Rapid urban transformation in Chinese historic centres over the past two decades has radically modified the majority of existing urban fabrics. Processes mainly based on the replacement of traditional neighbourhoods with new developments have purported substantial changes in the use of areas, transforming them into mono-functional commercial districts. In other cases, conservation plans designed to preserve the physical qualities of existing urban sectors have failed to maintain active and lively communities, leading to strong gentrification processes and a loss of authenticity. The reasons behind these criticalities can be pinpointed in the large-scale planning strategies that are promoted by local administrations and planning bureaus in most Chinese cities. Regeneration plans usually define homogeneous interventions for large swaths of urban fabric, at times failing to acknowledge the presence of more granular features present in the sites. These can be related to existing forms of community life that could be leveraged to achieve more inclusive transformation processes. Today, the governance model for urban regeneration is characterized by a markedly top-down approach, designed to ensure the efficiency of the entire process. Nevertheless, it does not seem entirely capable of responding to the complex demands set forth by the local communities. Regeneration plans for Chinese historic districts today are based on accurate surveys and mappings of existing urban fabrics. Good-level data and information on the areas is thus usually available. This guarantees, among other things, protection for salient heritage objects, which however risk being isolated by extensive transformation processes radically changing their surroundings. Between the large scale of the whole district, and the small scale of the individual building, there seems to be a missing “intermediate” dimension. To cater to this intermediate scale, and at once provide indications related to qualitative questions that urban-scale plans are usually unable to address, further instruments for governance can prove effective. Among these are codes for design guidance that a local administration may adopt at the district or city level, to pursue a specific vision for an area undergoing transformation, going beyond merely quantitative and functional indications. In this framework, the city of Suzhou represents a unique case for China. Its large historic center, still comparatively spared from aggressive renovation processes, is subjected to an accurate control over building activity. The local administration is interested in defining strategies for a long-term, sustainable regeneration capable of balancing economic aspects with the preservation of its diffused urban heritage. In this light, the authors intend to study the possibility of developing and applying a set of “smart” project guidance tools, inspired by more agile governance frameworks, that could promote a balanced and inclusive urban regeneration in the context of Suzhou.
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