One of the ongoing questions of urban planning is: what are the material conditions that support community life? To answer this question, we can’t simply look around and see what has been built, but rather have to reflect on what makes human life interesting, lively and fresh.
This morning I wandered Shekou Industrial Road 7 (蛇口工业7路) and realized that one of the reasons I enjoy this street is not simply the mix of residential, commercial, and industrial spaces, but also the expanse of public space and schoolyards. This public space has been created through the designation of Sihai Park and neighboring sports center, and also because the road is only two-lanes wide, with banyan trees that provide shade. Importantly, one stretch of Industrial Road 7 abuts Wanxia Village, where handshakes line-up in neat rows along one-lane roads and narrow alleys and give way to bustling urban village life.
Street life on Industrial Road 7 manifests the Chinese virtue of renqi (人气), which literally means “human air” and might be translated as “active” or “popular”. Hawkers set up stands under the trees, while elderly men practice water calligraphy on the sidewalk and pre-school children snack on steamed buns and soymilk. Window shopping (逛街) is thoroughly social as neighbors bump into each other on their way to preferred shops, or see each other’s children on their way to school. In the evening, once the sun has set and dinner bowls washed, the area becomes even more lively with families strolling and teenagers hanging out.
Admittedly, there is not much public space on Industrial Road 7. Significantly, however, many of the streets private spaces were built in the early 80s. Landscaping within residential compounds is a continuation of street landscaping, rather than planted with imported topiary that signal the end of the street and the beginning of elite consumption. More tellingly, guards do not actively prevent pedestrians from entering what are now considered low-income housing areas. Likewise, da pai dang (al fresco) mom and pop restaurants also integrate consumption into public life.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs documented and lamented how middle class flight from American cities to the suburbs contributed to the polarization and decay of our inner cities. In contemporary Shenzhen, a similar process is underway as the city’s middle class consolidates its identity and class consciousness through urban renewal projects and gentrification that not only result in clear razing urban villages, but also the construction of expensive malls and gated communities. The movement of people is different — the US middle class abandoned urban cores, and Shenzhen’s middle class is occupying the urban core and pushing the majority low income residents further to the periphery — but the result is the same. The unremitting blandness of these spaces announces and maintains social distinctions between the middle class and working poor, even as they homogenize differences between members of Shenzhen’s rising elite, creating an identifiable “Shenzhen” identity.
Over fifty years ago, Jacobs maintained that people like to live neighborhoods like Industrial Road 7. Moreover, she held that youngster and elders alike need accessible areas of mixed activities, cross-use of land, short blocks, mingle buildings of varying size, type and condition, and encourage dense concentrations of people. The point is to nurture marginal activities and small businesses, little restaurants and bars, as well as everything deviant, bohemian, intellectual or bizarre that make an area charming and vigorous.
I also believe that this diversity humanizes us to the extent that we recognize ourselves in someone else’s life and consequently the wider our experience of difference, the more human we may become. In contrast, when we lay 4-lane roads without shade trees, build gated communities that isolate themselves from the street, and decide that malls, rather than parks better serve the public interest, we have proclaimed that to be human in the early 21st century is to aspire to life as a high-end mallrat.
Impressions of morning walk along Shekou Industrial Road 7, from Houhai Road west to Yanshan Road.