FIELD REPORT: On Variations of a “Sidewalk”

Shanghai is a super-megacity with a population of approximately 24 million people. In December 2017, the State Council approved strategic plans to limit Shanghai’s growth to 25 million people by 2035 in order to control pressures that are mounting on urban resources and infrastructure.

Some skeptics hold the belief that Shanghai’s population has well-surpassed the 25 million mark. Others speculate socioeconomic implications arising from a population cap that could add new problems to Shanghai’s rapid aging population and, thus, foresee future demand for both high- and low-skilled workers in sectors ranging from healthcare to homecare. Yet another angle from which to assess Shanghai’s population debate is that of a view taken from the sidewalk, literally.

For a city brimming with approximately 24 million people, Shanghai is surprisingly walkable and pleasantly so. There are times, of course, when people are walking elbow-to-elbow and toe-to-heel in peak hour crowds at the Metro station or on a weekend in any one of Shanghai’s many urban shopping districts. And, at other times, it is possible to walk with a leisurely gait whereby human encounters become something of a rare kind that summon eye-to-eye contact. Sidewalks are a unique milieu in which to experience both the incessant as well as the episodic rhythms of an urban society.

During a visit to Shanghai in March 2018, I did my fair share of walking and explored several striking “sidewalks” of which the most memorable ones are described below…

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The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Plate 1. Circular pedestrian bridge located above the Mingzhu roundabout in the heart of the Lujiazui financial district. This elevated sidewalk offers captivating views of Shanghai’s landmark skyscrapers: Oriental Pearl TV Tower, Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai International Finance Centre, and Shanghai Tower. The vertical separation of pedestrians and vehicles could be interpreted as a strategy of “place promotion” for it is here, in this dense concentration of modern spectacles, that spectators are swathed by unobstructed visual connections to the power symbols of Shanghai’s globalization agenda. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Plate 2. Pedestrian bridge located at a major traffic junction near People’s Square. This elevated sidewalk is sandwiched above the intersection of Xizang Middle Road / Yan’an East Road and below the Yan’an Expressway. In contrast to the Lujiazui circular pedestrian bridge, this particular infrastructure is focused on function over form. However, a crucial observation worth emphasizing with regards to elevated sidewalks in general is the issue of design for universal accessibility. It is without surprise that such challenging pedestrian bridges are often absent of the elderly, children in strollers, and wheelchair users. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

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Buildings are disciplined on their lots in order to successfully define public space. The street is understood to be the preeminent form of public space and buildings that define it are expected to honor and embellish it.

– James Howard Kunstler, Home from Nowhere 

Plate 3. In the early 20th century, Nanjing Road was often dubbed “The Great White Way” for its bedazzling electric lights and compared favourably to New York City’s Fifth Avenue. State-led urban regeneration efforts in the 1990s transformed the eastern segment of Nanjing Road into a pedestrian-only boulevard spanning a distance of approximately 1 kilometre. An architectural mixing of new developments and conserved buildings on both sides of the pedestrian boulevard creates retail edges that animate the public space through elements of illumination, transparency, and arcaded frontage. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Plate 4. In contrast to the purpose-built pedestrian shopping street on Nanjing Road are examples of “ordinary” sidewalks serving older commercial precincts in Shanghai. These grittier sidewalks (and the buildings that meet them on the ground) reveal decades of wear and tear; yet, in this unpretentious way, emit a certain degree of charm and personality. It is also on these sidewalks, which connect and branch out to other streets, that complex patterns of individualized routines converge and then once again diverge. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

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The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually (and economically) its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.

– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Plate 5. Huanghe Road is a busy corridor with a direct and linear connection to People’s Square. This corridor is also particularly diverse in terms of the uses and users that must then negotiate shared public space. Here, the sidewalk is temporarily used for the hanging of washed laundry, thereby displacing pedestrians on the bicycle lane to further navigate the street dynamics. Diversity can help foster results in civic readiness and willingness to adapt to one’s built environment—that is, through finding mutual agreement on acceptable norms that define and, therefore, characterize urban public life. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

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The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.

– Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Plate 6. Wukang Road is a two-way artery in the former French Concession area of Shanghai’s Xuhui district. This historic street is lined by a continuity of heritage villas and grand trees with overarching canopies that lend a picturesque quality to the environment. It is also on the sidewalks of Wukang Road where the mundane “errands” of everyday life materialize. Here, a bouquet of red balloons are hurriedly transported on foot by its deliverer. And, within a split second of serendipitous timing, the balloons and its handler pass unknowingly under a pair of matching red lanterns that hang ornamentally above the sidewalk. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.
Plate 7. The imagery of romanticism that Wukang Road evokes is not lost on couples young and old. Here, a soon-to-be-wedded couple strikes a pose amid curious onlookers and passing vehicles. In this rare moment, the “epiphany” of an impending matrimony is perhaps looming large on the minds of the bride and groom. Indeed, there is a mingling of the errand and the epiphany that transpires multiple times a day, in varying magnitudes, on sidewalks that are welcoming and, ideally, tree-lined. Photographed by Su-Jan Yeo, 2018.

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Despite the urban liveability prospects of Shanghai’s walkable sidewalks, new road construction and private car ownership are on the rise. It is projected that 2.5 million private cars will populate Shanghai by 2020, and the daily count of motor vehicle trips will increase more than twofold from the previous three million or so in 2000 (Zheng, 2005).

How might a view taken from the sidewalk alter the population debate? I imagine that the line of argument would begin with a paradigm reversal—one that calls for a cap, not on the population of urban inhabitants but, more radically, on the population of cars. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves.



Zheng S (2005) Shanghai: Mobility and Transport. Accessed from: