In China, single-family homes are rare, and the vast majority of people live in what Americans would charitably call high-rise apartment blocks or, put less delicately, projects. As dismal as these may sound (and as dismal as they sometimes appear), the neighborhoods that form around these Chinese projects really work. They’re far from tidy and seldom beautiful, but on the whole they’re livelier, safer and more inviting at all hours of the day than any American equivalent. They are as successful as most American housing projects have been catastrophic.
Why? For one, the Chinese are not hamstrung by the sort of fanatically segregated zoning that has made so much of America a vacant no man’s land after hours. In China, the street levels of residential buildings (not to mention office buildings and sometimes even factories) are customarily lined with a whole panoply of stores and workshops, a tradition handed down from millenia of mercantile culture.
A few minutes’ walk from my second home in Suzhou, for example, a road leads right through the heart of several large housing projects. Under American single-use zoning, this would likely be a desolate — perhaps even threatening — place. Yet in China, it’s a bustling social center. Jammed into the span of a few short blocks are grocery and dry goods stores, at least five bakeries, a fresh meat and vegetable market, three or four fruit vendors, a couple of pharmacies, two banks, a custom tailor, eight or nine barber shops, and perhaps 60 other shops variously selling toys, shoes, dresses, hardware, paint, baby clothes, and what have you, along with a couple of dozen eateries ranging from street vendors to large sit-down venues. Improbably mixed in among these are also three metal fabricators, a bicycle repair shop, a motorcycle repair shop, and two shops that build windows. The range of goods and services is so comprehensive that it’s easier to list what the street doesn’t have: There’s no cafe and no Japanese restaurant — they’re a few blocks away on another street.
Many of these shops are no bigger than a one-car garage, so nearly all of them borrow a chunk of real estate from the great swath of sidewalk that runs from one end of the project to the other. Perhaps 30 feet wide, it flanks a gratifyingly narrow street that discourages through traffic. And although China can hardly be described as a pedestrian-friendly nation, neighborhoods like this one are clearly meant for people and cyclists, and not for cars. The result is that neighborhood life, day or night, takes place outdoors, in front of the shops. People eat, nap, bake, cook, cobble, weld, grind, build and dismantle things on the sidewalk — a prospect that would horrify American planners — and wonder of wonders, no one seems the worse for it.
This kind of sidewalk city, which is utterly typical of urban China, is already bustling at sunrise, and it’s still crowded late into the evening, when the restaurants and karaoke bars are going full tilt. Yet there’s never a compulsion to look nervously over your shoulder, no matter how late the hour. There are just too many people around living normal lives to feel unsafe.
“Chaotic” is a word many order-loving westerners have used to describe Chinese cities, whether the twisting old longtangs, or back alleys of yore, or today’s less romantic but equally ebullient neighborhoods. If this is chaos, it’s the kind that American cities could use more of.