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    Can City Walks Fix What Ails Chinese Urbanism?

    Urbanists were calling for more walkable cities before it was cool. Now they want to leverage the city walk boom to make their vision a reality.

    China’s post-pandemic tourism rebound has been all about trends. From the rapid-fire, cheap trips made by the country’s young “special forces tourists” to the buzz around culinary destinations like Zibo and Tianshui, Chinese are looking for alternatives to tour buses, expensive hotels, and overcrowded scenic areas. And nothing captures that mood quite like the growing popularity of city walks.

    Consisting of short, targeted walks around historic or interesting neighborhoods, city walks emerged last year as an easy, accessible alternative to expensive, long-distance vacations. With domestic travel reaching record highs after the pandemic and tourist hotspots increasingly overwhelmed during peak travel season, many urban Chinese started exploring the shops, heritage buildings, and parks near their homes — sometimes under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable guide and sometimes with nothing more than a smartphone and a list of social media tips. Local governments have been quick to promote the trend, seeing it as a way to keep residents and their wallets close to home.

    But for some urbanists, the rise of city walks is about more than money. In a country of sprawling cities and large migrant populations, the trend could signal a turning point in the relationship between urban dwellers and their communities — and potentially, a new future for Chinese urbanism. “The popularity of city walks, not just in our circles, but everywhere, is a great opportunity,” says urban planner Wang Yingluo.

    The buzz around city walks among the general public may be new, but the idea has been popular with urbanists for years. In 2019, Wang, who had studied urban planning in Canada, organized Shanghai’s first “Jane’s Walk.” Named in honor of the late American-Canadian journalist and urban theorist Jane Jacobs, these open-source walking tours have been conducted worldwide since 2007, when a group of Jacobs’ friends inaugurated the series in Toronto. The idea was to honor her urban planning ideas, which prioritize protecting neighborhoods from radical urban renewal schemes. In China, no stranger to redevelopment, the initiative caught on quickly after Wang’s initial foray, and Jane’s Walks spread out to more than 10 major cities, such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Changsha.

    According to Wang, the Chinese version of Jane’s Walk attracts a notably younger demographic than its Canadian counterpart — typically around 30 years old. Unlike in North America, where development schemes were met with local resistance as early as the 1960s, Chinese cities in general have a shorter history of mass urbanization, in most cases dating back only to the migrations of the 1980s and ’90s. Many young urbanites grew up in the countryside or small towns in an era where urban privileges were gatekept, experiences that have shaped their relationships with their new urban homes.

    That has led to a different agenda for Jane’s Walk participants here. While Jane’s Walks in North America have traditionally focused on the preservation of neighborhoods, in China, the keyword is inclusivity. To that end, Chinese organizers have developed a creative toolkit, including roleplaying, meant to foster empathy toward different populations. “Locals, especially more privileged groups, sometimes hold stereotypes about what our city should be like,” Wang explains. “But this (Shanghai) is a global city and home to a diverse population. Newcomers and underrepresented local people have fresh perspectives that can enlighten us.”

    Wang recalled a 2021 walk that she helped organize in the city. It took place along Gubei Gold Street, a residential community favored by both locals and expats for its rich supply of amenities and stylish landscape design. Yet many participants had an issue with the community’s excessive use of guards and fences, which they found alienating. Businesses were also too homogenized, they complained, and targeted only middle-class consumers. “To them, this was evidence of a failure of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Wang says.

    This doesn’t mean that Jane’s Walks always adhere to a single agenda. In an interview with Urban China magazine, Yang Mengjie, a Jane’s Walk organizer in Shanghai, recalled a walk in early 2020. Themed “The Vanishing Nearby” — a reference to the human migration work of popular anthropologist Xiang Biao — the event encouraged individuals to explore and support small businesses near their residences. Organizers in other cities have also devised routes that shed light on endemic local issues. For example, in Shenzhen, a megacity better known for its concrete jungle than its subtropical plants, a Jane’s Walk in 2021 raised questions about how communities could benefit from a more symbiotic relationship with nature.

    Prior to the city walk boom, these events were championed by volunteers, many with an academic background in urban planning or studies. “We want Jane’s Walk to serve as a platform where the public can learn more about urban planning, but also as a way for their voices to be heard by professionals,” Wang told me. She cited the Gubei walk as an example of how planners may be blindsided by the gap between what they learn at school and how their decisions are perceived in reality. Urbanists often romanticize community parks as a public sphere where people of all ages can interact. But participants in the walk assigned to roleplay as seniors quickly discovered that their real-life peers preferred to mingle exclusively with other seniors. These unexpected revelations, scattered as they are, can help urban planners rethink their priors.

    Jane’s Walk is not the only organization seeing a surge in public interest amid the city walk fad. Plant South Salesroom, a grassroots group that began as a research project, has organized “plant walks” in multiple Chinese cities since 2021, part of an effort to challenge “the common binary between nature and culture,” according to Jiang Yao, a co-initiator.

    Another pioneer in this realm is Urban Archeo, a Shanghai-based outfit that has since expanded to other Chinese cities. Founded in 2018, it adopted the “city walk” terminology to brand its guided tours of Shanghai’s historic areas well before the concept went viral on social media. “If the current era is marked by ruptures and upheaval, we can defy these trends by returning to history and culture,” Xu Ming, an initiator of the project, said in an interview with a local media outlet.

    But the lure of the city walk boom is strong. Urban Archeo has registered as a corporation and is currently working to combine its city walk offerings with brand consulting with an eye toward selling brands relevant “stories” from the city’s past.

    It’s too early to say whether young urbanites’ enthusiasm for city walks will last beyond the current trend cycle. Fashions are notoriously short-lived. But there’s something heartening about residents taking a more active role in envisioning an inclusive, resilient, and culturally vital future for urban spaces. After all, the goal shouldn’t be to sell more city walks, but to make walking the city a more enjoyable experience.

    (Header image: A Jane’s Walk in Shanghai, May 2023. Courtesy of Leah Mao)