Eighty-year-old Zhu Xiuying, who has lived in downtown Chongqing since childhood, used to travel everywhere in the hilly city in Southwest China on foot.
Walking was the main way that most residents got around. Since ancient times, numerous walking trails or small roads that wend their way around the mountains have helped to connect communities and people’s lives.
“Sometimes, walking is faster than traveling by car,” Zhu said. “It is also a good way to socialize and exercise.”
But with China’s rapid urbanization and the rising number of vehicles, old neighborhoods are disappearing as large-scale infrastructure development is spreading. Walking space is being lost as Chongqing looks to a future designed to accommodate more cars.
Zhu and her neighbors found that walking in the city had become difficult.
To build a livable and sustainable environment, a pilot program has been launched in downtown areas to improve the walking experience and quality of life.
Surrounded by the Jialing and Yangtze rivers, Chongqing boasts a history of more than 3,000 years. The city first took shape on the hilly Yuzhong Peninsula, which became the center of the local economy.
A survey by the Chongqing Planning Institute shows that walking is the most important and popular way of getting around for people living on the peninsula, with 53 percent of them choosing it as their primary method of transportation.
Yu Jun, deputy chief planner at the institute, said, “Walking in Chongqing is not only a way of transportation but a unique local culture.”
Walking through old neighborhoods and communities that have a rich culture and history is an interesting experience, he said. It is also convenient to use the walking trails, as they offer shortcuts.
“Most important, these streets and alleys become local people’s common life space. They are the root of our city,” Yu said.
He said the streets provide people with a public space to meet and interact.
“Only through such communication can a city become creative and vibrant,” he said, adding, “Just look at the pedestrian network in great cities such as London, Paris and Florence.”
Since 2003, Yu has worked with the local government to identify seven major walking trails across the peninsula and put them on the cultural heritage list.
With much attention paid to greening and sustainable development in recent years, large cities have begun to explore more environmentally friendly means of transportation. In 2011, the Yuzhong Peninsula became a national pilot zone for green transportation and launched efforts to create a better environment for walkers.
Gehl, an urban research and design consulting company in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, was invited to work with the Chongqing Planning Institute on the project.
Jan Gehl, the company’s senior adviser, wrote in the case study Changing Cities in Five Steps: A guide to Achieving Livable and Sustainable Cities: “For decades the human dimension has been an overlooked and haphazardly addressed urban planning topic. A common feature of almost all cities is that the people who use city space in great numbers have been increasingly poorly treated.
“Limited space, obstacles, noise, pollution, risk of accidents and generally disgraceful conditions are typical for those living in most of the world’s cities, regardless of global location, economic viability and stage of development.
“This turn of events has not only reduced the opportunities for pedestrianism as a form of transport, but also placed the social and cultural functions of city space under siege. Fortunately, several cities realize the value of putting humans first in order to create more lively, safe, sustainable and healthy areas.”
The company launched a Public Space Plan at Jiefangbei in the heart of Chongqing to create an interconnected network of streets with links to newly built subway stations, making it easy and attractive to reach them.
Kristian Skovbakke Villadsen, a partner and director at Gehl, who has worked with a number of Chinese cities, architects and urban planners, said, “The plan categorized the streets in the heart of Chongqing by their qualities as public spaces, and not by how many cars they could accommodate per hour.
“To my knowledge this was one of the first times a Chinese city had actually started to recognize streets’ importance as public spaces－you could say as the physical interface of the city.
“Historically, the street has always had immense importance in Chinese cities, but in recent decades it has been treated only as a space for traffic and not as key area for quality of daily life.”
Villadsen, who spent a considerable period of time in Chongqing for the project, said: “It is a place with a fantastic natural landscape of rivers and mountains, which from a city planning and quality-of-life point of view are great gifts. Of course, the topography can be seen as a challenge, but I would argue that it gives more potential to the city.”
But like other huge cities, Chongqing is facing the problem of being “too large, too mono-functional and too oriented toward the car”, Villadsen said.
“This is a challenge in many places in the world, but maybe in particular in China and therefore unfortunately also in Chongqing. We simply need to start planning for daily quality of life for people to build livable and sustainable cities in the future.”
The Mountain City No 3 Walking Trail, or Route 3, on the Yuzhong Peninsula is an example of the pilot program and has become a new attraction. The project focused on connecting the new subway system with the existing network by linking different streets and plazas.
The 3.9-kilometer trail starts at Zhongxing Road by the Shibanpo Yangtze River Bridge, takes in the ancient city walls and ends at Tongyuan Gate, one of the remaining two gates in the city from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the only one still in use.
Yu, who led the pilot project for Route 3, said it is a typical area with local cultural and geographical characteristics.
It has different kinds of streets, and the trail connects parks, plazas, hospitals, museums, schools, residential communities, markets, historical sites, and bus and subway stations.
The project was aimed at upgrading street facilities to improve them for walkers.
Yu said, “For the first time in Chongqing’s city planning, behavioral psychology was used in the research.”
The research team observed the lifestyles of local residents, recorded their routines and activities and drew up a pattern of their daily journeys.
The project faced several challenges, such as the large number of senior citizens in the area, missing links in the pedestrian network, and streets built solely for vehicles－deterring walking and other activities.
To tackle these problems, identification of walking trails was strengthened by adding a new road lighting system, distinctive road signs and footpaths. More public space was created around schools, clinics and seniors’ houses to encourage people to socialize.
“The most challenging task was addressing how people could cross the road conveniently and safely,” Yu said.
The team found that most people do not like using tunnels and pedestrian overpasses to cross a street.
With support from the local government, facilities around pedestrian crossings were upgraded, and specially colored crossing areas were built along the trail to improve the walking experience.
The Route 3 project has led to a 12 percent increase in pedestrian flow at one of the new metro stations.
People can now access the trail from several entrances in old alleyways. The route, which overlooks the Yangtze River, boasts several historical sites and passes local residents’ homes. When the weather permits, people play mahjong or poker by the trail, or sit down and chat with their neighbors.
Yu said he enjoyed walking along Route 3. “Many of the main points from our recommendations have been implemented and we have received very positive feedback from the local residents. You could hear and see that it had improved their life quality,” he said.
Zhu, the 80-year-old, is happy with the changes that have been made, and after the upgrading project was completed in her neighborhood, she has ventured out to meet her friends more often.
“Now we often gather in the small parks and I feel we are much closer to each other,” she said.
Source: China Daily