I stumbled on an interesting urban renewal project last week while searching for old PRC propaganda posters. I had googled Guangzhou antique shops, and was pointed to Lizhiwan Road, on the eastern edge of Liwan Park in Fangcun District. But when I got there, I found that almost all of the shops had been shuttered. Workers were using hammers and pry-bars to demolish the small brick stalls built up next to the sidewalk. Curiously, one side of the road surface had been cleanly cut away, revealing a deep concrete trench below carrying some very nasty water. At first, I assumed that this was just another sewer replacement project. But then I noticed the architectural renderings plastered to nearby fences that show the street is being turned into a canal to better attract tourists. Locals were gazing at the renderings trying to make sense of what their community will soon become.
I can't be sure, but I would suspect this road used to be a canal that was covered during some past modernization project. Or, it's possible that the trench was built as a sewer and has always been one. There is still a some untreated sewage pouring into the now open trench from the surrounding neighborhoods. That will have to be addressed, probably by capturing the waste water inlets and directing them to a new drain under the canal. That will mean the "real" river will be below, with a man-made clean river pumped above.
Restoring urban streams long hidden and neglected is a good idea, and one that has been gaining popularity as a renewal tool. One example is the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul. Restored streams do a lot to improve the quality of life in cities dramatically. They provide a corridor for walking and cycling, a gathering place for community interaction, etc. Like railroad trestle parks and bike paths, they create a new way to move through the city, stimulating new connections that can expand people's idea of community and create fresh thinking. They also provide an area where urbanites can access some nature. While they're not really natural, as a product of intense planning and construction, restored rivers do introduce elements of nature back into the city. If the project scale is large enough, it can attract wildlife such as amphibian, fish, and even bird species into the restored corridor.
In the river restoration sense, this project is a good start. It's sure to improve the popularity area as a tourist attraction, assuming it can successfully deal with the sewage problem. The scale of this project is too small to create a corridor that can improve the city as a whole. But there are some other streams around Guangzhou that I hope will receive similar treatment. One is the twisty Daohaoyonggaojia elevated road that runs north from the Jiangwan bridge. The road was built to alleviate traffic North South traffic congestion by taking advantage of an unused corridor, a large stream. It follows the twists of the stream, casting a shadow over the stream and making it a rather neglected and underutilized resource.
I'm not sure where all of the antique vendors have gone for now, but they will be back. Chinese small businessmen are nothing if not persistent and dedicated. Removing the stalls is revealing the old buildings behind and will allow the community that used to be cut off from the park to better connect to this area. According to the rendering, these stalls won't be coming back. Instead there will be an interior antique mall somewhere in the project. I'm sure some of the vendors will see that as an improvement, but I don't. Little storefronts on the street are a part of traditional Chinese urban planning. Without the established vendors on both sides of the street, the street will be less interesting, with or without canal.