Happy New Year to you and happy four-month Shanghai-versary to me!
Time flies when you are walking hard for a living! Right before Thanksgiving, I posted a gratitude blog outlining five Shanghai placemaking features for which I was thankful. I promised you a second post the following week detailing five NYC built environment features that I’d come to herald even more after my time in Shanghai. Embarrassingly, I’m six weeks late! In my defense, I have since been to Beijing (twice), Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Bangkok; have given three talks; attended too many meetings to count; cooked a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast, complete with Cuban beans, pork and mojo; and, oh, hosted my in-laws in Shanghai (they bought up the whole city, including an extra suitcase in which to lug it all back with them!). It’s exhausting just writing that sentence – no less living through it – but the good news is it provided much fodder for future blog posts. Do stay tuned. But without further ado, today’s blog post:
Top five NYC placemaking features (that I hope I can import to Shanghai – and China)
1. Walking on “terra firma”
Seems pathetic that my time in Shanghai has me longing for the simple pleasure of being able to walk firmly on the ground. Across many Shanghai districts and in most large Chinese cities, it is a luxury to feel the earth beneath you when traversing large intersections. Some argue that pedestrian overpasses help promote safety. I counter loudly – at best, they are bestial eyesores; at worst, they are bastions of the auto-dependent landscapes that have become more ubiquitous than smart phones in China. These pedestrian bridges are inconvenient, often unkept, and help perpetuate the ethos that cars are better and have more rights than pedestrians.
2. Eight is [more than] enough
It was difficult to find a photo that properly relayed the ridiculous largeness of the intersections in China. They are so wide that it is impossible to fully capture them in one single frame. While the US has its share of highways passing for streets, transportation engineers in China have had their way – and then some – designing streets so wide that only Olympic sprinters can cross them in the time allotted! Pedestrians are instead forced to wait mid intersection, on a ped island that amounts to little more than a life vest in shark-infested waters – if you’re lucky enough to even have one. The widest road I ever came across in Manhattan had six lanes, two of which were parking lanes (and it was one of the most hated streets in the borough). Perhaps we have good ol’ Robert Moses – the “Master Builder of New York” – to blame for that one. Unfortunately, in China, there are too many Robert Moseses – each with multiple mega roads under his belt – to count.
3. These “streets” are made for walking
Here, the challenge was choosing only one picture! By far, my growing image bank documenting the fruits of my labor is dominated by photos of streets with pedestrian barriers. Barriers come in as many shapes and sizes as dumplings in China. You can find them on most streets. Poles, scaffolding, construction, motorcycles, cars, street vendors (yes, as much as I love them, they are often guilty of blocking the sidewalk), consulate barricades, more poles, and even the occasional dynamite explosions (this happened right in front of me while leading my very first Walk & Talk meetup group!) all contribute to the consummate obstacle course that is walking in China. While scenes like this particular one could be chalked up to “cultural differences,” I won’t give China a pass on the other countless physical barriers (and psychological – see # 1 on this list) that pedestrians must navigate in order to safely and conveniently use the most sustainable (and oldest) form of transportation available to us. While weekly trash disposal and oft-narrow sidewalks do pose pedestrian barrier issues in NYC, in comparison to the myriad, egregious sidewalk barriers in China, they are small, eye-roll-inducing nuisances – perils of city living (that of course, still need to be addressed!).
4. Apples with apples
Yes, that’s a car attempting to drive onto the sidewalk, via the curbcut, right in front of my Walk & Talk meetup group! Unfortunately, I was unable to get the guy guiding the driver through this whole process in the same shot! I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. To safely walk as a pedestrian in China, you need eyes in the back of your head. Seeing as humans have yet to evolve that particular body part, for now that means you have to look right, left, right again, peer over your shoulder, lean back, lean forward, all before crossing the street in China – heck, you need to do this while you’re walking on the sidewalk! Motorized vehicles – from cars to e-bikes, trucks to scooters, buses to make-shift I don’t know what – all take precedence over pedestrians. You have to look out for them at every turn – and step. Being in a constant state of high-alert is taxing and can take the joy out of walking. I’m not saying that NYC drivers are the most obedient stock, but at least you know you’re not going to all of a sudden encounter a car whizzing by you on the sidewalk in NYC!
5. The prince of Fresh-air
Ok, fine, Will Smith lives in LA, not NYC, but you get the picture. This is my DIY filter after two days of near-record breaking AQI (air quality index) in Shanghai. That is not a shadow. That is filth. That filth was in the air. Inside my apartment. The scariest part is that a few weeks after this picture was taken, we indeed broke the record for the worst AQI in Shanghai since they began recording it. The readings were off the charts. Anything above 300 is considered hazardous; 500 was the maximum. During the Shanghai “airpocaplyse,” the AQI topped 600. I cannot quite describe how trapped I felt during this time. Confined to my apartment, I actually longed to engage in the taxing battle that is pedestrian life here. Give me your ugliest most imposing pedestrian overpass, your most morbidly obese intersection, your most steadfast barrier. I’ll gladly duck aggressive cars, silent ebikes, and motorbikes with their lights off in the game of frogger this country calls walking. Just let me out. Let me breathe fresh air. The kicker is, in China, the lack of the first four urban design principles outlined here is linked to the lack of the fifth. I will never again take for granted my beautiful, peaceful, clean air-filled walk from my NYC apartment to my beloved Tompkins Square park.
While this post may seem more like I’m bemoaning China’s bad urban design and less like a list of what I love (or miss most) about NYC, it’s actually part of my wish list for China. It’s part of the change I want to see in China. It’s part of the change I’m here to help impart. I have lots in store to help me achieve that aim. In the meantime, please keep walking along with me!