urbanity, or, an investigation into the invisible

in the writing of “ornithomancy”, I’ve been considering urban development, or more specifically, the invasion of infrastructure into culture. gentrification comes in and out of this picture, but in a less political capacity, what interests me has been the processes by which we interact with ourselves using the physical mediums of our environments. we generally give little thought to the mundanities of transit and spatiality, yet such specifications are quite literally the containers by which we measure out our lives. from daily commutes to architectural design to the way we create space for ourselves within our set boundaries, a close dissection of our daily patterns reveals the overarching mechanics of an economics that too often underserves the public in favour of unrestrained overdevelopment. in the particular case of beijing’s hutongs, the issue appears to one of preservation, and such is the emotional overtone I’ve chosen to emphasize in my piece, but it is only a partial glimpse at the present urban condition. yes, urban planning often wars with cultural inheritance, but on a bigger scale, it regulates our identities, regardless of culture. instead of seeing our public and private settings as backdrops, we need to consider them as active enforcers of human behaviour. 


it is sorrow, yes, when houses are knocked to the ground, when generations are shuffled to city outskirts, when unremarkable apartments rise anonymously. the emotional impact, however, is drowned out by the ongoing drumbeat of advancement. in beijing, the hutongs exist in states of various decay. updates to antiquated wiring and plumbing systems are only the first in a series of both pragmatic and cosmetic renovations necessary to complete the vision of a modernized, cosmopolitan beijing. it’s difficult to rationally complete an argument for the absolute protection of the old city; even certain hutong residents are eager for the slick steel and chrome of urban life. yet…


think about your commute to work. you walk or bike, take public transit, drive. think about the things you see along the way. think about where the sidewalk ends, or begins. think about station platforms at certain times of the day. think about the cafe you stop at, the convenience store, the bagel stand. think about the way your individual traffic reports to culminate in a series of statistics that eventually will enable reform. in this, you are a self-propellent being. you’ve figured out the most convenient way to get to where you need to go, and there is little need to think about how these extraneous, commonplace elements are in turn, propelling you. in beijing, there is no luxury of letting one’s environment melt into the background. a traffic jam can last up to forty-eight hours. notions of personal space seem like an absurd dream in train compartments. mobile bike rentals connect commuter to commuter impersonally yet concretely. in every direction of movement one is keenly aware of an interaction; the self vs. the functions of the city. in the cases in which antiquity is relegated to the realm of the inconvenient, we must search our habits of consumption to be cognizant of not only what we are trading in when we witness urban expansion, but what we are receiving in return.


when I ask tokyoites about how they feel about the place they live in, their first word is nearly always “convenient”, and tokyo, with its staggering population, is renowned for its negotiation of space. it would be foolish and impossible to compare it with beijing, in knowledge of the two cities’ enormous historical disparity, but in june, as I walked the streets of beijing, I navigated the stone walkways, under green canopies of self-conscious acacias, tried in vain to hail a taxi in sanlitun, and dined michelin in a mesmerizingly modernized hutong, I found myself holding up these two discrepant visions of urbanity, and saw the present turning into the future— uniformity. we champion globalization as a version of compassion, yet there is no stakes in empathy when identities blur all along the grid. in retaining access to our cultures, we need not turn away from advancement, but we need to decentralize our ideals of urban living to singular visions or commercial prosperity. I am hoping that the urban planners of today will consider our cities as artworks. we do not pick up a brush without considering the previous life of the canvas. we remain aware of context, or language, and of intimacy. we stand in front of a painting, and we listen. 


you can read "ornithomancy" here

shelly shan

hi, my name is shelly. I do a thing where I make words into unnecessarily emotional composites. I don't know why I'm allowed on the internet, but I like it here.