Shanghai, south garment district: photo by author
I visited Shanghai for the first time this summer with my family, and like our previous trips to China, the experience didn’t fail to leave a strong impression. We had spent a fair amount of time in taxis during a prior tour of Beijing, so this time we were determined to experience as much of Shanghai on foot as possible.
The friends we stayed with in Pudong warned us to be vigilant when crossing the street, adding that we must look both ways at all times or else endanger our lives. We took this piece of advice as a bit of silly exaggeration, but our first experience taught us otherwise. Chinese drivers aren’t required to stop at a red light before making a right turn, and drivers turning left at a green light have as much right-of-way as pedestrians. For me, this was a bewildering experience that took some getting used to—the very idea that crossing the street even when it’s your turn means that you have to constantly avoid moving vehicles from both directions.
A surprise confrontation with the unfamiliar habits of another culture usually prompts me to examine the physical context for clues. Often there are material or graphic features that signify a difference in behavior. (In Japan, for instance, side streets are usually completely paved without sidewalks, so the boundary between pedestrians and vehicles is blurred.) The streets we navigated in Pudong and much of Shanghai, however, imparted no such evidence. Other than new granite curbs the city is installing in advance of the 2010 Expo, the sidewalks, curb cuts, street paving, street lights, and striping is much as we might expect in the U.S. Which led me to another realization: the fact that different cultures may approach the same set of generic city building blocks in completely different ways. If this kind of stark divergence is possible within the ubiquitous, modern street system—it must certainly be possible within any “generic” constructed environment.
It is easy for architects and planners to become complacent in the use of common materials and dimensions. However, a paint stripe, a stone wall, a glass storefront, a neon sign, a carpeted floor, or an acoustic ceiling don’t always dictate behavior as we might expect. As increasingly similar architectural and urban elements are propagated throughout the developed world, we should take cues from these geographically-based behavioral differences. These dissimilarities could actually be harnessed to inspire more creative designs that not only recognize diversity but also celebrate it. With any luck, they might also help us cross the street.