I think I’ve become somewhat of a curator of this blog. I read it all, in reverse chronology, on an especially smoggy evening when I dared not venture outside. If you make it all the way back to the very first post you’re rewarded with this stellar video. Thanks 2011 interns, you guys were hilarious.
It’s just that when I think of a post topic I want to see what others have said, because we MURPs are interesting, insightful people. As my time here at CAUPD is drawing to a close, one the biggest impressions I’m left with of China is the incredibly vibrant public life on display. And lo and behold, I count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve other posts commenting on the same thing.
I spent the first 25 years of my life in sprawling placeless suburbia, USA. There was zero public street life (the yearly Christmas parade doesn’t count). The main culprit seems to be the urban form and car dependency. I lived about 4 blocks from my elementary school but was driven to and from there every day. When I finished my undergrad I lived in a loft apartment downtown and worked at a law firm about 6 blocks away, where I also drove to and from daily. I remember working from home once because the roads were icy and I didn’t want to drive on them. It took moving to Portland and leaving my car in the Midwest before I realized these boots were made for walking. It was an epiphany.
Joplin was the primary reason I was drawn to my workshop project, 4th Plain Forward. 4th Plain suffers from the same trappings of a placeless suburban arterial. It could be anywhere USA, where you go from your car to the parking lot and back to your car. What do you do with a place like that? My workshop team had some ideas, and reorienting auto-oriented suburbia is no doubt one of the biggest planning challenges we face. Aside from the environmental and health problems associated with this kind of development, it just lacks a soul. In the majority of America, public street life just doesn’t happen. I think US planners desperately want to create vibrant public spaces, but for the most part we aren’t successful.
That is probably why China seems so remarkable. You would be challenged to find a non-vibrant public space here. The dance groups are legendary, and you’ll also find people exercising, eating, playing games, selling wares, flying kites, chasing kids, repairing bikes, and just sitting in public, living their life. It feels completely different, in a life-changing sort of way. Every day I walk by an exercise playground frequented by elderly folks and think of my own frail granny who has lost her strength because she only sits and watches TV all day. How different would her life be if she could walk down to the park for some Tai Chi and socializing?
There is danger of it eroding as the cityscape changes and losses ever more ground to the automobile, but many streets are still public spaces unlike any I’ve ever experienced in America. And it all just seems to happen organically. Is it the density? The urban form? The culture? The planning? As many have noted, the parks here are amazing. But I’ve also seen a 30+ conga line in a narrow space between the sidewalk and the entrance to an insurance company. Vibrant public life just happens everywhere.
I think Hannah could be onto something with her observations about private space and less emphasis on personal possessions. When you have less to call your own are you inclined to share more with the community? My husband Eli, a Sinophile if there ever was one, thinks the culture plays a huge part. It is one of the oldest civilizations in history, and has gone through some brutally trying times to now be the global hegemon. The shared history is probably going to make you feel connected to your community. Or is there just innate vibrancy in a dense city of millions?
I’m all questions with no answers, but would love to know what others think. It has been one of the most enjoyable experiences of living here, and I haven’t had enough! I’ll be living somewhere in China for the foreseeable future, so if future MURP interns want to hit me up you can (vtylep at gmail).
I’ll leave it at this video, a spontaneous chorus in the park that we stumbled across. They had more heart than any church choir I’ve ever heard.