Urban design influences human behavior. The layout of public spaces, the street, the buildings, the stores and all the physical elements that make up a community affect the availability of activities and how people use space. As Fred Kent from PPA puts it – If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.
Physical inactivity is a health problem in various countries, causing premature deaths and chronic and non-communicable diseases. However, sometimes there is a lack of consideration of how the urban form affects physical activity and how it can be used to address this growing problem. But not everywhere. While wandering around Beijing wearing our planning glasses we saw how culture and urban design merge to produce a very interesting city to work on those muscles!
It is now 6 p.m. and it is time to explore the city. It is not hard to find a park or a plaza within a short walk. There is music and laughing and color and food and smells and something else that we cannot see. Walls of people curious like us make it very hard to make out what is happening in the square. After struggling to get to the first row of the event we finally see it, at least 20 couples dancing. All ages are here. The music comes from a special motorcycle modified to carry a speaker. A party in the middle of the square. We cannot believe it. And It is free! (as a student this is an important consideration). Our friend Huayei gets surprised of us being surprised. She tells us that every night people (mainly retired folks) gather to dance in the main public spaces all over Beijing.
This popular tradition is seen as an alternative to more demanding exercises and is accessible to all kind of people. It began around the 90s, as an activity for retired middle-aged women who wanted to keep themselves busy while getting the benefits of exercising and socializing in one shot. The “Damas” are in the squares and parks dancing in group, couples, solo – whatever they feel like. Every night.
While some people who participate in this activity feel an improvement both in their mental and physical health, others complain about the noise pollution during late hours in residential areas (I don’t get it, this music is very relaxing!). This is just the result of its big success and lack of spaces available for it. The Damas dance in parks, plazas, streets, sidewalks, malls, hutong alleyways, everywhere. One day we will find them in our place! Now, I am practicing my salsa dancing skills so that next time I see the Damas I can burn up the dance floor.
For those not dancing in the square, just getting around Beijing is a great workout. Beijing’s street network is organized into massive superblocks. As a pedestrian, this means that getting places can take a long time. The layout is not very conducive for quick trips – it makes everywhere seem impossibly far away on foot. But, people still walk. Around 21% of Beijing residents commute to work on foot. Because there are so many people on the street, there are always interesting things to see – so it is easy to loose track of how long you have been walking. Sometimes, I set off for a quick stroll only to get sucked into the gravity of a superblock. Hours later I return, physically invigorated – after having walked only a couple of blocks.
Riding the subway is also physically demanding. Beijing subway stations are mazes of hallways and stairs. If you want to transfer lines, it often requires passing through a network of long tunnels. Intermittent gusts of wind blow through the tunnels, which adds an element of resistance training to the ordeal. Escalators are often out of service. Subway cars are packed and you usually have to stand for the whole ride. There is no need to go to the gym with a subway system like the one in Beijing.
When my muscles are feeling tight from a long day navigating Beijing, and I need a moment to limber up, I like to go to one of Beijing’s many stretching parks. The yellow and blue stretching stations are on nearly every block. They are especially popular with older adults. At the crack of dawn, they are packed with people starting their days off with some low-impact exercise. There is one outside our window and I wake every day to the sounds of physical activity. During the day, they are usually empty except for the occasional tired pedestrian (me).
I appreciate how space in the city is set aside for stretching. In the U.S., it rarely occurs to me to do stretches in the street, and it is a little embarrassing when I get the urge. There are specific times when I am exercising – I can tell when that is by what kind of pants I am wearing – and that is the only time when I’m comfortable engaging in physical activity. Here, there seems to be less separation between when and where it is appropriate to be active. Everyday existence is a workout, and any place can be a venue for playing around. In this context, proper stretching is an important public health issue.
We live on a University Campus next to a bunch of exercise facilities. These include Basketball and tennis courts, soccer and badminton fields, a race track and stretching facilities. While I was (me, Alvaro) trying to adapt to the new schedule, I woke up every day around 5 a.m. with a lot of energy and awareness of not waking up my roommate. I decided to explore the campus and I noticed that the soccer field was packed with people doing exercise. Running, jumping, walking, playing basketball, tennis, and soccer. There were also seniors doing Tai Chi. Everybody has a space to exercise before going to work. And this is not only during mornings. After work, the field is full with families, adults, kids playing around and having some fun. One night they let us play some basketball but after realizing how bad we were the preferred to take pictures with us and talk about the NBA.
The active culture is not only in the streets but also in the workplace. Here in our office, we are lucky to have a long lunch break where we can disconnect from work every day and have a very calm and relaxed eating moment. But we are twice as lucky every Wednesday when we have the chance to play some soccer, basketball or badminton with our coworkers! From 4 to 6 p.m. (when it is not a busy week) everybody stops their work and goes to the field to have a great time! After playing with them for a while, they fell in love with our “very professional soccer skills”. We were even hired by the CADG Urban Planning Department to play on the department team in the company-wide soccer tournament. We will let you know how it goes!
Alvaro and Daniel.