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    How Tearing Down Walls Will Open Up China’s Cities

    Barriers between individual housing estates isolate residents from the urban communities around them.

    One of the stranger features of residential areas in Chinese cities is that many compounds — known locally as xiaoqu — are hemmed in by high walls, guarded at each entrance by security personnel. From a European perspective, these barriers seem a bit excessive. After all, China feels like one of the safest large countries on earth, and rarely do I feel the need to protect myself in the country’s urban areas.

    In fact, the construction of protective walls has more to do with creating feelings of community and belonging within residential areas, especially in the context of China’s thronging megacities. However, community solidarity often comes at the expense of convenience. In my own apartment complex — a maze of 24 high-rise buildings housing around 10,000 people — the main entrance is at the opposite end of the compound from the nearest metro station. A one-minute journey as the crow flies thus becomes a 10-minute one.

    As barriers disconnecting and fragmenting our cities, walls play a dominant role in shaping urban forms. Yes, we in the xiaoqu are protected against what we perceived as the dangers of the city — thieves, muggers, and speeding motorists, to name a few — but that sense of security can be enjoyed only when we divorce ourselves from the vivacity of urban life. Ironically, by turning away from the outside world, we become less of a community than ever. 

    In our xiaoqu, the manicured green spaces between buildings are predominantly used by elderly residents — and even then, only on warm, sunny days when the trees cast cooling shade onto the flagstones. In general, most of us dash out of the compound every morning and return around dinnertime. On evenings and weekends, I see many more of my neighbors in the bustling roadside markets and malls nearby than in the supposedly more relaxing ambience of the housing estate. This habit has rendered most of our painstakingly maintained greenery a purely cosmetic feature, and I have sometimes pondered how Shanghai became an archipelago of self-contained neighborhoods, isolated from one another by perimeter walls, wire fences, and multi-lane roads.

    China has a long tradition of building self-contained courtyards and walled neighborhoods, of course. Many of the country’s ancient cities still bear remnants of imposing city walls that protected the gridlike communities within them from invaders. Now, supersized apartment blocks are our modern-day fortresses, impregnable to outsiders. So-called superblocks — defined as xiaoqu that exceed areas of 15 hectares, the size of around 30 soccer fields put together — are disastrous in terms of livability and cause traffic problems, according to urban designer and writer Peter Calthorpe. He even advocates remodeling China’s cities along the lines of Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood — a gridlike series of low-rise residential blocks designed by Ildefons Cerdà in the late 19th century.

    Key to Calthorpe’s proposal is its drastic scaling-down of urban apartment blocks. Size is important of course, but to me, the key to generating truly vibrant xiaoqu is diversifying their functionality. In suburban areas, most estates are given over almost entirely to housing, while local amenities are concentrated in malls or business complexes. What’s stopping us from opening up our compounds to local grocers, hairdressers, or newsdealers?

    It’s a question that’s been concerning the Chinese government, too. Last year, the State Council — China’s cabinet — introduced new guidelines promoting the construction of smaller xiaoqu. The plans include proposals to build narrower city roads, increase the density of street networks, and open up access to superblocks. The idea is that making walled-off compounds more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly will make high-rise housing more livable. If the guidelines become reality, these will by and large be positive innovations, as long as the influx of outsiders into previously self-contained communities does not, in turn, prove so large as to disorient residents — not because outdoor space will lie vacant, but because it will be so congested as to become unrecognizable. 

    According to some social scientists , walls and other limitations on movement can sometimes play positive roles in improving social cohesion by helping to distinguish between private and public spaces. Defining semi-public spaces within individual xiaoqu — that is to say, spaces for use by both residents and pedestrians — will give those who live there a feeling of responsibility toward the maintenance of their estates. With the exception of the often hermetically sealed xiaoqu in the uppermost segment of the housing market, many of which are real gated communities accessible only to the super-wealthy, opening up existing residential spaces will offer a more gradual transition between public and private realms.

    In many xiaoqu, residents’ perceived lack of urbanity is compensated for through the rows of shops that have sprung up on the boundaries of each estate. Many of them come under the supervision of the same property managers as residential apartment blocks. In addition, commercial and semi-commercial facilities — particularly on-site sports facilities and kindergartens — are already expanding in certain estates. These reflect the national government’s policy to decentralize living quarters where possible and encourage new-style xiaoqu to provide living resources to residents. In these contexts, the sharp distinction between formalized, private spaces and informal street life has been reassuringly blurred.

    These developments should give urban planners confidence that even superblocks can transform into vibrant centers of community and identity. While we cannot directly transplant the granular natures of old European cities into the Chinese context, cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo prove the potential of combining high density with small-scale housing blocks to create cities that are attractive, lively, inspiring, dynamic, walkable — and open.

    Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A view of a then newly built riverside compound in Wuhan, Hubei province, June 11, 2013. Sun Xinming/VCG)