Growing up in small town China, Panuku graduate Michelle Li was fascinated by the far off places she glimpsed through souvenirs from her father’s business trips. This led to a love of cities and travelling and a tertiary path in planning.
"As a planner, I think my love for cities stemmed from my love for travelling. My father, who travelled extensively for business, used to bring back photographs and souvenirs from foreign places when I was a kid.
I still remember my parents went on a ‘post-kid honeymoon’ to America when I was around five-years-old and went to Disneyland without me!
Apart from agonising over not being able to shake hands with Mickey Mouse and personally grab his autograph, I was also fascinated by photographs of the American cityscapes formed by shining tower blocks and wide multi-lane roads crowded with motor vehicles.
That was back in 1999, when I lived in a high-rise apartment block in a small town in Southern China. The busiest location in our neighbourhood was a road intersection which was utilised more as a market square. Everyone walked or rode their bikes. Owning a car seemed like an impractical idea when streets were usually taken over by temporary grocery and small retail stands.
Behind the photographs I saw of cities abroad, I sensed there was a whole different world out there – one where the way people created structures and spaces led to a completely different style of living. I was so enchanted by this feeling of ‘foreignness’ that I felt I needed to go and uncover it for myself.
During my second year at university as an urban planning student, I was fortunate enough to be selected for an exchange programme in the United Kingdom.
I grabbed the opportunity to explore the ‘mysterious west’ I had only heard and read so much about. I religiously visited all the best planning practice European cities I had been learning about in classes – from bike-centric Copenhagen to one of world’s largest urban parks in Munich and from the meticulously-planned canals of Amsterdam to the world’s oldest underground railway in London. I began to realise that being a stranger in town helped me appreciate the uniqueness of each city.
By influencing the way people interact with each other and with their surrounding environment, the way the buildings and structures are arranged became the physical expression of the city’s intangible qualities – a reflection of the culture and history and a living tale of the past and the future.
Each space I visited sent out an invitation to connect, not only physically but also psychologically, to a collective identity. It was as if my foreignness formed an integral part of the city’s narrative and an essential component of its heartbeat.
Just like the famous line from renowned urban renewal expert Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities says, “By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange”.
It has been almost eight years since I left my hometown in China to live in the Land of the Long white Cloud, New Zealand, however, there is still a residual feeling of foreignness that plays an important part of my perception and impacts on my experience of the physical environment in my new home town of Auckland.
Auckland’s colonial past had a strong influence on its urban settlement layout – and it’s almost fair to say that the original blueprint of the city was essentially established by town planners who were strangers to the land.
As a result, the built environment is like a live history book that shows how the western town planning ideology was adapted to inform the local context.
Likewise, walking around Auckland, it doesn’t take one very long to realise the significant implication of the city’s unique volcanic landscape has had on its urban evolution.
After hiking over steep streets and crossing star-shaped intersections, you even start to feel sorry for those early planners who must have had such a nightmare trying to jam the conventional grid-like street pattern upon Auckland’s irregular contours!
Nevertheless, the city quickly evolved to embrace its natural landscape features and formed its own character.
I’m always fascinated by the role beaches play as public spaces in Auckland. Unlike some cities around the world where developments around beaches have a strong focus on creating tourist destinations, beach life here is much more ‘low key’ and embedded into people’s everyday living.
The laid-back beach environment invites people to enter the space and feel comfortable to let down their guards around others. To me, it is this connection with the land and the sea that creates a unique bond between people, blurring the lines between different cultures, social classes and lifestyles.
To me, it’s a wonderful reminder that everyone was once a foreigner to this land we now all call home."