Index > Briefing
Monday, June 08, 2020
The Source of A City's Prosperity and Vitality

"Street-stall Economy" has recently become a controversial topic in China. At this year's Two Sessions, i.e. annual meetings of China's top legislature and its top political advisory body, Premier Li Keqiang praised Chengdu for creating 100,000 jobs overnight by setting-up street stalls. On May 28, the central government made it clear that this year's road occupation, street markets, and mobile vendors should not be included in the assessment, so as to restore economic and social order, and meet people's needs. On June 1, during his visit to Yantai in Shangdong Province, Premier Li publicly praised the "stall economy and small store economy" as an important source of employment, as well as "the vitality of China".

However, Chinese state media were quick to caution "stall economy". Beijing Daily took the lead in saying that "the stall economy is not suitable for Beijing". The article said whether the "stall economy" is suitable for a city depends on its positioning. Beijing is the national capital, and the image of Beijing represents the image of the country. This means that Beijing must pay attention to maintaining the proper order of the city and should not develop economic forms that do not conform to the strategic positioning as the capital city. "If the urban ills come back, such as dirty streets, fake and shoddy goods, urban noise, traffic jams, unhygienic and uncivilized, previous achievements in governance may be lost," the article said. "It is not conducive to building a good image of the capital and the country, and the development of a high-quality economy."

The People's Daily then ran an article that says if not managed properly, street-stall economy would result in chaotic disorder. The CCTV also published a commentary article that mentions, the street-stall economy "certainly has its value for development, but it is not a panacea for economic development. Different cities have different positions and different stages of development. If it becomes decoupled from reality, it will backfire and destroy the hard-won achievements of governance." In addition, the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily also published an article saying that it is obviously not appropriate for a modern international metropolis like Shenzhen to rush in developing the "street-stall economy". On June 8, CCTV's financial commentary program once again argued that "it is inappropriate for first-tier cities to implement the stall economy", and the hype of it as a panacea is a manifestation of the lack of governance in some cities.

The rapid cooling of the "street-stall economy" in a matter of days is a rare phenomenon at the policy level in China. With the severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on employment, there are opposing views on "street-stall economy" in China, which have also caused confusion among all sectors of society.

Objectively speaking, both the supporters and the opponents have their own reasons. The former focuses on the employment and survival of people, while the latter focuses on urban management after the liberalization of "street-stall economy". In the analysis on this issue, ANBOUND's urban research team pointed out that there are two points of concerned; (1) As a primary business form, "street-stall economy" can help relieve the employment and social pressures caused by unemployment in such extraordinary times; (2) Under the actual situation in China, the model of street stalls or market on a specific date are more suitable for small and medium-sized cities; whereas the model of shops or predetermined range of open business is more suitable for general cities. This can balance the city's hygene and order with the consumer economy, which is conducive to the prosperity of the city's commerce and increase the vitality of the city.

Figure 1: An example of neat, clean street stall layout

For urban managers, the discussion of the "street-stall economy" should go beyond if street stalls are permissible to operate. Instead, the focus should be the source of urban vitality and prosperity. How should cities view and use public space? In this regard, the Tactical Public Realm Guidelines could provide some ideas for urban managers in China.

In August 2018, the City of Boston released a document called the Tactical Public Realm Guidelines, in an attempt to inform the management and modification of public space in Boston. The preface of this report states that the public consultation process in the past has identified a need among citizens to "recycle and transform underutilized transportation infrastructure space for community use." "Boston's perception of street roles is also changing," the document notes. "Rather than merely serving vehicles, our street space can also be used to convene, create, and experiment." Based on this cognitive basis, it proposes some new roles of streets: (1) Streets as Living Rooms; (2) Streets as Canvasses; (3) Street as Experiments.

Under such concept, the Tactical Public Realm Guidelines puts forward practical suggestions. For example, the construction of parklet. The strategy is to build parklets in areas with narrow sidewalks and convert some of the street parking spaces into public spaces for people to rest. Interestingly, the Tactical Public Realm Guidelines also suggest that these parklets should be financed mainly by street-facing businesses to make up for their lack of business space. Another type of public space is outdoor cafes, which are very similar to parklets. Outdoor cafes provide places for people to eat and rest along the street and are often linked to businesses that are located along the street. Unlike parklets, the outdoor cafes not only can be converted from parking spaces, they can also be set up on a wide sidewalk.

Figure 2: Outdoor cafes that make proper use of sidewalk space

The inspiration from the above examples is that the essence of discussing the "street-stall economy" is actually not the "street-stalls", but the rational use and transformation of urban public space under the premise of orderly management and design to serve the urban population, prosper urban commerce, and enhance the vitality of urban streets.

Final analysis conclusion:

In the reality of urban development in China, there is indeed the possibility of the growth of "street-stall economy" in a chaotic, disordered manner, but street-stalls themselves are not necessarily the problems. Chinese urban managers need to transform their simplistic thinking of "prohibition" and "restriction", and manage the cities in more refined thoughts. From the perspective of the world's urban development practices, there have been too many successful examples of rational use of urban public spaces like "street stalls" to serve as inspirations for China.

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