At risk of losing its heritage and character in its rapid modernisation, the 2014 Prize Laureate Suzhou embarked on a comprehensive approach to heritage perservation that also emphasised intangible qualities. The Pingjiang Historic District is an exemplar of the city’s efforts.
Map showing location of Pingjiang Historic District © Suzhou
- Suzhou emphasises the preservation of its ancient city while modernising through new townships in its urban development.
- The 116.5ha Pingjiang Historic District is one of the city’s preserved areas, and features a chessboard pattern formed by intertwined water and road networks, including 13 ancient bridges over a 3.5km river.
- The ‘Couple’s Retreat Garden’ is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2000 along with 4 other classical gardens also located within the district.
- Initiated in 2002, the ‘Feature Protection and Environment Restoration Project’ aims to protect the city’s historical relics and improve the quality of life for its residents, including improving infrastructure and walkability, and limiting new industrial and commercial zones to outside of the historic core.
- The district exemplifies preserved traditional Chinese architecture and living customs in Suzhou. It is also one of the most representative historic and cultural cities in China.
Key issues faced before the implementation of the project
Pingjiang Historic District before the transformation © Suzhou
- Urgent need for urban (re)development due to rapid economic and demographic growth, which in turn resulted in demolition or irreparable damage to historic streets.
- The city was at risk of losing its character, architectural heritage and environment due to its rapid expansion.
Leadership and governance
Governance structure of Pingjiang Historic District © Suzhou
- To minimise the destruction to the city’s character and heritage due to modernisation, the city adopted a comprehensive approach to preservation rather than an ad hoc manner.
- The project is implemented on a government-led, market-operated approach: funded through bank loan and initiation capital from the government, a company ‘Pingjiang Historic District Company’ was established in 2002 as the main body overseeing the project.
- The company focuses on repair and operation of historic houses, construction of key projects, management of roads and environment, development of tourism projects, publicity and branding, and hospitality.
Creativity and innovation
Utilities pipes installation in Pingjiang Historic District © Suzhou
- Under a guiding principle of ‘repair the old, retain the old’, traditional architecture, ancient bridges and other intangible heritage are protected and restored.
- The following strategies are adopted for classification of projects:
- Careful and thorough preservation of buildings and bridges with high historic value and in good conditions
- Complete preservation of exterior and main structures, and reconfiguration of representative residence interiors
- Demolition of buildings incompatible with the overall style of the district
- Existing social networks are maintained during the project, and residents continue to live and work within the district, preserving the traditional culture and customs.
- The district is transformed into a platform that celebrates Suzhou’s traditions, such as Pingjiang Sun-dry Book Festival and Lantern Festival, allows future growth and promotes tourism, which in turn creates jobs and income for the residents.
Impacts of the project
>30,000m2 traditional architecture restored
70 roads and alleyways repaired
Water quality improved
>2 million tourists each year
Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com
- More than 30,000m2 traditional architecture, such as Shou’an Bridge, Shengli Bridge, Tongli Bridge and more than 600m of piers and embankment restored.
- More than 16km of roads and alleyways repaired, with underground parking spaces for schools and commercial streets constructed within the district.
- Public utilities such as sewage, rainwater discharge, electricity, water supply, gas, and telecommunications, and public amenities such as public toilets and substations installed within the district.
- Living conditions and water quality within the district improved, with more than 1ha of Pingjiang River and waterways cleaned up and trees and green spaces added along riverbanks to provide more public spaces.
- Cultural tourism increased with more than 2 million tourists visited the district each year, leading to increase in local employment and income levels.
Pingjiang Historic District today © Suzhou
- Cities should recognise the importance of cultural conservation at city-wide level, even as the drive for modernisation gains momentum.
- It is important for cities to plan for and invest in their future. By committing to infrastructure investment, cities can achieve the twin goals of facilitating economic growth and improving quality of life.
- Heritage preservation is not just about physical restoration but also intangible aspects, such as festivals, living conditions for existing residents, and local businesses. O