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John Zacharias: ‘I have had such a wonderful time doing research in China’

DEC . 23 2015
Peking University, Dec. 23, 2015: Professor John Zacharias, chair professor at the college of Architecture and landscape and the founder of the laboratory of Urban Process and Modeling and Applications, first came to China in 1993 from Canada and started visiting various cities in China, doing broad researches in urban planning, and giving talks and suggestions to the planning bureaus and policy makers. In 2012, professor Zacharias started his lab and began his full time tenure here at Peking University. Chinese government entrusted him with funds and gave him the complete faith and freedom to choose directions, and he said he has never had such a wonderful time doing research. He told us about his life and work in China and in Peking University, the differences between Canadian and Chinese students, and the future of China’s urban planning in the interview.
 
We know that you started doing research in China since 1993. Was that your first time in China? What’s your first impression of China’s urban development?
At that time,I was not doing research on China. I was invited to Tianjin to help with a design project. Tianjin was a quiet and traditional city then, and ithad not experienced a lot of development yet. There were a lot of activities in the streets, and it was the culturalactivity that attracted me.
 
What do you think are the differences between a Chinese city and a Canadian City?
There are enormous differences of course. The cities in Canada are smaller, with lower density, and most people are living in single houses instead of apartments. Chinese cities have changed a lot after all these years. When I first came here, Chinese cities did not have a CBD, the Central Business District, which is very important in Canadian cities. The CBD is where everything happens. However, the change toward information economyalsogenerated CBD in China.
 
Which is your favorite city in China
I don’t really know, there’s something I like about Shenzhen, which is very modern; and Beijing, a wonderful city with a long history. I think I still love Tianjin and its local culture and areas. I also like some aspects in Shanghai, the core areas in Puxi, but not the new developed areas.
 
When I was looking through your research and articles, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them are very interesting, like Potential of revival of the bicycle in Beijing and Choosing between stairs and escalators in China, so, how do you choose your research topics?
This is a very good question. My research topics change all the time depending on what are the big issues here and what are the issues we should be looking at. I’m quite flexible and quite broad in my research. It’s all on urban planning and urban studies. I’m trying to see what the biggest issues in China are and what Ican contribute.
 
As a Beijinger, there are a lot of challenges we encounter: from crowding to pollution to horrible traffic. Do you think there is a solution to any of these challenges that we encounter?
Of course there are solutions. There are always solutions. We should never think that there are insolvable problems, but the solutions involve some complex decision-making, it’s difficult to for leaders to make decisions and for citizens to accept those decisions. Like the west, there should be some negotiations between society and leadership in terms of making changes. Our cities can easily get better.
 
About three years ago, the Chinese government entrusted you with funds to support your research and your lab here at Peking University. In what ways had the government’s support been influential in your research? And what are the main achievements you have made in the past three years?
One big difference in the way that the Chinese government has supported me as opposed to how I was supported in Canada is that here they give me complete freedom to study the subject that I want. I haven’t been given any directions in terms of what I do here. It’s wonderful for me. In Canada, I had to spend a lot of time preparing proposals, and having other people comments on the proposals. It’s not productive this way. I appreciate the faith the government has shown in our lab. I enjoy my work here, and I’ve never had such a wonderful time in my research.
I just made a list about what we’ve done in the past three years to report to the government. There are 37 publishedarticles, some of which are conference papers, and others are in high-leveljournals and books.
 
What do you think of your students, what are some of the initial differences you noted between Canadian and Chinese students?
They are both very good and talented and possess the ability to undertake very difficult work. One of the big differences is that students here are a little less willing to take initiatives to pursue the research, and they wait for the instructions rather than saying what they want to do. As a Canadian professor, I prefer that they discover for themselves what they want to do and I support it.
 
What are the biggest challenges or difficulties you had to overcome?
Working with administration in China is never very easy for me. It’s very different from Canada. The university environment is familiar to me, but the governmental level is difficult.
 
What is the future of China’s urban planning?
Urban planning has to change radically in China. So far, urban planning is taught as a practice instead of research, so basically there is drawing and plan preparation, but there is not a lot of research supporting this plan preparation. Researchis a big missing part. We are making a lot of mistakes in urban planning in China, because we don’t have the research base. This is the change that has to happen and one of the reasons why I am here. We need to encourage the leaders to think that we need to support plans with research activities.

Reported by: Lai Huan
Edited by: Zhang Jiang