Brief history of Dashilar
Located South-West of the Forbidden City, Dashilar was an area of commercial and cultural prosperity for over 600 years during China’s dynasty era, it’s earliest form dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Due to it’s proximity to the centre of power, Dashilar became an important trading and entertainment hub. Even today, it’s home to many of China’s oldest stores, amongst them include Tong Ren Tang (同仁堂) a traditional Chinese medicine store, Ma Ju Yuan (马聚源) a famous hat store as well as Peking Opera theatres and tea houses that often served as venues for China’s domestic and foreign policy negotiations.
However, in the past decade or so, due to various social and economic factors, businesses in Dashilar have been on the decline, which has resulted in a similar drop in locals frequenting the area. Since around 2000 Dashilar has been relying more and more on its tourism industry, with various hotels, restaurants, and boutique stores moving in and catering to both domestic and international travelers.
Why is it important to maintain Dashilar?
Due to several economic and some circumstantial reasons, the Dashilar area has recently experienced a rather rapid departure from its original hutong community culture. One example of a contributing factor would be the 1976 TangShan Earthquake which rendered many of the outer courtyard buildings unsafe, resulting in temporary shelters being erected in the middle of many courtyards. Though originally intended to be temporary, these structures quickly became a permanent feature in many of these buildings, as the rising population in Beijing in the late 90’s demanded more low rent residential housing.
Because of this, the building fabric of Dashilar quickly became a mix between traditional architecture and these makeshift shelters. Over time, lack of care for these properties soon compromised these structures, putting them in danger of losing their historical and cultural value. Dashilar’s difficulties with sustainable development are by no means unique to Beijing, with historic areas all around the country facing similar struggles. These can be attributed to several key factors: high population density, inadequate public facilities, degradation of the public scene, a lack of a strict preservation code and a lack of local business trade.
Above all, an inability to involve its local residents with the care, preservation and development of their community is the core difficulty that the area has yet to overcome. Although many attribute this inability to the nature of the Chinese culture, this problem is not so much a behavioural issue but rather a response to the nature of Chinese property law and ownership (for more information on Chinese property law click here and scroll down to the English section). Consequently, without the initiative to develop the area, the conditions that the Dashilar community is in will continue to deteriorate.
What is being done to develop Dashilar?
In 2011, Beijing Dashilar Investment Limited started the Dashilar Culture Heritage Preservation Project (The Dashilar Platform). According to the official Dashilar website, the platform’s aim is:
“To encourage the community to move independently yet coherently towards the strong yet flexible goal of creating a sustainable community with increasing depth and diversity.”
However, with aspirations to develop traditional community areas, the Dashilar Platform is careful not to make the same mistakes made during the redevelopment of Qianman Dajie. Previously known for its popularity as a local, historic shopping district (similar to Dashilar), Qianmen underwent severe redevelopment in time for the 2008 Olympics. The change in architectural style and town planning in Qianmen resulted in large demographic changes, transforming the area into another superficial tourist destination, leading many to question the success of the development.
To avoid this, the Dashilar Platform has broken up its plan to develop the area at a comfortable pace, allowing the locals to be involved with its transformation, as opposed to being left behind.
“As opposed to the conventional concept of blanket development, [the] Dashilar Platform will utilize key nodes which act as catalysts for change in the area. Through research and design investigation, Dashilar Platform will promote certain archetypes, modules, and best-practice examples for both residents and outside investors.”
“The program of the pilot was not created with the end of necessarily creating long lasting solutions but in fact that of initiating and igniting the process of conversation among different partners that are involved with Dashilar. This includes the local government, the developers, the local people (the resident community) and the new community that are wishing to make their home in Dashilar.”
The involvement of BJDW in the development of Dashilar exhibits a grassroots approach, the integration of local plugin businesses “initiating” growth in the Dashilar community.
This type of small-scale, community-led urban renewal is a fairly brave approach as the process of development is much slower and more akin to natural development than that of the “bulldoze and begin again” approach Chinese cities have become known for. As the Dashilar initiative passes its 4th year, some positive effects are already emerging in the form of small independent businesses. It remains to be seen however whether this community will be able to withstand the tidal waves of mass-urban redevelopment in order to forge a truly leading example of a more sustainable urban regeneration approach. We certainly hope so and will be keeping a close eye on Dashilar.