China and Inner Asia
The ever-deepening process of urbanization, in China as elsewhere, demands consideration and recognition of the social values adequate to contemporary urban life. How do we evaluate whether a city is livable or equitable for all? One set of urban values pertains to socioaesthetics, the ways in which sociality occurs aesthetically. Everyday urban life is suffused with indirect, embodied sensory interaction between people engaged in various activities. In Western urbanist discourse, socioaesthetic qualities such as ‘vibrancy’ or ‘liveliness’ are often upheld as valuable elements of urban public space, with urban design and planning increasingly oriented toward catalyzing the emergence of such qualities in streets, parks, and other public places. China has its own long history of socioaesthetic discourse, with values such as renao, xuanhua, and fanhua appearing in Chinese-language texts going back more than a thousand years. The pertinence of such values in contemporary urban public life, however, has received sparse scholarly attention. While socioaesthetic interaction is a largely unavoidable facet of daily public life in China’s densely populated cities, new modes of design and planning are emerging, modes which ignore or disrupt the potential for this interaction in favor of isolating urban forms such as superblock towers-in-the-park gated communities. At the same time, new forms of consumption are pushing leisure activity into private and quasi-private spaces. My project critically evaluates socioaesthetic interaction as an element of contemporary urban public life, both through fieldwork in the city of Tianjin and through analysis of literary and artistic sources.