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Cradle and All

September 16, 2009
by Timothy Lesle
photograph of a building in rural China

Anthropologist Shannon May set out to study village life in rural China. She wound up getting an education in the pitfalls of green development

When Shannon May was putting together her doctoral research project, she had a specific field setting in mind. May, an anthropology student at Berkeley, wanted to learn about life for the majority of China’s population. That meant looking past the glittering coastal cities and focusing instead on the country’s rural population—what May calls the “800 million unnamed.”

May found her site in Huangbaiyu, an agricultural village of 1,400 people in Liaoning, the northeastern province that borders North Korea. Huangbaiyu was about to undergo enormous change: A nonprofit called the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development was coordinating the transformation of Huangbaiyu into a modern eco-village. William McDonough, an influential green architect from Charlottesville, Virginia, would lead the design, basing it on his “cradle-to-cradle” philosophy, in which materials exist in a closed system and the concept of waste is eliminated. (As McDonough often says, “waste equals food.”) The new village would have a limited carbon footprint, producing energy from the sun and using bio-gas, a clean-burning renewable fuel produced from waste.

It was an ambitious plan, but Huangbaiyu was only the beginning for McDonough, who informed journalists that he would be designing seven entirely new cities in China, and that Beijing had made his design philosophy part of its national policy. Researchers at Intel, which supported the Center at that time, wanted someone on the ground to study the effect of the new technologies on village life. They contacted a professor who had studied rural life in China, and he pointed them to an adventurous student named Shannon May.

The young researcher arrived in Huangbaiyu in May 2005, along with McDonough, representatives from the Center and its corporate sponsors, and Chinese officials who were on hand for what turned out to be a welcoming ceremony, complete with assembled news media, uniformed children, and a red-carpeted stage from which the visitors addressed the crowd. Like the rest of the entourage, May was given a silk flower with a ribbon labeled gui bin, “VIP.” But instead of taking the stage, she joined the audience and took notes.

For the next year and a half, May carefully documented life in Huangbaiyu. She spent her first several months getting to know the community. “I didn’t want to presume that I knew what questions to ask,” she said. “How would I know what was important in their lives until I lived their lives with them?” She rented a room and every morning after waking up, gathered wood and lit a fire for warmth and to cook, just as other villagers did. She helped tend gardens, worked in cornfields, and taught English in the local school. Along the way, she learned the finer points of raising silkworms, cashmere goats, and fish. She divined the social and political structures at play in the village. She picked up the local accent and dialect. She made friends—and even had a traditional village wedding with her American fiancé.

With time, May began to realize that her immersion in the community gave her an understanding of village life that the designers lacked. She points out that the planners held not a single meeting involving all residents; instead they relied on the head of the village, who also acted as the project developer, as their main point of contact. Needless to say, that posed a conflict of interest.

In the end, however, May believes it was the cultural disconnect between planners and residents that ultimately undermined the project. She points to one example: Cornstalks were considered agricultural waste in McDonough’s sustainable-village concept—feedstock for the bio-gas plant in the cradle-to-cradle cycle. But May knew that cashmere goats were a major source of income to many families and that cornstalks were one of the main food sources for those goats. “There actually was already this nice waste-equals-food cycle going on,” she explains. “But because it was Americans and urban Chinese coming in to do this project, they don’t get that. They don’t understand who eats what and how products are already being recycled.”

Another fundamental problem with the design was that the green development’s yards were smaller than the typical village yard, making it more difficult for families to keep animals and grow an adequate garden. Oversights like these proved fatal to McDonough’s vision.

May’s critique of the Huangbaiyu project also extends to the inequalities inherent in global efforts to mitigate climate change. Had the model village been a success, it would have reduced the villagers’ carbon footprint—a net gain for the environment, perhaps, but economically destructive for the farmers. In May’s view, a metric ton of what she calls “luxury” carbon produced in wealthy nations was being conflated with a metric ton of subsistence carbon produced by a poor Chinese villager.

The most devastating critique of the project came from residents themselves. Since ground broke in the cradle-to-cradle development, not a single family has chosen to give up its old home for a new one. In fact, ten village families have built their own houses in Huangbaiyu rather than move into those in the model village.

As other architects design their own sustainable developments in China, May’s research has gained wider relevance. “We see it as absolutely critical,” says Harrison Fraker, former dean of Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, who is working on plans for a sustainable urban block in the port city of Qingdao (see p. 46). “It underscores that when you’re designing something, you need to understand the way a family, especially these rural families, function and survive, both culturally and economically in the world. You can’t assume that the narrowly described program—you know, ‘They need so much space for this, so much for that’—is sufficient. Lots of times, designers, when they come from a different culture, can be blind to critical dimensions of the design problem.”

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