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December 1, 2017

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Home » Opinion » China Knowledge

Public space can improve urban landscape

The challenge of defining and building communicative cities and urban space was a theme that was explored at a forum held in Shanghai this week.

The forum, which was held at Sinan Literature House at Sinan Mansions, was hosted by Center of Information and Communication Studies, Fudan University and Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne.

The venue was carefully chosen. Sinan Mansions, which were built around 1920, have been renovated, allowing visitors to participate in an array of cultural activities.

In his speech, Gary Gumpert, president of Urban Communication Foundation, voiced his passion and concern about the state of the urban landscape.

He viewed communicative cities as a conceptual filter that brings together the primary elements that constitutes the urban role.

It’s not easy to grasp the structure and nuances of the communicative city.

“We have previously mentioned global city, smart city, connected city, the inclusive city, the green city, and the livable city. Each of the description approaches the urban landscape with related, yet unique criteria,” Gumpert observed.

It was subsequently found that communication was the binding force for unifying the discrete elements that go into the urban landscape.

There have been previously workshops which tried to establish a list of criteria that constituted and defined the “communicative city.” The participants were asked to come up with five characteristics describing the “communicative city,” and the responses were clustered into three primary categories:

1. Activities that broadly constitutes sites and opportunities for social interaction;

2. Factors that constitute the urban infrastructure; and

3. Factors that are operationally political or civic in nature.

Places of interaction are characterized by, among other things, the following constituent parts: places to watch others; places to be alone; places that are walkable; places of human scale; places with manageable soundscape.

The communication infrastructure has a physical and a non-physical character with economic, public polity and legal dimensions serving as critical parts, which include public transportation, being hospitable to pedestrians, eco-friendliness, sidewalks, multiple public spaces, cultural displays, and affordable places.

After lengthy debates, questions were raised as to what qualities would disqualify a city as being “communicative,” and the answers include “a city whose citizens don’t feel they have a stake in its improvement,” “total surveillance,” “a segregated city,” or “isolated communities.” While many cities are racing to brand themselves smart, some end up just being impersonal, with some bad examples leading to a reconsideration of the promise of technology.

Inherent contradictions

In his concern for quality of life in a swiftly changing and increasingly urban world, Gumpert came up with a litany of technological opposites:

The more connected we are to technology, the more disconnected we are from traditional community; the more we extended our mediated environment, the more private we become; the more we extend our connection, the more insular we are; the more we connect, the more we seek to control the connection; the more information and data becomes available, the more information and data we need; the more individuality we achieve, the more communities we seek; the more communication choices we have, the less we trust the information we receive; the more we detach from our immediate surroundings, the more we rely on surveillance.

Ye Chao, a professor at East China Normal University, explored the significance and evolution of bulletin board in university campuses, and described the profound changes we are seeing as a result of Internet connection. Ye concluded that the bulletin board was not only an important public space in university campuses, but part and parcel of campus culture which is, unfortunately, not sufficiently appreciated.

Fudan University professor Sun Wei explored the concept of “embodied publicness” in the age of mobile network through a case study of Sinan Mansions.

According to Global Power City Index for 2016, Shanghai is ranked 12th globally, the best place among all the Chinese cities. But scrutinized carefully, Shanghai’s rank in terms of “cultural interaction” was not so well placed.

The conversion of a part of Sinan Mansions into public space is salutary. Since August, every month visitors and residents can register online to participate in a guided tour of the area.

Wandering in the blocks gives visitors the feeling of walking through a living museum of world architecture — hence the term “outdoor museum,” the first of its kind in China.

The stroll in this space of only 50,000 square meters gives people a public space where strangers can meet and interact.


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