Public Space, Private Lives

Finding Community on the Streets of Shanghai

November 25, 2013

Designer, NBBJ


I moved to Shanghai in 2010, in the run-up to the World Expo, a time of massive change as the city frantically added subway lines, tore down unsightly highways (along the Bund, for instance) and constructed vast convention halls to accommodate the expected throngs. Though the constant noise of construction and the concrete dust filling the air were the most noticeable signs of this frenetic activity, change was expected and encouraged in other aspects of city life as well.

A government campaign styled “Let’s Become Lovely Shanghainese” encouraged Shanghai’s citizens to “trim [their] nostril hair short,” refrain from spitting (or worse) in public, and discouraged walking outside in pajamas. This last point may surprise you, if you’ve never been to Shanghai. For foreign visitors and residents in the city, it’s a common sight, and a constant source of bemusement. While much virtual ink has been spilled about this phenomenon (most often by disparaging the Chinese for their “improper” attire), it’s rarely been considered as a result of Shanghai’s unique urban form.

In China, access to public space can be severely limited, controlled, and choreographed. Public parks are often surrounded by tall fences, with access via only a few main gates. Playing on the grass is usually forbidden. European-style plazas are rare in China, and where they do exist they’re often cut off from the city. Some require entry fees. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square — once the largest public square in the world — is cut off from the city by several layers of barricades, accessible only through security checkpoints, complete with metal detectors.

In contrast, Shanghai’s streets are alive with activity. Though the city’s modern apartments are spacious, they are a relatively new phenomenon. Many residents are accustomed to multiple generations living together in cramped quarters: concession-era villas or old shikumen row houses (Shanghai’s predominant housing typology from the 1800s to the 1980s), subdivided to accommodate several extended families each. This lack of private space encourages personal use of public space, as private life flows out to the streets.

Since access to public space is limited in Shanghai, residents have creatively co-opted “discovered” spaces for their own use. Pockets of space around or under infrastructure support diverse, and regular, activities. Groups gather on pavements in front of shopping malls to dance or sing karaoke, fruit vendors set their carts by the lush gardens under elevated highways, and small businesses place tables and chairs on the narrow sidewalks, redirecting pedestrians out into the street. Games of mahjong or cards become major events, with as many spectators as participants. Small pockets of grass and sidewalk railings become spots for tai chi. This intimate use of space creates a palpable sense of community.

In Shanghai, the distinction between public and private space is not always clear. In a typical block of shikumen housing, a commercial perimeter is cut north-south by major lanes, and further divided east-west by smaller alleys. Small courtyard houses are accessed via these lanes, and the whole complex is often secured by gates (though these are typically open). The progression from the major commercial thoroughfare, to lane, to alley, to courtyard establishes a hierarchy of space that is not found in other housing typologies: the formal logic of the shikumen block produces a public-to-private gradient that ensures a high level of security and social cohesion. People from outside the community are immediately noticed and become more visible the deeper they move into the complex. The form of the architecture aligns with the structure of the social group, and encourages the residents to make use of communal space beyond their own homes.

This rich gradient between public and private life in Shanghai contributes to a great sense of community. And as urbanization continues around the world, we as designers can learn some lessons from the urban fabric of Shanghai to design public spaces that enable and encourage diverse activities, and thus contribute to the vibrant social life of the city.

And maybe we should all try wearing pajamas in public.


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