Public Perceptions of Preservation Policies and Practices in Historic Residential Neighborhood: A Case of Dongsi, Beijing, China

by Mingqian Liu

Figure 1. Layout of a simple one-courtyard house in Beijing. Drawing published in Beijing Siheyuan by Jia Jun (Beijing, China: Peking University Press, 2009) [贾珺,《北京四合院》(中国北京:北京大学出版社,2009)].
Hutongs are narrow alleyways with low-rise constructions lining both sides. These low-rise houses are called Siheyuan, or courtyard houses, a traditional type of vernacular architecture in northern China (fig. 1). Hutong neighborhoods first commonly appeared as an integral part of the capital city’s grid layout during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).[1] Dongsi is an eight-hundred-year-old residential neighborhood in today’s Dongcheng District, Beijing, China (figs. 2, 3, and 4). Archaeological excavations and historical spatial analysis have revealed that the basic layout (location, direction, and width of the streets) in Dongsi remained almost entirely intact throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1944-1912) dynasties, the Republican (1912-1949), and the People’s Republic of China (1949-current) eras.[2] Such a layout makes Dongsi an outstanding testimony to the long history of Chinese imperial and capital city planning.[3] This undeniable historical value led to Dongsi being designated as one of the twenty-five Historical and Cultural Conservation Areas by the Beijing Municipality in 1990.[4]

Figure 2. Alleyways and courtyard houses in Dongsi as they appeared in the 1750 Complete Map of Peking, Qianlong Period. Image courtesy National Institute of Informatics Digital Silk Road Project and Digital Archive of Toyo Bunko Rare Books,


Figure 3. Contemporary street layout of Dongsi Subdistrict, August 7, 2020. Image courtesy Google Maps,中国北京市东城区东四街道/@39.9291141,116.4130571,15z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x35f1acd30ce8aba7:0x2fb3528d9e4f18da!8m2!3d39.92899h


Figure 4. Exterior facade of single-story courtyard houses along both sides of Dongsi Wutiao (the Fifth Alleyway). Photo by author (2018).

State-led built heritage preservation efforts started in China in the 1980s, when China joined the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as a State Party and received its first designations on the World Heritage List, including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall.[5]However, similar to the history of preservation in the Western world, it took decades for the Chinese government and preservationists to realize that tangible remains of the built environment were not the only asset worth preserving. Intangible aspects, including cultural identities and living traditions associated with heritage communities and the built environment, had to be taken into consideration as well. Although there was a set of state-issued guidelines regarding strategies and treatment of historic artifacts and buildings (much like the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties in the United States), the official Chinese version of preservation guidelines did not touch much on how to protect the human aspects of the many diverse types of historic built environments.[6] This illustrated that the lack of emphasis on human factors in historic preservation is a global concern.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the global field of historic preservation has seen an emerging trend called “people-centered approach.”[7] This shift’s roots date back to the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994), where construction techniques and living traditions were deemed worth preserving, especially in non-Western contexts. A people-centered approach suggests that preservationists should not solely care about preserving brick and mortar for future generations, but should instead make people’s wellbeing the central goal of all preservation work. This approach is more sustainable because it involves more stakeholders, pays more attention to the interactions between people and their environments, generates diverse and inclusive solutions for treatment and renovation, and helps to dismantle the oftentimes expert-defined official discourse in heritage values and significance. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, published in 2015, included preserving culture as an important part of building sustainable cities, suggesting that people-centered preservation has already become a globally recognized concept. This paper, which takes a people-centered approach in historic preservation, attempts the first step toward understanding residents’ perceptions of historic preservation and policies, and how they could be more involved in the process. It uses Dongsi, an inner-city historic neighborhood in a developing country, as a case study. Although current residents are not the only stakeholders or human factor in people-centered preservation, they are the group that experiences long-lasting impacts first hand. Taking a bottom-up approach, this paper argues that residents see infrastructure and life quality improvement as the most pressing preservation needs in their neighborhood, and that preservationists need to establish long-term relationships with the community in order to carry out sustainable preservation practices.

Previous scholarly literature has clearly shown that historic preservation is an interdisciplinary field. Architects, urban planners, archaeologists, historians, social workers, and museum and tourism industry professionals work in a collaborative forum where theories, research methods, and working mechanisms intersect. However, this field also lacks a unified framework within which researchers and practitioners can operate.[8]

Previous scholarly writings have demonstrated the importance of the human aspect in heritage conservation and historic built environment preservation. As Dongsi has been designated as a protected area since 1990, the focus of this discussion is on residents’ post-designation concerns and involvement in the continuation of this preservation work. Urban planning scholars have focused on how involving more stakeholders in preservation could help in democratizing the heritage discourse, in other words, extracting diverse values from the built heritage and dismantling the traditionally expert-centered discussion around the “whys” and “hows” regarding our treatment of historic neighborhoods.[9] Because historic neighborhoods are often protected from the real-estate market and are considered part of the public well-fare, scholars of preservation law have emphasized that property owners are not the only demographic impacted by historic preservation.[10] Social scientists and urban policy-making scholars have contributed to the discussion of a people-centered approach, using the concept of “sense of place.”[11] This concept demonstrated how people behave differently in different physical environments (e.g., public versus private spaces). Therefore, one integral aspect of the physical environment (in this case, hutongs and courtyard house neighborhoods) is people’s experience associated with the environment. The “sense of place” literature emphasized intangible aspects, including experience, traditional lifestyle, and practices, as essential values of built heritage. To localize these concepts in a Chinese city, studies have been done in how heritage conservation, especially historic neighborhood preservation, served as an important tool for urban identity and image-building in Chinese cities.[12]

Previous studies have been done on other designated protection areas in Beijing regarding preservation schemes, tourism, and neighborhood change.[13] However, most of the studies took a top-down approach, looking at preservation as solely a government-led effort, instead of as a bottom-up or interactive process in which different stakeholders played different roles.[14] This paper aims to access the public perceptions of historic preservation policies and practices with a focus on residents’ opinions on how neighborhood changes affected their lives, and what impacted their involvement in historic preservation.

As a researcher, I believe that before proposing treatment and accessing the effectiveness of preservation policies and practices, the unavoidable first step is to get to know how residents think of preservation-related issues. They are the group of stakeholders whose lives would be most directly impacted by any kind of preservation action. Therefore, this study utilizes a bottom-up approach to access long-term historic neighborhood residents’ experiences, perceptions, and opinions, using a qualitative analysis method.[15] My study asked the following questions:

  • How have existing built heritage preservation policies and practices engaged or failed to engage residents of living heritage communities?
  • How have residents been involved in preservation and how can their perceptions contribute to informed actions in future preservation work?

Conversations with the residents often started from an expert point of view, such as values defined in the 2002 conservation planning document approved by the Beijing municipal government.[16] The first two of the five overarching principles of preservation work in these neighborhoods were focused on style and aesthetic features, including preserving the authenticity of streets, historic buildings, traditional courtyard houses, and architectural components. The third principle suggested that renovation or alteration should be done as “microcirculation,” meaning large-scale demolition and construction should be avoided. The fourth principle stated that preservation should work on improving the neighborhood living environment and infrastructure. The last principle made it clear that public involvement should be actively encouraged in historic preservation. In the past two decades, government-led preservation practices have been largely committed to these principles, perhaps with the exception of the third principle, as some large-scale renovations in historic neighborhoods were nowhere near “microcirculation.”

While all the residents interviewed agreed that style and aesthetic features, as shown by the appearance of courtyard houses’ external facades, are important, they did not possess the knowledge to identify what specific style and features are historically appropriate and significant. Many residents admitted that they could distinguish between a traditional and a non-traditional style (figs. 5 and 6) as people continued to make renovation to their houses, and they understand that the historical significance of Dongsi was the primary reason why the neighborhood was designated as worth preserving. However, residents were more concerned about tangible issues in the community, such as infrastructure and life quality improvement in the neighborhood, instead of building appearance or facade changes.

Figures 5 (left) and 6 (right). These parking garages are obviously contemporary additions to traditional courtyard houses. Some residents built them with traditional materials (wood) and colors (red paint) (left); whereas others added a modern and out-of-context-styled garage door (right). Photos by author (2018).

More than half of the interviewees spoke about how preservation practices improved the hutongs they lived in as a desirable public space. The narrow alleyways are not only used for through traffic, but also a place for human interaction, social gathering, and for some residents, their easiest access-point to get in touch with nature.[17] Therefore, when asked about tangible changes brought to Dongsi by government-led preservation campaigns, such as landscape renovation,[18] parking regulation changes,[19] and various measures regarding hygiene and trash collection,[20] residents focused on how such changes affected their use of the hutong as a public space.

Preservation practices did not stop at the public space. Based on the preservation principles, there is more flexibility to change the interior and more private spaces according to the residents’ preference and needs. The interior features of their courtyard houses have been renovated over the years to a contemporary standard, whether renovation was done by the residents themselves or led by various government-initiated campaigns. Inside of the courtyard houses, there were several government-led actions that were widely discussed, such as heating in the winter,[21] electronic wires re-arrangement,[22] and the recent weekend clean-up campaign to check and eliminate fire hazards.[23] This clean-up campaign originated in Dongsi and was promoted throughout the entire district, whereas infrastructure improvements, such as heating, were measures widely implemented in many historic districts with single-floor courtyard houses.

These improvements were mentioned and welcomed by a majority of the interviewees, because they resulted in environment and life quality improvement either in the streets or inside of the residents’ courtyard houses. Some of the changes added additional elements to the physical space, but they were never too conspicuous to interrupt the overall style and features of the historic environment. Compared to treatment and direct actions taken toward buildings and facades, the residents were more likely to understand and support preservation practices targeted at providing much needed functions and spaces for everyday use.

The fifth principle, as previously mentioned, encouraged the active involvement of the public in preservation works. Although it is widely agreed that stakeholder participation is an effective and essential tool in urban planning and people-centered preservation, the degree or level of involvement is often far from being clearly defined. When asked about how preservation practices engaged residents in the process, residents agreed that relationship-building among all stakeholders is important, in order to obtain their understanding and support regarding certain preservation policies and practices.[24]

There were three factors residents suggested really impacted their involvement in preservation. The first was whether there was a commitment to long-term engagement from the government, that include planners, social workers, residents, and other institutions and services in the community. The second factor was how much guidance and recognition residents received from the local administration regarding their involvement in preservation. How residents described the implementation of these two factors suggested that historic preservation was still perceived as a predominantly government-led effort in such neighborhoods, but the residents were willing to work with the public sector as long as they received proper instructions and positive feedback. The third factor many residents pointed to was that implementing a fix-all approach was not helpful. Residents feel that it is important to have professionals come into the neighborhood to work with each individual courtyard house, discuss long-term solutions, and follow up with the residents.

In conclusion, the first step of bottom-up historic preservation research is to understand current residents in addition to the historic physical environment and, furthermore, to support informed actions. This study provides the first step to center people, their experiences, perceptions, opinions, and needs in the process of preservation. Results showed that neighborhood residents care more about infrastructure and the improvement of life quality than the neighborhood’s appearance, style, or facade changes. The latter factors are closely related to the urban history and historic values of this neighborhood. However, even if history and values were conveyed to residents, people who actually live in the neighborhood did not directly benefit from these factors other than having a sense of pride. Residents recognized preservation efforts when appearance changes impacted quality and functions of life. This significant difference is not only a value judgement, but also suggests the potential gap between government-led preservation efforts and the residents’ involvement in both voicing concerns and taking actions to contribute.

Results also showed that various universal and local factors need to be taken into consideration. Conservation planning may follow universal principles, but the social, political, and economic contexts in inner-city historic neighborhoods remind us that the mechanisms of working with local communities need to be specifically designed every time. Planners and preservationists will benefit from getting actively and continuously involved with their target community. Practitioners need to work with each city and its communities’ development patterns, and align preservation with the interests of that particular population.



[1] See Nancy S. Steinhardt, “The Plan of Khubilai Khan’s Imperial City,” Artibus Asiae 44, no. 2/3 (1983): 137-158.

[2] See Hou Renzhi, Beijing Historical Maps (Beijing, China: Beijing Chubanshe, 1988). [侯仁之,《北京历史地图集》(中国北京:北京出版社,1988)].

[3] See Nancy S. Steinhardt, “Why were Chang’an and Beijing so Different?,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 45, no. 4 (December, 1986): 339-357.

[4] See Beijing Municipal Commission of City Planning, Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City (Beijing, China: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe, 2002). [北京市规划委员会,《北京旧城25片历史文化保护区保护规划》(中国北京:北京燕山出版社,2002)]; the jurisdiction of Dongsi Subdistrict (the most local level of government in Beijing Municipality, under Dongcheng District) has a population of 43,731 according to the 2010 Census. The designated protection area is from Dongsi Santiao to Batiao (the Third Alleyway to the Eighth Allyway).

[5] See Yu Kongjian, “China Faces the Challenge of World Heritage Concept: Thoughts after the 28th World Heritage Convention,” Journal of Chinese Landscape Architecture 11 (2004): 68-70. [俞孔坚,《世界遗产概念挑战中国:第28届世界遗产大会有感》(《中国园林》,2004)].

[6] See Jin Hongkui, “The Content and Theoretical Significance of the Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China,” in Conservation of Ancient Sites on the Silk Road: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Conservation of Grotto Sites, ed. Neville Agnew (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2010), 75-84; and ICOMOS China, Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (Beijing, China: Wenwu Chubanshe, 2015). [中国古迹遗址保护协会,《中国文物古迹保护准则》(中国北京:文物出版社,2015)].

[7] See Jeremy C. Wells, “Valuing Historic Places: Traditional and Contemporary Approaches,” School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation Faculty Papers 22, (2010).

[8] See Randall Mason, “Assessing Values in Conservation Planning: Methodological Issues and Choices,” in Assessing the Values of Cultural Heritage, ed. Marta de la Torre (Los Angeles, CA: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2002); Jeremy C. Wells, “Heritage Values and Legal Rules: Identification and Treatment of the Historic Environment via an Adaptive Regulatory Framework,” Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development 6, no. 3 (2016), 345-364; and Jeremy C. Wells and Barry L. Stiefel, Human-Centered Built Environment Heritage Preservation: Theory and Evidence-Based Best Practices, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2018).

[9] See Randall Mason and Erica Avrami, “Heritage Values and Challenges of Conservation Planning,” in Management Planning for Archaeological Sites, (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2002).

[10] See J. Peter Byrne, “Historic Preservation and its Cultured Despisers: Reflections on the Contemporary Role of Preservation Law in Urban Development,” in George Mason Law Review 19, no. 3 (2012): 665-688.

[11] See Fatima Bernardo, Joana Almeida, and Catarina Martins, “Urban Identity and Tourism: Different Looks, One Single Place,” Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Urban Design and Planning  170, no. 5 (October 2017), 205-216; and John Schofield and Rosy Szymanski, Local Heritage, Global Context: Cultural Perspectives on Sense of Place (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing, 2011).

[12] See Ren Xuefei, “Forward to the Past: Historical Preservation in Globalizing Shanghai,” City and Community 7, no. 1 (2008), 23-43.

[13] See Hu Yingjie and Emma Morales, “The Unintended Consequences of a Culture-Led Regeneration Project in Beijing, China,” Journal of the American Planning Association 82, no. 2 (2016), 148-151; Charles S. Johnston, “Towards a Theory of Sustainability, Sustainable Development and Sustainable Tourism: Beijing’s Hutong Neighbourhoods and Sustainable Tourism,” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 22, no. 2 (2014), 195-213; Placido G. Martinez, “Authenticity as a Challenge in the Transformation of Beijing’s Urban Heritage: The Commercial Gentrification of the Guozijian Historic Area,” Cities 59 (November 2016), 48-56; and Hyun Bang Shin, “Urban Conservation and Revalorisation of Dilapidated Historic Quarters: The Case of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing,” Cities 27 (2010), S43-S54.

[14] See Dai Linlin, Wang Siyu, Xu jun, Wan Li, and Wu Bihu, “Qualitative Analysis of Residents’ Perceptions of Tourism Impacts on Historic Districts: A Case Study of Nanluoguxiang in Beijing, China,” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 16, no. 1 (2017), 107-114; and Wang Fang, Liu Xiaoyu, and Zhang Yueyi, “Spatial Landscape Transformation of Beijing Compounds under Residents’ Willingness,” Habitat International 55 (July 2016), 167-179.

[15] From summer 2018 to summer 2019, twenty Dongsi residents were invited to do semi-constructed, face-to-face interviews in Mandarin Chinese. According to the study’s IRB protocols, the interviews were done anonymously as participants’ names were not recorded. Questions were centered around two sets of topics: opinions on actions and issues, and resident involvement. I first encountered the study participants during community meetings and events. Through a screening questionnaire, residents who expressed interest were then individually contacted. The only condition in the screening process was that the participants had to have resided in this neighborhood for a minimum of ten years. In summer 2018, this meant that the interviewees would have been living in the neighborhood around or before the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The interviewees’ demographic background, such as age, gender, income, profession, and property ownership status, were not included, since those are not variables and would not be used to establish any correlations with the results. Upon agreement, an audio recording was done during some of the interviews, and the others were transcribed into written notes. The content of these interviews was then sent back to the residents to review and verify, both before and after data analysis. The coding process was done by theme, instead of keywords or frequency. A certified Chinese-English translator reviewed the interview protocols, transcripts, and data analysis, and a few additional rounds of peer reviews were conducted to ensure the clarification of these transcripts and analysis.

[16] See Beijing Municipal Commission of City Planning, Conservation Planning of 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City (Beijing, China: Beijing Yanshan Chubanshe, 2002). [北京市规划委员会,《北京旧城25片历史文化保护区保护规划》(中国北京:北京燕山出版社,2002)].

[17] “I don’t have much space at home. I would love the hutong in front of my house a quiet and pleasant place to be, so I can sit out under the trees, talk to my neighbors, and not to worry about the chaos outside of the neighborhood,” interview with the author, June 5, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[18] “The wheeled flower pots provided by the subdistrict were such a great invention. They are mobile, so I can put them wherever I need. When I need to hold the space for my family’s car to park in front of the house, I can put them there. When I need to put out a table and some chairs to play chess or have a cup of tea with my neighbors, I can move the pots somewhere else and set up something in that space. The plants and flowers make them look a lot nicer than traffic cones, but at the same time, they are easy to take care of,” interview with the author, June 5, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[19] “Parking used to be a huge problem in Dongsi and in many other old neighborhoods. These streets were not designed for cars, but nowadays, car traffic and parking in the hutongs are unavoidable. The hutong began to look like a parking lot, and we sometimes had to walk our way through the cars. When some drivers couldn’t make it through, they honked and we all had to come out and figure out whose car was blocking the way. This year, the subdistrict started to survey the whole neighborhood and try to figure out how many families had cars and how many parking spots we could allow in each hutong. The rules and charges may be unfair to some people, but at least we were trying to work something out with our parking situation,” interview with the author, July 19, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[20] “We used to have huge trash cans in the hutongs. But nobody wants them in front of their house, under their windows, or around their street corner. In summer times we couldn’t sit in the streets because the trash can was not far away and the smell was so bad. The free gym equipment provided to us was not used because nobody wanted to work out with trash smell on the side. Same with those benches. Now that the subdistrict has designated time each day to pick up individual trash bags from each courtyard house, we don’t have to live with this problem anymore,” interview with the author, July 18, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[21] “I remember growing up with coal-fired heating in hutongs. Every winter, children had to help their parents to move beehive coal briquettes around. When you burn these briquettes, the smoke and cinder remain in the neighborhood for the entire winter. Since the early 2000s, this municipal wide campaign to transition from beehive coal briquettes to electronic heating and providing free electronic heaters to all families living in old neighborhoods really helped us a lot. Some people say the electronic ones were not strong enough, but you can always buy your own ones for extra heating. They are in many ways much better than coal burning, saving us a lot of work every winter and are good for the environment,” interview with the author, July 19, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[22] “Electronic wires were a major threat to our wooden roof. Over the years, we had electricity, cable TV, telephone, and Internet added to our neighborhood at different times. Each company came and had their own wires set up. At the end, all wires ended up as a huge mess on the wall and nobody could tell which is which. They went everywhere and there was no way to trace them. We’ve had many accidents and power outage due to lightning. The lack of planning and coordination among all these utilities was a big problem. Luckily, since last year, the subdistrict had started to hire teams to fix this problem, re-arrange all the electronic wires, put them into ground or designed boxes to covered them up in case of rain,” interview with the author, July 18, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[23] “The weekend clean-up campaign started in 2016 and the original idea was only to clean up decade-old random garbage in the courtyard houses one-by-one. They were led by the community workers from the subdistrict and a lot of the local Party Members volunteered every Saturday. At first, some people didn’t want outsiders to touch their stuff even though those were really just garbage, but when they saw the post-clean-up scene of their courtyard, they realized how much free space they could have enjoyed over the past decades. Also we saw that after each clean-up, the subdistrict followed up with each courtyard to see if there were any fire hazard that needed to be addressed,” interview with the author, June 5, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.

[24] “In the past two years or so, we were invited several times to sit in meetings where subdistrict officials and urban planners discuss residents’ opinions regarding certain projects. First, I have to say that we were invited partially because they (officials) knew us personally and they knew that we would probably agree with many of their ideas. Secondly, while I think that more people should be invited to these meetings and these meetings should be more publicized, I also understand why the subdistrict was hesitate to bring in random residents. They would probably only care about impacts on their own houses instead of issues that are important to the whole neighborhood,” interview with the author, July 18, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China; “We have people coming to Dongsi every once in a while and ask us about historic neighborhood preservation. We don’t feel comfortable talking to them when we don’t personally know them. I can talk to you because you are referred to us by the subdistrict office. I know that you won’t twist my words. But others, maybe not. Who knows what they would put on paper after our conversation? I’d rather talk to people that really care about us, and not take our words for their own purposes,” interview with the author, July 19, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China; “I really think the subdistrict should work with us one-by-one (courtyard house by courtyard house). We have different situations in different homes. For example, I own my house because my family have been here for generations. But here is not the typical situation. There are many other dazayuan (one house with multiple families and more complicated property ownership situations) where people can’t even agree on actions among themselves. Of course it is easier to satisfy me or my family, but it can be really difficult to satisfy all. Unless you work with them individually and figure out what would be the best solution for everyone going forward,” interview with the author, July 19, 2018, Dongsi, Dongcheng District, Beijing, China.



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