By Eric Rutledge
Walk up to street level from the underground metro and Shenzhen’s active, seemingly chaotic street life will smack you in the face. Densely packed retail stores, restaurants, and produce shops sit below layers of bright signs in Chinese characters. Pedestrians, bikes, and scooters flow between the street and sidewalk, with little regard for signals, rules, or anyone in their way. Cars (mostly) stay to the street, but with little regard for anything but traffic lights. Horns are used more frequently than brakes, and yielding to anyone seems to mean you will lose years off your life that you can never get back.
This is Shenzhen’s Futian District, formerly an agricultural village, then the heart of the city’s 1980s manufacturing era that gave way to today’s modern business district. As Lauren mentioned below, public space is unsurprisingly a common topic on the Transplanet blog. But how can it not be? For any American planner fortunate enough to experience the invigorating streets of a 21st century Chinese city, one must blog about it.
The idea of leaving my hotel or office and taking to the Futian streets is met with excitement and resistance. I can’t wait to be immersed in the sounds, smells, and sight of a bustling city, where poor rural migrants and ultra-wealthy urban elites push forward with their daily lives. On the other hand, the calm, air conditioned office offers a peaceful place where I can learn the history of the city below me and try to make sense of the chaos I can hear from the third story window.
In the end I’m happy to have both, but my office is not what makes this district special. The same place that American Vision Zero advocates would consider hell on earth is actually heaven on earth for American advocates of the complete neighborhood movement. For my non-planner friends, Vision Zero is the goal of achieving zero traffic fatalities via safe streets and responsible driving, and a complete neighborhood is one where home, work, school, parks, and groceries are within walking or biking distance. So while the street is a frenzy of cars, scooters, and busses and the sidewalk is a frenzy of pedestrians and bicyclists, usually whatever you left the house to get is just around the corner. It’s the latter that American city planners can strive to achieve more of, but what are the conditions in Shenzhen that make the hyper-active streets not only feasible, by necessary?
First, Shenzhen is dense. The urban area features 14,000 people per square mile and the total population is approaching 20 million. Over 1,000 skyscrapers dot the skyline and omni-present cranes are raising even more. Shenzhen’s Futian District is no exception to the density rule and it’s rare to see a building under four stories tall. While some American cities are denser (San Francisco ~17,000 people/sq. mile and New York City ~27,000 people/sq. mile), it’s the sheer number of people in Shenzhen and how they move across the city that make it feel different. The city continues to add sparkling new underground metro lines that connect the city and leave American transportation planners wondering “How can we do that?”. Literally millions of pedestrians pop out of the underground metro system every day and are immediately a potential customer for the street level shops, restaurants, and news stands. If a Shenzhener needs something on their way home from work, they can simply grab it on the way to their apartment. In this regard, densely packed ground floor retail is not a convenience, but a necessity.
Second, smaller living spaces and less cars means more frequent shopping trips for less items. The Futian streets are full of shoppers carrying items at their sides, in rolling carts, or on the back of their bike. The all-American Costco just isn’t a thing here, and while those fortunate enough to have cars certainly use them, parking for any use is limited throughout the city.
Finally, China’s new urban population has spurred serious demand for material goods. In just 35 years, Shenzhen’s lush agricultural land has been replaced by a modern city, full of urban residents that once lived off the land. Consumerism is alive and well here, and much of the shopping takes place on the street. Although high end stores are only located in air conditioned super malls, Futian’s ground level storefronts sell everyday food, clothes, phones, and household supplies. Everywhere you look, it seems, Shenzheners are taking to the street to spend their newly acquired wealth.
- Eric R