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February 11, 2019

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Knock, knock. Urban management calling

Urban management and enforcement officials are pariahs in the eyes of many.

They close down illegal street vendors, dismantle unauthorized structures in apartment blocks, appear on the scene if your neighbor complains that you are making too much noise, prevent people from storing their junk in public spaces and confiscate illegal flyers, to name just a few of their duties.

So, who are these people?

Shanghai has more than 7,900 urban management and enforcement officials, and it may come as a surprise to many that just over four-fifths of them are college educated, including 388 postgraduates. About 10 percent of them were born after 1990.

The duty of urban management and enforcement authorities covers more than 400 affairs, and that will be expanded by another 100 this year. Their jobs are at the grassroots of Shanghai life.

Xu Limin, 30, was a postgraduate at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, majoring in law. He has been an urban management and enforcement official in Hunan subdistrict of Xuhui District since 2012.

“Many don’t understand why I chose this job because I had so many other options,” he said. “But I find it interesting. The rapid changes in cities have placed high requirements on urban management, and I believe the job is full of potential.”

In the Hengfu historical protection zone around Hengshan and Fuxing roads, more than 100 historical buildings fall within the jurisdiction of Xu’s team.

His major duties include handling complaints, on-the-scene investigations, and dealing with illegal structures or damage to load-bearing structures.

He works in all weathers — rain and snow, sun and wind.

When a complaint is received his team are quick to the scene. They judge the situation or call in professional testing authorities if needed. Those responsible for an unauthorized structure are ordered to dismantle it and restore the original appearance of the building.

Xu said his team works outside almost all the time.

In one case, the landlord of an apartment in a garden villa built in the 1930s on Huating Road severely damaged a load-bearing wall. However, the building plans of the villa were missing, making it difficult to ascertain the exact properties of the wall.

Xu visited many offices in the city to piece together the information.

Making it even harder was the stubborn resistance of the landlord toward the investigation. It took Xu several visits to convince him of the safety hazards. In the end, the landlord restored the building to its original state.

“The job not only requires physical strength, but it also tests our mentality and ability to coordinate,” Xu said. “All-round skills are important for an urban management and enforcement official.”

The job involves poking into households where more than 10 people often live under one roof. Disputes among neighbors are commonplace, Xu said.

“We need to consider the real living situations of residents, and we often have to resort to mediation,” he said. “Every person has their own characteristics, and they differ in age. I have to communicate differently with different people. You need to know them and use language they can understand.”

Other instances of enforcement involve noise. For example, nighttime construction noise from a theater at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music drew complaints from nearby residents. Xu intervened and ordered the workers to halt nocturnal activities.

The team works under what is called “intelligent urban management.” Each team member has a handheld law enforcement digital device where the whole enforcement process can be captured.

Photo and video evidence is uploaded onto a platform where a scene can be viewed in real time. Each historical building has its own electronic file, upgraded from time to time and providing a reference for officials.

Drones can be used over high buildings to take panoramic evidence of illegal structures, or in cases when residents refuse to let officials in.

The team works every day of the year and is available 24 hours a day. On New Year’s Eve, they were on duty stopping illegal fireworks.

Xu is very responsible, conscientious, studious and diligent, said Zhang Ge, deputy leader of the 20-plus team.

When Li Jiannan, 31, a commercial law graduate, started working in urban management at Xinhua subdistrict in Changning District in 2012, his responsibility was public sanitation.

“It was difficult from the very beginning,” said Li.

Two officials had to drive away 50 to 60 street vendors, and many residents were upset because there was only one wet market in the area and some of the vendors sold vegetables and fish.

Li’s team had to call the police once when an illegal stall owner’s barbecue threatened to ignite the fuel tank of the team’s vehicle.

In 2016, the duties of urban management and enforcement officials changed and were expanded, making illegal structures and damage to load-bearing walls in old buildings a highlight.

“I didn’t know at first how to identify a load-bearing wall and had to teach myself how to compare drawings,” said Li.

The jurisdiction of his team covers 2.2 square kilometers with 125 historical buildings, about 5 percent of the city’s total.

Many were designed by foreign architects with no detailed building plans. Some of had already been significantly renovated before 1949, turning three-story steeples into flat roofs.

Residents, many of whom are 70 or older, often constructed a small room to use as a kitchen or toilet. Tip-offs from neighbors point officials to sources of problems.

The protection of historical buildings and safety concerns arising from illegal structures frequently clash with residents’ desires to improve their lives.

“Law and emotions are often at loggerheads,” said Li. “We strive for balance and the understanding of all sides. It’s not always easy.”

A joint working team involving neighborhood committees and property managers helps deal with situations.

Earlier last month, Li received a complaint about a man in his 80s knocking a door through a load-bearing wall. When Li visited the scene, the man threatened him with a kitchen knife.

“The job requires wisdom and knowledge,” he said. “I need to think about how to investigate complaints and how to persuade people to cooperate.”

Li’s caseload involves expats living in the area.

A Japanese shopkeeper dumped bags of construction waste in the street, where he expected it to be picked up, as is the custom in Japan. The waste occupied about 15 square meters on Anshun Road.

After Li spoke with the shopkeeper, he realized his mistake and cleared the waste away.

Li’s team also has to stop storage of household items in public spaces like corridors and halt damage to local greenery. It has tackled group-renting problems and party noise.

Li often patrols the streets at night, handling emergency complaints and checking for trucks carrying construction waste without a permit.

“The public impression of urban management has changed a lot as our work has moved closer to residential communities,” said Sun Qin, an official with Xuhui District Urban Management and Law Enforcement Administration.

Every year, the administration recruits about 20 new members, many of them graduates.

“They are quick to learn and are very professional,” said Zhang. “It brings young blood to the team.”

Public satisfaction with urban management and enforcement rose to 80.6 in the second half of last year, more than two points higher than the same period in 2017.


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