Transformation of the historical town of WuZhen, China

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Name Transformation of the historical town
Place WuZhen
Country China
Author(s) Chengkang Ye, Yiting Wei
Project start 1999
Completion First Phase:2001. Second Phase: 2003-2007. Third Phase: not started
World Heritage enter the year of listing
Client Administrative Committee of Wuzhen Town Preservation and Tourism
Project costs First Phase:unknown. Second Phase: 1 billion


<googlemap version="0.9" lat="30.768979" lon="120.486374" type="map" zoom="9" width="400" height="300" controls="small">30.734163, 120.495987The historical town of WUZHEN</googlemap>

Rationale: Why is the case study interesting?

  • An experimental approach to preserving a historical town in East China.

Though the preservation of this traditional water town scenery was not only a simple desire to remain and improve a regional landscape, it was with an aspiration to achieve economic profits, the program did improve the visual scenery , and did help to raise the awareness of cultural landscape. By the mean time, problems produced by the whole program make us to rethink the planning method, e.g. the inadequate concern of the balance of inhabitants’ daily life and the tourism.

Author's perspective

  • What theoretical or professional perspective do you bring to the case study? Please make a short note on your personal background

We hope we can learn following issues from this case study: one of possible approaches to preserve a historical town; thinking about how to improve the function for this town, and at the same time, to preserve a traditonal view of the fansy street scape and the attractive building-street-river space.

Cultural landscape context

  • Biogeography, cultural features, overall landscape character, history and dynamics

Biogeography: The Wuzhen Town is in subtropical monsoon climate, and geologically lies on a alluvial plain, with the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal on the west side of the town.

Cultural features: Wuzhen presents a typical format of water-town citizen life, which involves vivid daily life in the streets, on the bridges, and with the boats and rivers.

Overall landscape: As the key element, water organizes the highly featured local landscape system: interlaced rivers form the basic texture of an area landscape; and streets which are connected with rivers encourage unique commercial activities, inhabitation and transportation.

History and dynamics: The name of the town “Wu” means a dark color, presenting the ooze produced by this alluvial plain. The first civilization on this alluvial plan can be dated back to Neolithic age. During the long history of feudalism, the town of Wuzhen and QingZhen were separately governed. Until 1950, Wuzhen and QingZhen were merged as one town, using the name “Wuzhen Town”. From 1999, Wuzhen Town has undergone a series of changes: repaired streets and houses, wandering visitors, newly occurred jobs inspired by tourism, and inhabitants moving outside. Now the town is still on its way to the transformation, hoping to be more attractive and less controversial in next process. Wuzhen Town has been included by UNESCO in the reserve list of world cultural heritages, and in 2003, gained the “2003 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award”.

Socio-political context

  • Brief explanation of political economy, legal framework

Illustration: Bullet points, image, background notes

Wuzhen Town, locates at the vigorous economic region of east china. However, before 1998,Wuzhen Town was still a declining and unknown town. Young people had left their hometown, with the town's old house in ruins. In the protection and development of this ancient town, there exist various problems, such as illegal structures, chaotic overhead line, indiscriminate discharge of sewage. Luckily, most of the ancient building and living facilities are maintained the antique style, as the cultural wealth of Wuzhen Town.

In 1998, the local authority of Wuzhen Town committed Shanghai Tongji Urban Planning & Design Institute to finish the “Preservation and Planning of Wuzhen Historical Town”. In the planning, it pointed out the general orientation of preserving program and tourism exploitation. According to the planning, the town should be compartmentalized by four protecting levels, ranging from regulatory protecting to absolute protecting, and thus brought different protecting measures. The result of the protecting program is an area of preserving zone and buffer zone covering 198 hectares.

In 1999, after considerate research on the east part, “The First Phase of General Plan for Wuzhen Town” was issued, as well as detailed plans for improvement and rectification. In the same year, the protecting project of the east part started its way to implementation. The achievement of the first phase protection was obvious. It successfully preserved a historic view and precious legacy, and simultaneously brought vitality to Wuzhen Town’s economy. Though the success was quite remarkable, the area that the first phase of the program covered was only a quarter of the whole town. There were still needs to repair large amount of historic buildings, and to offer better service for tourists. So from 2003, Wuzhen Town had started the second phase of the protecting program, concentrating on the west part of the town, involving a billion investment.

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Spatial analysis of area/project

  • What are the main structural features?
  • How has it been shaped? Were there any critical decisions?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

The criss-cross of adjacent land and water, parallelled streets and rivers, makes up a pattern look like two sets of chessboard overlapping together. (The image below shows the main rivers, while the streets are usually attached with them.)

Originted by Google map and illustrated by Adobe

And this successful experience has been called “Wuzhen mode”by the UNESCO. With the Overall concept of “repairing the old by the old, and maintaining their character”, the master planning of Wuzhen Town, effectively preserve the architectural characteristics of southern Chinese riverside town and folk cultures , respect the history and cultural connotation.

Analysis of idea/program/function ("Planning Objective")

  • What are the main functional characteristics?
  • How have they been expressed or incorporated?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

According to the planning, the town should be compartmentalized by four protecting levels, ranging from regulatory protecting to absolute protecting, and thus brought different protecting measures. The result of the protecting program is an area of preserving zone and buffer zone covering 198 hectares.

Analysis of design/planning process ("Process Biography")

  • How was the area/project formulated and implemented?
  • Who initiated the project and why?
  • Which stakeholders have been involved?
  • Who made the major decisions and when?
  • Were there any important consultations/collaborations?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

In 1999, the planning was accomplished by Historic and Cultural City Institute of Tongji University . According to the planning, Wuzhen would have a series of preservation and repair projects in 3 to 5 years, divided in 3 periods. In the year 2001, the first phase was implemented, covering over 0.46 square kilometers. The first phase proved to be a huge attraction for tourists. Due to the success of previous projects, the second phase of the planning pursued a more perfect and deep planning for the west part of the town. Since the year 2003, the second phase has been under construction, involving 10 billion RMB, covering an area of 3 square kilometers.

It is the authority of Tongxiang City, which Wuzhen Town belonged to, that initiated the project. Two factors encouraged the idea of preservation and renewal. One is that the city authority hoped to be acknowledged in both economic and cultural dimension, so a renewal of the historic town became appropriate. The other factor came to the current situation of Wuzhen Town. Wuzhen had the worst performance in economy in all of 13 towns in Tongxiang city, however it was rather prosperous in the past. So the authority started to think about the possibility to stimulate local economy of Wuzhen by tourism. These two factors induced Wuzhen on its way to the significant project.


  • The city authority, who initiated the whole project.
  • Administrative Committee of Wuzhen Town Preservation and Tourism, who was in charge of the whole planning program.
  • Tourism corporations, who showed their interested investment items and provided their advice to planners according to their previous experience in tourism.
  • Professional planners, who combined opinions from other skateholders and made the planning.
  • The inhabitants were not well involved.

The public participation degree in this project was at low level. Part of the original residents had to move from their old house to a new residential area out of the preservation area. Besides, residents are not allowed to run their own business in the town. Instead, if they want to earn profit from tourism, the only possible way is working for Tourism corporations. These rather aroused a controversy, but Wuzhen Town insisted.

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Analysis of use/users

  • How is the area/project used and by whom?
  • Is the use changing? Are there any issues?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

The users: For thousand years, Wuzhen has been a town for local residants living, working, gathering, and have trading with the outside. The town was also used by merchants from outside who came to the town for trading.

The change: Since inhabitants moved and tourists come, the users of the town became those tourists. Although some original inhabitans are hired and working in the town, they are indeed working for tourists.

Future development directions

  • How is the area/project evolving?
  • Are there any future goals?

Illustration: Map/diagram/sketches photos and background notes

Back to top Wuzhen town, with numerous historical monuments and close-set ancient houses , has historic neighborhood buildings of about 16 million square meters. In 1999, on the basis of the construction of "Culture City" requirements, the local government launched the complete protection and development to the ancient town. Afterwards, the Improvement Projects of East gate Scenic Area and the west gate Scenic Area were run .In different emphasis, the former focused on the protection of the heritage value and promotion of the historic town’s value of tourism, while the latter focused on the function of the issues in the preservation of residential patterns and function. With the project in progress, the ancient town is no longer a mere "tourist museum" to become a living community in complete function and perfect combination of modern and ancient life

Peer reviews or critique

  • Has the area/project been reviewed by academic or professional reviewers?
  • What were their main evaluations?

  • After the first phase of the project finished, Wuzhen town started to welcome visitors, including professional reviewers in different academic fields, such as historical relic preservation, architecture, landscape architecture and tourism planning. It has also attracted UNESCO officials.
  • Many academic thesis and articles have viewed Wuzhen Town as a new model for historical town preservation and tourism development. In those articles, people acknowledged positive effects brought by a so-called “Wuzhen Mode”, which referred to a combination of government leadership and corporation involvement. This mode, unlike other development molds in other historical town in china, had successfully avoided Wuzhen being an exceedingly commercial place.
  • On the other hand, in this mode of Wuzhen, residents were seldom involved in the project, they were not allowed to run their own business,“which produced a suspicion of corporation monolopy”(Mystery in Wuzhen Preservation,Sichuan Daily). Besides, many of the inhabitants had to move out from the ancient town, where they and their ancestors had lived. The low degree of inhabitants involvement was and is a controversy in “Wuzhen mode”. Critiques said that the town without its residents is not a vividly living town, but only an imaginary beauty for visitors.

Successes and limitations

  • What do you see as the main successes and limitations of the area/project?

Illustration: Summary table

Wuzhen success and limitations.jpg

What can be generalized from this case study?

  • Are there any important theoretical insights?

Short statement plus background notes

Development of Wuzhen mode: With the respect for the history and culture, and the top priority of the protection, protection and tourism development combine with each other harmoniously in the Marketization way.

Protection of Wuzhen mode: In the protection of Wuzhen Town, government have provided an effective exploration in the development of the ancient town, using advanced management, launching efforts such as undergrounding the pipeline, dredging the channel, repairing the old objects as before, and controlling the excessive commercialization.

What research questions does it generate?

Short statement plus background notes

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1.A balance between development and conservation: How to preserve the culture during development process? And what kind of development can be made to inspire the town's self-improving?

2.A definition of the vernacular landscape: Find out what identities exactly make the town's existing landscape, then appreciate and promote them.

3.An administration and management system: To provide leading and far-sighted guidance for the town's developement and renovation.

4.A fair use of public cultural and natural resources: To perfect the public participation system, which involving not only tourism-relating groups, but also local people or social associations. And keep a balance of economic benefit between inhabitants and other stakeholders.

Image Gallery

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  • Author Year: Title, publisher, edition, page, ...
  • Ruan Yisan, 2002: Wu zhen, Zhejiang Photography Publisher, first edition, 24-56;90-104
  • Li zhen & Lei Dongxia,2007: Scenario Recuring and Landscape Remoulding: Investigating the Cultural Space Conserving Methords, Architecural Journal, 2007.5, 1-4. (in pdf edition)

  • Website Year: Link, keyword, ...

"Metamorphosis of Wuzhen: A Model of Historic Town Protective Exploiture"

  •,no data to know the year:

"Mysteries in The Preserving of Wuzhen"

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