There’s nothing that helps me get a feel for a new city better than long walks. Aside from the obvious ability to just observe at a human pace and scale, wandering around on foot gives a sense of how space is arranged and used in a particular place. I guess I have always been very sensitive to space and the physical characteristics of my environment. So in walking through three of China’s large cities, I was immediately struck by how differently space is used.
In cities as large as Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing, it’s hard not to notice all the people. Yes, there are a lot of them. But oddly enough, one of the first things that struck me is how well they seem to fit the streets. This feels like a function of two things. The first is that in many of the newer areas, ample sidewalks exist. I suppose this matches the ever-wider streets that are being built to accommodate growing car ownership. Now, of course, these sidewalks are often full of people. I could barely walk anywhere at any time without seeing other people, which definitely stands in contrast to the U.S. (and actually gave me a sense of security). But on this type of street, I was genuinely surprised at how navigable and spacious the atmosphere felt.
Tucked between the larger streets were the smaller ones, the single lanes with few sidewalks and plenty of uses intermingling—the Chinese streetscape I had expected. Here I felt the crush of people more often, though that feeling was less to do with pedestrians than motorbike drivers and cyclists. These streets took more of a classic free-for-all approach to navigating narrow spaces, with each decision about where and when to move governed not by rules but by a person-to-person negotiation. Stepping forward, pulling back, seeing what the other person would do. I was, frankly, pretty bad at this game. But I did find it fascinating . And I also noticed that vestiges of this behavior existed even on the large, wide sidewalks of the business districts. Every time some tiny grandmother shoved me aside or walked boldly into traffic, I thought about how hard it is to give up habits even when the environment has clearly changed.
As I watched how the Chinese navigated these spaces (and watched myself), I could see how differently they existed in the same place. They found footpaths where I didn’t see any. They sat in chairs or short stools right along the street, chatting with neighbors, seemingly oblivious to the frantic traffic less than a foot from their chosen lounging spots. And many shopkeepers whipped up amazing food in storefronts that we would probably consider unreasonably small in the United States. Yet I watched person after person use these small spaces to maximum effect, which often entailed spilling store operations into the street. And so my walk would change and slow as I sidestepped pots drying in the sun or a card game at a low table sitting right in the roadway.
While some spaces felt so much larger than those I was used to—how did twelve-lane roadways become commonplace?—others were so small, like the few inches of curb people would deftly use to stroll. For me, walking, watching, and mimicking what I saw were a way for me to gain some small understanding of what it might be like for the average Chinese person to go about a normal day. And that feeling of walking down the street will be something I don’t quickly forget.