Public man and public space in Shanghai today

Orum, A. M., Bata, S., Shumei, L., Jiewei, T., Yang, S., & Trung, N. T.

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Orum, A. M., Bata, S., Shumei, L., Jiewei, T., Yang, S., & Trung, N. T. (2009). Public man and public space in Shanghai today. City & Community, 8(4), 369–389.

Public space is a topic of great interest for urban scholars and urban planners. Such space, like parks, sidewalks, and plazas, it is argued, can provide the common grounds where the inhabitants of a city meet, exchange ideas, even engage in a variety of cultural performances. This article reports on fieldwork about the use of public space in Shanghai today. We find a great diversity of uses, ranging from vendors who sell their wares to people who engage in heated and extensive political discussions to performers of Beijing opera and ballroom dancing. We also find that the local authorities use a light, and sometimes covert, hand in their oversight of inhabitants in such spaces. Finally, we discover that powerful social differences and inequalities between native inhabitants and working-class migrants, which have emerged during the period of economic reform and market transition, are now actively in evidence in the quality and use of public space in Shanghai. The article puts these findings within a broader theoretical context, concluding in the end that for many—though not all—inhabitants public man is alive and well in Shanghai.

Main finding
Based on the sites studied, the authors find that people socialize, sell goods, exchange political ideas, and perform cultural routines involving singing and dancing in all types of public spaces in Shanghai. Some of these activities, such as informal vending and political speeches, involve negotiation of rights with authorities but are generally permitted and tolerated. Migrants, however, were found to have trouble involving themselves in public events and gaining respect from native residents, leaving some feeling like second-class citizens.

Description of method used in the article
The data consists of observations and unstructured interviews, conducted by the authors and graduate students using convenience sampling, to understand the nature and use of public space in Shanghai. Fieldwork took place for three months in 2007, followed by two months in 2008 to assess consistency.

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