Yesterday was the International Forum of the gigantic Greenbuild Conference in Boston. The organizers of the forum invited me to speak and sit on a panel about New Communities in a green design context. My role was to discuss my Frontline/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village. There were about 350 people in the audience, several standing along the back wall. I was on stage with Canadian developer Joe Van Belleghem, and the journalist Ken Shulman moderated. Joe and Ken each did a great job. I’m glad to have met them, and I enjoyed every minute that I was on stage with them.
During the question-and-answer portion of the session, Diane Dale, who directs community planning at William McDonough + Partners, stood up. She was well-spoken and gracious in many ways, but there was a sense that she was trying to call me out.
Although I think there may be an audio tape of the event, I caution that these are my recollections. I’m sure, once the tape comes out, we will all hear how inarticulate I actually was. Something to look forward to. In the meantime, I figure I might as well give a rough accounting for those who are interested. As several attendees noted after the exchange, there is always more than one side to every story.
Ms Dale introduced herself and said that she thought my presentation was not as critical as it could have been. She noted that her firm had been quite critical of the outcome and had learned many important lessons. She didn’t have questions so much as comments. The first of which, a big lesson learned, was the importance of translation–simply, good translation–which apparently hindered the effective communication of ideas and concepts.
In regard to the point of the yards being too small for animals, she noted that during the time of the design, SARS was floating around Asia. SARS, she reminded us, was a devastating, deadly illness. “They told us” that the animals would have to be kept separate from the houses.
And she seemed to question the fairness or purpose of this session because neither she nor anyone else from William McDonough + Partners was on the stage.
From what I recall, those were her main points.
I have a few initial thoughts that will no doubt be refined over time. Some of these points I managed to mention on stage; others have bubbled up since then, classic examples of l’esprit d’escalier. I neglected to address the SARS point while on stage, simply because I forgot. But that’s what blogs are for, I guess.
1. In regard to translation, two names immediately came to mind: Zhong Ping and Wang Miansheng. As far as I know, both are Chinese, native speakers. Both were employees of the China-US Center for Sustainable Development, which was the key coordinating organization for this project. These are people who have some influence within the organization and are familiar with the project, with China, with all the key elements of this effort. In fact, this is why I hoped to find Zhong Ping while I was in China (he was traveling); and asked to interview Wang Miansheng after returning to the U.S. (also traveling). To say that translation is a problem doesn’t jibe with having men like these on board.
Still, on the merits of Ms Dale’s translation point, I have to ask: if McDonough + Partners is a sophisticated design firm of international scope, why couldn’t they manage to hire one good translator in China? Hundreds if not thousands of other companies do it every day. I did it on a shoestring budget.
2. This SARS point. In the context of the Huangbaiyu story, this is news to me. When Ms. Dale says “they” told her colleagues about this design restriction, I’d like to know who “they” are. This issue is certainly not mentioned in the vision plan to justify the planners’ admission that “the yards may be too small to support the number of livestock that currently occupy many yards in the village.” My understanding is that this was written in 2004, or thereabouts, which places it after the main SARS outbreak. If SARS were a concern, why didn’t it say, “The yards have now been designed too small to support livestock in order to keep them away from humans due to disease concerns,” or something like that?
If this separation rule were an order from the central government, anyone familiar with the way things work in China will understand that just because the central government says it should happen, it doesn’t always happen on the ground, for better or worse. Had they ever heard of that?
For that matter, even if the animals were to be separated, what would be the method of taking care of them? Lone outposts of pigs and goats that farmers must trudge through the winter snows to feed and water every day? Should someone be posted nearby to guard them? Or would it be a single, collective space, where the community’s animals would live and which would probably begin to resemble a factory farm?
Frankly, I would have heard about the SARS issue much earlier had McDonough + Partners actually told me; but a year ago, they weren’t talking to me; before that, McDonough was publicly blaming the developer for the project’s outcome.
And in any case, as a journalist it’s not always enough for me to rely on what “they” tell me–it’s often better to just go and have a look myself. That’s why I went to Huangbaiyu rather than simply report on what McDonough + Partners might have told me here in America. I would hope a community designer would do the same: visit the place and take a walk around. It soon becomes clear that these farmers do live near and interact with their animals.
3. I think it’s perfectly appropriate that the USGBC invited me on stage to talk about this project in the context of my story. My reporting was fair and well-researched; the story is designed to give a look at the village and what contributed to the present outcome of the development. Another person who could deliver a fair, and even more thorough, analysis, would be Shannon May, the anthropologist who lived two years in the village.
That the McDonough people weren’t on stage does not seem especially critical in light of this. For what it’s worth, the fact that they did want a place on the stage suggests that they feel some sense of ownership or responsibility regarding the project’s outcome. The bigger issue this brings up is one of accountability, a point that is essential to my story. But if they wanted to go onstage simply to defend their reputation, that would defeat the purpose of the panel, because it becomes about them and not about the project.
As I pointed out yesterday at the event, it’s difficult to tell a story if people who are part of it refuse to participate. I spent a month trying to get on-the-record comments about this project from them, especially William McDonough. In fact, I corresponded with Kira Gould, McDonough’s communications director, who was sitting next to Ms Dale in the audience. McDonough and his firm had an opportunity to tell their story in my report. They are expert designers; I wanted to hear their expert conclusions. And they took a pass.
But now that the story’s out and I’ve been invited to speak on it, they want to be on stage, too. Frankly, this makes me think of someone who complains about an election but didn’t bother to vote. Like voting, a robust press is a part of what makes the democracy. Participation is key.
Several attendees who had no opinion or knowledge of the project approached me after the talk. A couple of them said that McDonough staffers had talked to them after my talk, as well. One woman said she’d just been told that the local officials completely cut the Americans out of the project, and McDonough + Partners could only participate as a kind of consultant with no real influence or control. Another attendee claims he was told by a McDonough staffer that they had almost no budget for their work on the village design, and that the budget barely paid for their plane tickets, which is why they couldn’t do a thorough job. Neither of those points came up during Ms Dale’s comments, though they sound as if they would be fundamental to the outcome.
Still, I was glad to finally hear something from William McDonough + Partners.