Beijing Urban Study
Observational Field Essay, PPD245: The Urban Context for Policy and Planning
Nanguoluxiang, Beijing, China
1.1 Site Description
Nanguoluxiang is a vibrant pedestrian street situated inside the northern section of the 2nd Inner Ring road of Beijing. The neighborhood is 1 mile north of the Forbidden City and is bracketed by Di’anmen East Street, a major east-west avenue to the south, and Gulou East Street to the north. The main pedestrian street, Luguo Alley, consists of 9 blocks in a mainly 1-2 story residential alleyway. The street is around 20 feet wide, and alleyways offshooting from the main pedestrian throughway are around 5 - 10 feet wide. The entrance to the neighborhood at both Di’anmen East Street and Gulou East Street have bollards that block vehicular traffic to the alleys. These 800-year old residences are built in the traditional ‘Hutong’ style, and the along the main pedestrian corridor, theses residences have been converted into commercial retail, such as bars, restaurants, snack shops, fashion retailers, and souvenir shops. The main part of the Nanguoluxiang neighborhood that was observed was the entrance of the pedestrian street, which was the intersection with Luguo Alley south and Di’anmen East Street, moving north five street blocks towards Qinlao and Jingyang Hutou.
1.2 Site Visit
The date of the visit was Thursday March 15th, from 1:20 PM - 2:50 PM. Visibility was over 5 miles and it was a pristine day outside, as Beijing is known for its notorious air quality. The temperature was 50 degrees and sunny, with a slight breeze. We were dressed in layers, and I had on a hoodie with thermal jacket over top. The traffic around downtown Beijing at midday was heavy, but not congested. The people who used the pedestrian street originated from the subway station at the entrance at Di’anmen East Street, as well as a variety of tour buses, taxis, and private cars from the main thoroughfare. The bus dropped off the group at the Di’anmen East Street entrance, and we walked north along the pedestrian street until Gulou East Street, stopping to window shop and observe at various locations along the way.
Di’anmen East Street is a major east-west avenue in central Beijing and connects the 2nd ring road to major north-south avenues running through the city administrative core. Outside Nanguoluxiang, the street had multiple lanes dedicated for different modes of traffic. Two three- lane roads designated for through traffic, and taxis, buses, and private vehicles were delineated by 4-feet tall metal fences. Additionally, on the sides of these roads, were two smaller lanes for bikes and motorcycles, also separated by 4-feet tall metal fences. Pedestrians were related to 10 feet-wide sidewalks on the very edges of the roads, and there was a considerably tall steel bridge that crossed between one side of road to the other, connected the two residential neighborhoods on each side. Two subway station entrances, which were built in a style that mimicked that of the traditional residential architecture, bracketed the entrance of the pedestrian street. The main pedestrian street was made out of large, grey granite panels in a uniform shape, and was very well swept, devoid of trash and substances that often clog many Chinese residential neighborhoods. The street was about 15 feet wide, and lined by trees, trash cans and large flower pots. Every 200-300 feet, the pedestrian street intersected with a side residential alleyway, with an open police gate securing the intersection with the pedestrian street. These alleyways were paved with smooth asphalt and various cars and bicycles were parked alongside. Additionally, each intersection had visible police cameras, overlooking the commercial corridor as well as each residential corridor. Luguo Alley, the pedestrian street, is the central thoroughfare of Nanguoluxiang, a traditional central Beijing urban neighborhood.
Many of the residences date back 800 years, and are built in the traditional ‘hutou’ style. Traditional grey bricks make up the walls and the foundations of these houses, and traditional Chinese sloped roofing adorns the tops of these 1-2 story buildings. Along Luguo alley, the vast majority of the houses have been converted into commercialized shops, and the gates of many homes have been retrofitted with large, floor-to-ceiling doorways that lead into the shop space. A unique mix of commercial retail businesses line the alleyway, such as bubble tea stores, souvenir shops, modern Chinese dessert and snack places, art galleries, and fashion boutiques. One shop was a build-a-bear custom stuffed animal shop, and had three employees standing outside yelling into microphones for patrons to come in. Another shop sold Fei-yues, which are trendy Chinese versions of Converse, and was also situated in a converted residential property. All of the retail was boutique style, and very small. However, many of the structures had been retrofitted with commercial displays such as large TV screens displaying products, menus, and ads, and conspicuous glass displays and entryways. One of the main attractions was a clothing boutique called Plastered 8, which made contemporary T-shirts based off of Beijing culture and art, including street signs, historic relics, Communist party slogans, Chinese history, and Beijing landmarks. We previously heard a presentation from Dominic Johnson, the founder of Plastered 8, and he shed light on the history of Nanguoluxiang and his relationship with the neighborhood. After hosting the first-ever fashion show on the street, the Chinese government began to drive the commercialization of Nanguoluxiang, leading to its status today as a tourist destination.
Many of the people on D’ianmen East Street were locals, and moved at an urgent, quick pace. The motorcycles, cars, and mopeds sliced through large crowds of slow-moving tour buses, and manuevered around parked buses and taxi drop-off cars. Inside of Nanguoluxiang, there was a unique blend of people, from outside western tourists (us), vacationing Chinese couples and families, as well as the elderly residential population. Everyone moved at a relaxed, leisurely pace, stopping every 10-20 feet to stop and take pictures or to check out stores. The pace of the browsing public contrasted with the people who ran the storefronts, many of whom were overly eager to get the business of the touring public. They moved and talked with urgency and initiative, and always sought to approach anyone who even made eye contact with the store.
The layout of Nanguoluxiang succeeded in the fact that it concentrated a large population of foot traffic into single street corridor, sustaining a large cadre of small businesses and boutiques. The street was long enough that it could house a plethora of shopping options, which enabled people to stay in the neighborhood for an extended period of time. Nanguoluxiang became a tourist destination due to its layout and its proximity to iconic Beijing landmarks. Additionally, the alley’s layout allowed for manageable surveillance and policing, as security cameras were installed up and down the street, and police stands occupied every street corner. However, the layout was a failure in the fact that it intruded heavily on a traditional residential neighborhood, and brought an excessive amount of people, noise, and trash to a quaint, historical area of homes occupied by a much older population. Many of the houses faced Luguo Alley and had large gates and alleys that were closed to the public. However, the intrusion of public life into private life was very evident, as the commercial stores were adapted from former residential housing, and not the other way around.
Jane Jacobs in The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety, specified the need for safe streets and outlined crucial characteristics of safe sidewalks within the urban fabric. She characterized public peace as “kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves” (Jacobs 151). A safe street is characterized by the presence of people, even strangers, and has three main qualities. Jacobs lists these qualities as a clear separation between public and private space, eyes on the street from natural proprietors such as building storefronts, and continuous users of the street (Jacobs 152). During the site visit, Luguo Alley was filled with all kinds of people, from older seniors walking to their residences to young children of tourist families, clutching fruit strawberries in addition to the dozens of store owners and retail workers. Consequently, there were a multitude of eyes on the street. However, Jacobs mentions that the public peace “is not kept primarily by the police, as necessary as police are” (Jacobs 151). Policed surveyed the streets from booths, which were placed at each intersection. Every block, tracking cameras and sirens were suspended from concrete poles, recording every action and movement. The amount of surveillance and the diverse amount of people in the city neighborhood was unprecedented, and the street was swept clean, devoid of much of the clutter that characterizes many commercial streets in China. Throughout Nanguoluxiang, Jacob’s theories on streets was on full display, yet the police presence offered a new, unique dynamic to the place.
Margaret Crawford in Blurring the Boundaries, Public Space and Private Life, analyzed the repurposing of public spaces for private uses, and vice versa. The use of public space for political, social, and economic activities has been redefined, as shown through street vendors and garage sales. “In everyday space, differences between the domestic and the economic, the private and the public, and the economic and the political are blurring” (Crawford 350). Common space can rapidly be transformed into public space. At Nanguoluxiang, traditional residences have been transformed into a unique public space, one that draws in throngs of visitors every day. Private residences were sealed off from the street behind large double-gated doors, while public retail storefronts were former residences with the doorways stripped off for snack shops, fashion boutiques, and art galleries.
When Dominic Johnson first established Plastered 8, Nanguoluxiang was a gated, courtyard-filled bedroom community of old, 1-story Chinese homes. Now, in 2018, these private spaces and residences have been opened up, and Nanguoluxiang has become the premier hub for retail commerce, and an international tourist destination. Crawford characterized garage spaces as centers of commerce “suddenly accesible to anyone passing by, melding the public and the extremely private” (Crawford 348). Similarly, the stark coexistence of extremely private residence space with public restaurants and shops Nanguoluxiang was on full display. During the visit, many of the traditional alleyway residences have been converted into hostels, and some were even expanded to full-service hotels, which further shows the convoluted boundaries between private and public space. Initially, public activities were relegated to the pedestrian thoroughfare and the storefronts, but now, in this new phase of development, the interior residences are now public spaces. Midway along the pedestrian alley stood a Starbucks, nestled inside a residential alley outside a hotel lobby. The gradual intrusion of public spaces onto private residential property is apparent as the neighborhood becomes more and more gentrified. The main distinction between Crawford’s examples of vendors and garage sales is that the Nanguoluxiang has undergone a very permanent transformation. The melding of public and private space is clearly apparent, and will only continue as more and more commerical activites and places are added into the neighborhood.
In conclusion, through the observations of Nanguoluxiang, I was able to observe how space and streets influenced interpersonal activities from a unique perspective. Through Jane Jacobs, I saw how the characteristics of safe sidewalks led to the economic success of the pedestrian street. Through Margaret Crawford, I was able to see the repurposing of space from a private residence to a public retail space. The activities at Nanguoluxiang through the lens of sidewalk dynamics and public and private space show a place undergoing rapid change in the largest city in China.
“Nanguoluxiang.” Google Maps, Beijing, 8 Apr 2018.
Crawford, Margaret. “Blurring the Boundaries Public Space and Private Life.” pp. 342– 351.
Jacobs, Jane. “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety.” The City Reader. Ed. Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout. Sixth ed. New York: Routledge, 2015. 151. Print.