Development and Urbanization
Is there public space in urban China? The concept’s ambiguity makes the answer difficult. This is not only because of its “Western” origins, but also because of the diverse European urban reality and history: Academia offers overlapping and often opposing views on “publicness”, often carrying normative notions of urban democracy. This may explain the relative little research on urban China. Be it the imperial city of the past or the authoritarian state of today – Chinese “space between buildings” (Gehl) seems not to correspond well with the idea of “public space”.
However, I want to argue for the opposite: The application to China gives the opportunity to sharpen the concept as an analytical tool for urban studies. I will look into the relationship of public space and urbanity by taking Guangzhou, the metropolis of China’s South as a case study. The data is derived from fieldwork conducted between 2011 and 2014, from yearbooks, statistics, local chronics, laws and regulations, travel reports, academic literature, etc. Considering Guangzhou’s history and contemporary trends I show: the development of public spaces in imperial times and during the People’s Republic; the changing focus of the local government in the course of the reform policies after 1978; the fragile dynamics of “publicness from below” versus the challenges of the “smart city”. I argue for public space as a means and a process of organizing and ordering urban society; mainly by the social interpretation of the physical space, and always as a negotiation of various actors.