Department of Environmental Sciences
Geography / Urban and Regional Studies
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CH-4056 Basel

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Elizabeth Brencic

MA Geography and English

Interests: traveling, music (piano), different cultures and cuisines, languages, sports

Motivation: A remarkable and mind-opening field trip to the Pearl River Delta (PRD) motivated me to invest more research into one of today’s most prospering mega cities of the world. My first trip to China in 2009 offered me an opportunity to experience the unexpected. The dimensions of China’s development plans surpassed my capability of imagination. Seeing HOW a developing country invested their time and efforts into creating some of the most attractive mega cities of today, and how they organized themselves – fascinated me. This experience made me ask many questions – and I wanted answers.

Preparation: My MA thesis required a lot of preparation. Mainly because it is one of the first papers ever written about the newest plans of Guangzhou’s Haizhu District. It was of great importance to contact city planners of Haizhu District in order to understand which ongoing plans were the most important for the city’s development. These necessary connections were provided by the Sun-Yat Sen University who collaborated with the University of Basel. The knowledge that I obtained from the urban planners helped me create interview questions for later on. Much reading was inevitable in order to understand what a city needs to become a mega city and what mega cities have to offer the world and its population. A part of my thesis is to explain how politics is intertwined with Chinese urban planning. Finding adequate literature was a great challenge in the preparation phase of my MA thesis.

Field work: Meeting various urban planners of Guangzhou and Haizhu District was rewarding but mainly challenging. Without the help of Li Zifeng, my translator and constant companion, I would never have been able to conduct this MA thesis. The language barrier was very well dealt with, due to her wonderful English competences. Before visiting the various urban planners it was of great importance to visit the various plans that have already been realized and other areas that are still to change. This helped me make my own picture of ‘before’ and ‘after’. It was also difficult to make an appointment with the very busy urban planners.

Conclusion: My research and findings are both a first step towards important knowledge that could be of major importance for future urban planning in European regions. Chinese mega cities are confronted with great population amounts but limited space. Their plans behold essential techniques and ideas that are beneficial for future, international urban planning. It is when people work together that we can learn from each other and create wonderful, functional systems that will benefit the world and its required mega cities.

Patrizia Zanola

MA Geography and English

Interests: music, culture, languages, travelling, sports

Motivation: The main motivation for this project arose during a field trip to the Pearl River Delta (PRD) in January 2009 organised by the Geography Department of Basel University in cooperation with Sun Yat-Sen University Guangzhou. During that field trip an impressive insight on current developments in this exceptionally fast developing and changing region has been given. Part of this was a one-day excursion to Xiadu Village in the heart of Guangzhou City, an urbanised rural village in which people’s everyday life massively differs from that of people living in surrounding areas. The closer examination of leading a life so different from what I have experienced before and the cultural aspect linked to that have been the pulling forces to set up that project. Moreover, I wanted to know how authorities and urban planners face the challenges of this uniquely fast pace of urbanisation in Chinese cities resulting in the uniquely Chinese phenomenon of urbanised villages. Moreover, I am convinced that these examples could be of major importance for future urban planning in European regions.

Preparation: The preparations for the project started almost a year before the actual field trip to the site of investigation. This included a lot of research, i.e. information gathering and reading, as well as organisation of flights, trips, accommodation, planning the schedule on site including meetings and field research. I did not expect it to be that extensive and intensive. Especially the fact that we were dealing with people of a very different cultural background was quite challenging. However, this was one of the most exciting and enriching experiences of the whole project. Looking back now I reckon that this preparation time was absolutely essential and necessary.

Field work: Doing field work in an environment that differs vastly from what one is used to requires a lot of flexibility, spontaneity, endurance and resilience. Although I thought I was well prepared, having a well organised schedule and plan at hand to which I can stick, I had to reorganise my schedule and research plan almost on a daily basis. There are so many unpredictable things that can happen to which one has to respond very quickly. That was very challenging and sometimes very frustrating as well. But due to the intensive preparations I had an aim in mind I was able to achieve despite deviations of the initial plan. I spent a lot of nights sleepless in bed, because my brain could not stop thinking about what would or could happen the next day and how I would deal with it. However, the work with local people was so fulfilling and exciting that I was looking forward to each interaction.

Conclusion: The whole project including preparation, actual field trip and bringing down the results to paper was one of the most formative experiences of my life. The most exciting part was the actual field trip to Guangzhou, the four weeks spent in the community of Xiadu Village. I thoroughly enjoyed every interaction and learned so much about Chinese culture – and this on various social levels. However, I would highly recommend calculating enough time for the field trip, four weeks is definitely a very narrow time frame. It is essential to get a thorough overview of the surroundings before starting the actual work in it. Moreover, it is highly recommendable to have basic skills in the language spoken in the community of investigation, people highly appreciate the effort and are much more willing to cooperate. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of this project and would highly recommend such an experience to other people with similar interests.

Michael Probst

Michael Probst is studying Geography, Sustainable Development and Meteorology. His personal interests are cooking, travelling, intercultural exchange, languages and music – to name but a few.

Expectations: After failing to do research in China on my own initiative I was very happy to be given the chance to do research with the full support of our institute. Thanks to the excellent contacts of our institute with the local University and due to the financial support of the “Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE)” and the “Werenfels-Fonds”, the starting position for the research was comparatively promising this time. Mainly I expected to be able to collect detailed material and to gather first-hand information related to my topic (both is hardly available in Europe).

General impressions: The friendly, hospitable and caring way of the Chinese colleagues made me feel welcome from the very first day. The pace of urban development in China is breath-taking; the associated highly efficient comprehensive urban planning workforce which the Central Government has at its command is impressive. For foreigners China is a safe place – even safer than certain countries and metropolises in Europe.

Field research: The most interesting part was to meet high-level experts for interviews and further conversations. No major problems emerged during the field research since it was excellently organized by our institute and because the Chinese counterpart did its best to allow an as fruitful research as possible. Minor problems during the field research (involving police and military) occurred in connection with the intention of taking photographs of construction sites and other sensitive areas, which were of particular interest for my research. Further obstacles, which were entirely foreseeable though, were for example the lack of relevant information in English and the fact that most of the local experts communicate in Chinese. At this, with basically no Chinese skills, I was lucky to have a local student and a professional translator by my side whenever necessary. They assisted me during my research and translated simultaneously during the expert interviews respectively.

Personal conclusion: The access to peoples’ personal networks of contacts is indispensable for a research in China; without it, the expert interviews would absolutely not have been possible. This holds true not only for government circles for instance but also for daily life. Here the assistance of the local student was extremely helpful. With no Chinese skills and no translator, research in China is almost impossible.

Recommendation: A field research abroad is not only a possibility to gain knowledge beyond scientific literature but at the same time for personal enrichment. Thus, I strongly recommend it to anybody who is disposed to leave the familiar surroundings for some time and to do some extra work (coming up in connection with basic research, preparation, translations etc.).