On completing one year in Hangzhou (part 2)

(Confused? This is a continuation of last week’s post)

The point that was really lost to the redditors is one about the aesthetics of the city. I guess the problem with the point I was making is that it is subtle, and most subtle things seem to be lost in reddit, where everything seems to be in terms of pro or anti feminism.

Hangzhou is considered by many people to be a lovely city. I have even heard people say that it is the most beautiful city in China. If that is the case, it is really depressing. I have pressed people for more information about this and I often get the very same answer every time: West Lake. I have absolutely no idea how this works. Sure, the lake is nice if you like that thing. But a nice lake doesn’t make a whole city nice by having that one feature. Here is your thought experiment; take a place you absolutely hate (it has to be a massive shithole) then proceed to add a beautiful lake to it. Does it make the place any better? Really better? Considering all the problems and media attention it is getting, would Flint, Michigan be nicer if it had a beautiful lake? Assuming everything else was the same? How about Gary Indiana. How about Raqqa? One nice feature does not a paradise make.

Other Chinese cities have been described to me as concrete jungles gone mad. I didn’t find this to be the case when I went to Guangzhou. I admittedly did not see much of the place, but it seemed  pretty verdant to me. But Hangzhou is also described as being greener than most places, and this is only true if you count those trees planted by the sides of roads.

I have the same dislike for Hangzhou that I do for most American cities I have been to. Large portions of it seem to be designed in the American grid style, which is extremly boring. Sure it makes the city more navigable, particularly for us foreigners, but it really wrecks the appeal. But that isn’t the real big problem here. The biggest problem comes from the fact that this city, and most American cities as well, are scaled to the car. What does this mean? It means that when the city was designed it was designed with the notion that people get around by automobile. So what, you may ask. This isn’t caveman times, we have automobiles. Why not make cities with them in mind. Sure you can do that. And some people like it. I happen to hate it, and this is a blog post explaining my opinions on cities. Here is the problem I have with cities scaled to the automobile is that they disincentive you to take a walk around. Wide avenues give the impression that things are much further than they really are, so you second guess how long getting somewhere by foot would be. The wide roads, the thin strips of sidewalks, and the tall building make you feel crushed. The feeling isn’t pleasant. In China this is doubly terrible when you consider how many cyclist ride on the sidewalk. Cities with this scaling also tend to be more spread out. There are less than a handful of places to pick up groceries around where I live, but in a comparably much smaller city (Udine) there were twice as many places in half the walking time. This, however was much more the case in my first apartment in the middle of nowhere. Now that I have moved to the new place, there is loads more around. But the problem always does go back to the point I made previously, that there is just so very little I want to do here.

So, here is the last point on the aesthetics of Hangzhou. There are no social spaces. Or rather, there are extremely few social spaces, as I guess you could call West Lake a social space. To be fair, I should also say that there are more social spaces here than there are in most American cities. And you can see the effects of the lack of social spaces immediately. A flatmate of mine complains that there is nowhere to jog, and when you go around the city you see Chinese people jogging in interesting places. I see loads of them jogging on Tianmushan road, the wide express boulevard running south of the Xixi wetlands that I bike everyday to get to work. But there is not enough of a sidewalk to jog on, so that these joggers have to jog on the auxiliary road, where they are a nuisance to bikes, motorcycles and buses. Not to mention their own risk at doing so. It would be nice if there were more small parks where people could go to jog, but it is simply not the case. Nor, for that matter, can I imagine that jogging in the middle of some pretty terrible traffic can be good for anyone who is doing it.

And this is the same feeling you have as you walk around the city. Every now and again the sidewalk will give to a small monument surrounded by a few benches. But it is just next to a road, often a very busy road, and so the park doesn’t feel much like a relief from the surroundings. It has the effect of feeling like a whole lot more of the same inescapable polluted city.

I’m not asking the impossible with Hangzhou. I have been to other cities that do all these things extremely well. Rome does it will. Thessaloniki does it well. Washington DC does not, and neither does Hangzhou. So I really cannot bring myself to understand what the devil people are talking about when they say that Hangzhou is some kind of extremely beautiful city.  Frankly, Shanghai is a much more beautiful city, with more going on, more diversity of neighborhoods, with smaller streets scaled to human beings.

But Hangzhou? Pass. Why the fuck am I staying here another year?

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