeed, as the medieval saying goes, divina natura dedit agros, ars humana aedificavit urbes. (God made country, and the handiwork of human beings made the town).

Get more insights into our graduate students’ explorations of China during their study visit on their blog.  

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