北京什刹海

Shichahai Lake in Beijing

by Jun 14, 2011
by 风景园林新青年 Jun 14, 2011

编者按:什刹海作为北京市重要的大型公园,是城市更新的催化剂。本文介绍了北京什刹海形成的历史,分析了不同时期什刹海功能的转变及其对北京市格局发展变化的影响,强调了其作为北京市水源地、商贸聚集地、避难场所和公园的重要性。

Large landscapes and the city: at each historic stage, Shichahai Lake has been vital to the generation and regeneration of Beijing, as water supply, commercial dock, natural refuge and public park.

Article Source: Xiaodi Zheng. Shichahai Lake in Beijing. TOPOS, VOL. 73. 2011

声明:此文章为正式授权文章,已征得作者郑晓笛同意在风景园林新青年(Youth Landscape Architecture) 上发表,严禁转载。
Notice: This article is a reprinted version with the official permission of the author Xiaodi Zheng. Do not copy without permission.

Large landscapes play an important role in cities. Beijing is one of the greatest cities in the world, and its generation and regeneration processes are closely linked to a large water body – Shichahai Lake. This lake is the biggest public landscape within the old city of Beijing, which can be accessed by local residents and visitors all year round for free. It has a water surface of 34 hectares and is surrounded by the city’s largest historic preservation area of traditional courtyard houses.

Generation

More than 700 years ago the precursor of Beijing as the capital city was envisioned by Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty in China. One of the determining reasons for its location was the existence of a large body of water, a widened part of the Gaoliang River flowing through the region. This broader part eventually formed the Shichahai Lake. In this dry region of Northern China, proximity to a source is critical for the supply of water to cities. Besides, the beauty of the open lake and wetland habitats was so appealing to the previous emperor of the Jin Dynasty that he built an imperial vacation home, Daning Palace, along its edge.

Around 1267, the chief planner Liu Bingzhong laid out the central axis of Beijing (then called Dadu) immediately to the east of Shichahai Lake. The imperial palace was built next to the Daning Palace. The large water body not only influenced the siting of the great Asian city, but also was incorporated into its center and continued to play an important role throughout the city’s formation, development and regeneration process.

After the establishment of Beijing, the most utilitarian function of Shichahai Lake was to serve as the northern terminal of the Grand Canal, which links the capital city to Hangzhou in the south, one of the most prosperous cities located in the Yangtze River Delta of China. Tons of grain and other commodities were shipped north through this 1776-kilometer long canal to serve the imperial family and the population of Beijing. Shichahai Lake had a much bigger water surface then and was a busy dock receiving all kinds of goods from all over the country. It was also a distribution and trading center.

Commercial streets and residential neighborhoods started to form around Shichahai Lake. Because of its irregular shape the urban pattern in the area presented a more organic organization compared to the rigid grid of streets elsewhere in Beijing. Aligned with the lake’s shoreline, several angled streets appeared and became crowded and popular commercial streets. The urban structure of the city was formed, or should we say “deformed”, by the landscape. Its scenic beauty was predominated by its functional role as a hub for grain and the exchange of goods, also as a local gathering place and a window to the outside world.

With a water surface of 34 hectares, Shichahai Lake is the biggest public landscape within the old city of Beijing. Access is free for residents and visitors all year round.

Over the long course of history, as China changed from the Yuan Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, and then to the Qing Dynasty, Beijing continued to be developed as the capital city. Part of the canal leading up to Shichahai Lake was enclosed within the imperial palace, which cut off the transportation of goods further north. Shichahai Lake was no longer used as a central dock and the large landscape returned to a tranquil state. Its poetic natural charm attracted distinguished relatives of the Emperor, government officials, and famous scholars to build many mansions with exquisite gardens in the neighborhood. The Last Emperor of China, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, was born in a courtyard mansion on the north bank of the lake.

The Shichahai Lake region grew into a cultural and religious focus in Beijing. Around ten temples were built in the area over the years. Poems and literature found inspiration there, praising this vast landscape: budding willows leafing out in the spring; blooming lotus diffusing its fragrance on a summer night; foliage along the lake bank turning gold; and the snow-covered lake serving as a white stage for the nearby Bell and Drum Towers. From the Yinding Bridge across the narrowest part of the lake magnificent views open up to the rolling mountains on the western border of the city. This scenery was listed as one of the top eight panoramas in Beijing. Shichahai Lake generated cultural enrichment.

Regeneration

To increase and secure water supply for the imperial palace, a portion of the river leading to Shichahai Lake was rerouted. With less water reaching the lake it started to shrink and pollution increased dramatically. In the turbulent years following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, mansions were abandoned and the Shichahai Lake degraded into a chaotic and forgotten state.

When China’s civil war ended in 1949, Shichahai Lake was mostly silted up and partly occupied by rice fields. Sanitary conditions in the region were poor and buildings were in a dilapidated condition. The new government organized forces to dredge the lake and restored several historic courtyard mansions to accommodate significant political and cultural figures, including Madame Sun Yat-sen, former Vice Chairman of China.

However, it was not until the 1980s that the need for a comprehensive development plan for the Shichahai Lake region was recognized. On the one hand, part of the lake had silted up again; infrastructure systems were mostly outdated; illegally built shacks occupied streets and residential courtyards; the neighborhood was overcrowded and living conditions were miserable. On the other hand, the preservation of historic neighborhoods and traditional courtyard buildings was being called for. Since “development” had been the main goal of the country for past decades, many of Beijing’s historic landmarks were taken down to make way for wider roads and modern buildings, including the demolition of city walls and gate towers. The old urban fabric of narrow Hutongs (small alleyways) had been destroyed in many areas of Beijing.

From top to bottom: Front Lake is designated as an “active zone” with boat docks, shops and restaurants. Back Lake serves as a tranquil leisure area for local residents. West Lake is dedicated to fishing activities and a museum.

In 1984, the Preservation and Renovation Plan for the Shichahai Lake area was drawn up by the City Planning Department at Tsinghua University Architecture School. The study area was 146 hectares, including 34 hectares of open water. After several revisions, the government approved the plan eight years later. The Shichahai Lake area was officially identified as a scenic historic, cultural and tourist area. The four major actions to be undertaken were preservation, renovation, development, and management. The masterplan called for five guiding action principles: enrichment of programs in the region based on local traditions; preservation of historic sites and the existing urban fabric; setting of practical short-term goals with a long-term vision; planning with all aspects in mind aiming for environmental, social, and economic gains; and, last but not least, striving for free and equal public access to the magnificent landscape.

Under the guidance of this plan, many small projects were realized over the following two decades. Work started with improving ecological and urban conditions around Shichahai Lake. More than 210,000 cubic meters of silt was dredged up; the lake shore was repaired and railings added; many illegally built shacks and walls were removed to make room for green spaces on about 26,500 square meters; streets around the lake were renovated and more than 10,000 trees were planted. In less than a year, significant improvements took place in the area. The central government was pleased with a more welcoming image for the city, and local residents felt encouraged to improve their environment and started to feel proud of it. Appraisals appeared in local newspapers calling for more preservation.

Compared to construction works and large urban redevelopments, landscape projects generally take less time and smaller investments. Even better, the outcome in most cases is more immediate and less controversial. This is one of the reasons why large landscape projects are often used as catalysts for regeneration efforts in cities.

New programs were added to open spaces around Shichahai Lake, including a children’s playground, fitness equipment, waterfront restaurants, and a local market. The lake itself was also given different characteristics in various portions. The linear shape is composed of three water bodies which are linked by narrow waterways: Front Lake, Back Lake, and West Lake. Front Lake is closest to commercial streets and famous tourist spots, including the Forbidden City. This lake and its surroundings were designated as an “active zone” with restaurants, shops, and boat docks. Back Lake is mostly adjacent to traditional courtyard houses, so this region was identified as a “leisure zone” to provide a tranquil environment for local residents. West Lake was dedicated to fishing activities as well as a museum.

One critical event several years ago increased the public’s appreciation of the large landscape dramatically. In early 2003, the horrifying respiratory disease SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) spread rapidly in China, and then the world. The rising death toll of this epidemic placed the entire country in a state of emergency, including Beijing. To prevent further SARS infection, most indoor public facilities and institutions were closed, including schools, offices, shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants.

People were not able to go to school or to work. They couldn’t go shopping, nor congregate in an enclosed environment. Where could they go that was pleasant and safe in the open air? Shichahai Lake was the obvious solution. This large, valuable and freely accessible landscape became a refuge for the public under these unusual circumstances. More and more people started to gather along the shoreline, to enjoy the open air, the beautiful scenery, and to stroll, play and mingle. The few restaurants and bars with outdoor seating received unexpectedly large numbers of customers. The booming business attracted more investment into the area, and this trend kept going even after the SARS emergency. Soon enough, the Shichahai area became well-known for its restaurants and bars along the lake shore. Nowadays, the Shichahai Lake area, with its signature rickshaw Hutong tours and boat trips, has become one of the must-see places for visitors to Beijing.

Shichahai Lake has been a catalyst for the successful regeneration of the surrounding urban region. The process has not been easy, and mistakes did happen along the way. However, the good thing is that it took more than 20 years to conduct renovation works and transformation was phase by phase and on a relatively confined area each time. This method allowed ideas to be tested, and to be corrected in time. Currently in China, many large projects are rushed through in extremely short timeframes. This leaves no leeway for adjustments, and does not permit life to grow with the landscape.

From ancient times to the present day, the role of Shichahai Lake in the city has changed, but it has always been vital to the population. It is : a water supply, a commercial dock, a natural refuge, and a public park. Although free public access has been one of the guiding principles for the development of Shichahai Lake, portions of the shoreline are still occupied by high-end clubs with exclusive use for club members. Outdoor seating areas of restaurants occupy the best scenic spots along the bank, and are fenced off for diners only. Such privatization of public open space must be prohibited. Large landscapes are invaluable assets in cities, which should be preserved, utilized properly, and made accessible to all.



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风景园林新青年

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3 discussions
  1. zhou says:

    曾经在什刹海附近的茶馆喝茶,那感觉不是一般的cool

  2. 衅路 says:

    忽然发现YLA的文章都是原文是英语的给整成汉语,而原文是汉语的就给它整成英语,可是为什么非要这样折腾一回不可呢?要知道,翻译的再好那跟原文还是不是一回事滴啊!不明白,真心求解释……

    • 风景园林新青年 says:

      此文原文即为英语。

      另关于英译中的文章,对于我们能获得英文版权的文章,我们都会双语共同发表。

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风景园林新青年

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