Pedestrian streets in China: not just about shopping anymore?

Major cities around the world have created pedestrian streets, and Chinese cities are no exception. Successful pedestrian streets have become pleasant shopping areas and places of entertainment for city dwellers. Some of these car-free streets have also been a boon for tourism in the city, attracting a wide range of visitors, and at the same time helping to preserve historical districts. The inhabitants have been able to appropriate their city centres by excluding cars. However, the impact of pedestrian streets on environment and pollution is still limited because of the small areas they cover.

Nevertheless, some cities, especially in Europe, have attempted – or planned – to extend the size of their car-free zones. For example, the authorities in Dublin have considered making their city centre car-free (Franck McDonald, 2012).  In Paris, an expressway along the left bank of the Seine will soon be turned into a pedestrian entertainment zone (Chrisafis, 2012). The goal of these projects is not only to increase the attraction of the city centre, but also to improve the urban environment.  The objectives of pedestrian streets have evolved with time.

In Europe, the concept of pedestrian streets first appeared in the 50’s in Scandinavian countries.  Mattias Kärrholm (2012) notes that the rise in “pedestrian streets” in Sweden in the 70’s went hand in hand with the development of department stores. Another wave of pedestrian streets was implemented in the 90’s, because of the stiff competition city centres faced from the new suburban shopping malls. The city centre’s answer to this challenge was the development of pedestrian precincts. This “pedestrianisation” came along with a wide range of measures encouraging soft modes of transport.

Nanjing Lu, Goulard Sébastien

A similar trend has occurred in China. In addition to night markets, modern version of pedestrian streets appeared in China in the 80’s: for example, Nanjing Lu in Shanghai. Chinese cities have changed radically over the past thirty years.  With the rise of an urban middle-class and the growth of the tertiary sector, some areas in Chinese cities have become entertainment centres.   Urban dwellers have acquired new consumer habits with the opening of shopping malls and department stores. The economic reforms have led to an urban renewal. Many of the traditional residential units, such as the siheyuan in Beijing have been razed to make way for high-rise buildings; very few of the small alleys (hutong) have been preserved from the creation of large roads and speedways. However, because of the rise in tourism and consumerism, some pedestrian precincts have been created within Chinese cities. These pedestrian streets have become hotspots for tourism and shopping, rivalling the suburban department stores. To sustain this competition, pedestrian streets are designed to be shopping destinations, and the developers create forceful images for them.

Xintiandi”, one of Shanghai’s famous pedestrian precincts, is a good illustration of this image building. In his study on Chinese pedestrian streets, Alan Lew (2007) describes the project: the construction of “Xintiandi” was part of an urban renewal programme. Several traditional units were demolished to make way for this shopping district, which was then constructed in a traditional style, typical of Shanghai, but with modern facilities.  As a result, it can be considered more a reconstruction of the past than a historical preservation. This pedestrian complex hosts a shopping mall, trendy restaurants and shops and has become a successful tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike.

Therefore, as Lew has rightly observed, Chinese pedestrian streets are mainly planned as shopping and entertainment destinations. The environmental approach is not really taken into consideration. However, we may hope that things are going to change, since new kinds of car-free areas are being planned in China. Major Chinese cities have several on-going projects for their suburbs. A new “green city” will be built near Chengdu in Sichuan, which will be an entirely car-free city (Smith-Gill, 2012). This programme shows a shift in focus in urban renewal in China – from shopping and consuming activities to environmental concerns.

Since China has not yet reached the end of her path in matters of urbanisation, new kinds of pedestrian-friendly facilities may be introduced. What is perceived as the modern day utopia: “a city with no cars” may soon take shape in China.


Reference list

Chrisafis, A.  (2012, August 2). Paris to return Seine to the people with car-free riverside plan. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Kärrholm, M. (2012). Retailising Space, Architecture, Retail and the Territorialisation of Public Space. Farnham: Ashgate.

Lew, A. (2007). Pedestrian Shopping Streets in the Restructuring of the Chinese City.  In T. Coles and A. Church, (eds.), Tourism, Power and Place, pp. 150-170. London: Routledge. Retrieved from

McDonald, F. (2012, January 4). Dublin city centre plan will see cars give way to pedestrians. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Smith-Gill. (2012). Great city master plan; Chengdu, China. Retrieved from

Cite this blog post
Sebastien Goulard (2012, November 12). Pedestrian streets in China: not just about shopping anymore? URBACHINA. Retrieved April 12, 2024, from

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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