UPD students assess sustainability of Xishan Island villages

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Year Three students from the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University made a fieldtrip to villages on Xishan Island, located in the middle of Tai Lake, under the supervision of Dr Sheng Zhong and Hong Ni, a PhD student and Teaching Assistant.

Information collected during the fieldtrip will benefit students in completing their Rural Planning module, helping student project groups identify key local assets as well as sustainability challenges facing the village both locally and regionally.

“We learned a lot on this fieldtrip and our investigations enabled us to collect more detailed and practical information,” said student Xiang Zhou.

Suzhou’s tremendous spatial expansion and fast socioeconomic development in the past several decades not only transformed the central city, but also rural areas in the metropolitan hinterland.

Xishan Island, the largest freshwater island in China, has undergone tremendous environmental, economic and social changes, evolving from an agricultural base with a rich historic legacy to a hot spot of recreation and tourism, particularly for residents in the lower Yangtze Delta region.

“These changes have brought both opportunities and challenges to the sustainability of several villages on the Island,” explained Dr Sheng Zhong, lecturer in the Department of Urban Planning and Design at XJTLU.

“China’s metropolitan development in the past has privileged urban over rural areas and the resulting urban-rural disparity has placed rural communities at the center of scholastic enquiry and policy interventions,” she said.

The 38 students and two faculty members were welcomed by local leaders and villagers. Mr Qi, the Shigong Village Party Secretary, gave XJTLU visitors an introduction to local development policies and practices and answered students’ questions on rural economic development, social service provision, land use change, environmental protection, public finance, and community governance.

Students and faculty members then conducted fieldwork in Nanwan Village, which is overseen by the government of Shigong Village and has a population of about 200 people. Based on research plans developed prior to the fieldtrip, eight project groups carried out their site investigations on various dimensions of local sustainability.

“We learned a lot of information that cannot be available in books,” said student Shengxi Xin. “For instance, the real feelings of local residents on tourism development. This forces us to rethink what we envisage for the place, asking ourselves if we really understand what people need.”

In addition to observing the features of the rural natural and built environment, students talked to local villagers about their livelihood, community needs, and future visions. Students and faculty members also visited Mingyuewan Village, a national historic village and a key tourists’ attraction in the area.

“In the conversations with local villagers, we learnt people’s real thoughts instead of guessing their thoughts in the classroom,” said Xiang Zhou. “In addition, site investigations let us realise the importance of group work and helped enhance our collaborative spirit.”

Built on the understanding and analysis of the villages, students will formulate development strategies and community participation proposals to achieve long-term sustainability.

“The Department of Urban Planning and Design at XJTLU has always put a high premium on building a nexus between research and teaching,” said Dr Sheng Zhong, “and we focus on incorporating theoretical knowledge with practical knowledge.”

At the end of the semester, selected student work will be translated into Chinese and provided to local communities so that knowledge gained from the research and learning process will generate real social impacts.

The Department of Urban Planning and Design offers a BA in Urban Planning and Design, as well as full- and part-time masters options, and PhD supervision by researchers with a broad range of interests.

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