We all love public space, so why are we giving it up?

Cao Xinyu
The essence of a "sharing" city lies in its public space. Many Chinese cities are attractive because it is old.
Cao Xinyu

As Dutch architect Harry Den Hartog pointed out in a recent speech, the essence of a “sharing” city lies in its public space.

But the cold, hard fact is that public space in cities is in short supply, as more and more of it becomes privatized. On sidewalks or in community, places for people to gather, to interact and to engage in communal activities are dwindling. Hartog even went so far as declaring that public space is on the verge of dying.

My perception of public space could be mostly traced to my childhood spent in a neighborhood in Pudong.

There, the morning began with the sound of street peddlers hawking hand-wrapped wontons, youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) and soybean milk.

Then the neighborhood echoed with the noise of children running to school.

On hot summer nights, residents would carry stools and striped deckchairs to the nearby garden after dinner, trading gossip or playing Chinese chess, with pets slouching at their feet and children frolicking around.

In recent years, the older neighborhoods are being increasingly replaced by a concrete jungle made up of glittering high-rise residential buildings.

Perhaps in the face of the draconian demand for housing in megacities like Shanghai, this vertical growth could be justified to a degree, though there is no denying the drawbacks of such development: Almost all housing estates nowadays are walled-off, with security manning each entrance.

The high walls may help ward off thieves and burglars, but they are also carving up the cities in fragments that shut out all but those who live in the neighborhood. Thus the sense of security is somehow achieved at the cost of distancing ourselves from the bustling street life and giving up the gossips, drop-ins, or the Chinese chess once enjoyed by our parents.

These residential buildings, which essentially refuse to communicate with each other, are essentially like so many isolated islands scattered in the city. And maybe so are the people locked within.

In recent decades, we have also been seeing the rise of many shopping malls stocked with commodities of conveivable kinds. They are often situated near metro stations, attracting consumers miles and miles away.

These shopping malls are, to considerable extent, becoming the new public space. But according to Hartog, they are not. They are more like spaceships dropping into place without any heed for existing social structure. And the malls are closed during the night.

Some scholars like Alan Bryman feared that urbanization is often accompanied by the formalization or “Disneyization” of city spaces, which refers to the creation of urban space that resembles a theme park, where any trait believed to be “negative” is assiduously sanitized.

Many Chinese cities are attractive because to many outsiders they represent a mixture of old and new, chaos and order, but especially because it is old. It is these contrasts or extremes that give the city its character and soul.

Such uniqueness is too precious to lose, so public space should not be excessively formalized, sanitized or standardized.

In their ambition to become a global city, many Chinese cities are confronting the challenges of how to preserve, not to say create, public space where residents would still feel comfortable to participate in communal activities.

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