Reply To: Family Recreation in Shanghai

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There is a widespread assumption that cities — especially megacities — are not meant for kids. Children, it is commonly believed, are better off in the open spaces of the countryside. Throughout the developed world families, influenced by this idea, have fled the urban core, preferring to settle instead in the relative peace and tranquility of the suburbs. Faced with demographic decline, policy makers and urban planners have shifted focus, arguing that cities should compete to attract the young and single of the ‘creative or entrepreneurial class’ as well as empty nesters who, having finished raising their children, return to the cities with lots of money to spend. Yet, as urban theorist Joel Kotkin writes, if cities are to retain their vibrancy and ensure a dynamic level of population growth, they must also reassert themselves as places where families want to live. For Kotkin this involves three central features: safety, good parks and good schools.

Shanghai has all these and more. For a giant metropolis in the developing world Shanghai is remarkably kid friendly. Except for the traffic (which is far from a trivial concern) the city is astoundingly safe. Women and children freely wander the streets, stroll in the parks and play in the back lanes and alleys, even at night. The safety of the city — which should be of interest to urban theorists everywhere — is no doubt in part attributed to strict policing and to a cultural climate that abominates, instead of glorifying crime. But also, and perhaps most importantly, the unthreatening, nonaggresive, even relaxed atmosphere of the city arises because Shanghai’s culture is so intensely child friendly.

Throughout the city children are welcome pretty much everywhere. It is not uncommon to see kids accompany their parents to art galleries or fancy restaurants. At classical music concerts, visitors to Shanghai are surprised to see children sitting quietly listening attentively to a piano or violin recital. On the street it is not only the old ladies and young girls that coo at a pretty baby. Even businessmen and trendy young men will put down their mp3 players and cell phones to trade a smile with a cute toddler.

When cities are friendly to children, children are free to take delight in cities. For kids the city itself becomes a playground. Shanghai, with its neon lights, noisy markets, hawkers and street peddlers, narrow lanes, green spaces and science fiction skyscrapers is overflowing with fun and adventure.

Moreover, Shanghai has a growing middle class that is all too eager to please — some say spoil — their only children. Coupled with this is an ever-expanding expat community many of who take advantage of the city’s child friendly culture to enlarge their families during their time in Shanghai. These factors have combined to ensure that ever more places are opening in the city with the aim to entertain families and youngsters.