Rebuilding a Beijing sidewalk: more than a construction site
By Richard Janosy  ·  2022-01-27  ·   Source: NO.5-6 FEBRUARY 3, 2022
A sidewalk construction site in Beijing in November 2021 (RICHARD JANOSY)

Our neighborhood had its roads and sidewalks redone; quite the impressive sight to behold. Every morning we venture outside for our morning exercise and pass by the team of workers preparing for the day's operations with their collection of equipment—cutters, sweepers, milling machines, pavers, and rollers—standing by.

But what is also notable and differs from what I am used to seeing is the remaking of the sidewalks. These walkways in Beijing aren't actually paved or cemented, but manually assembled by layering bricks one by one along the kilometers of walkways, wide and narrow, of the neighborhood streets. Workers go about their tasks meticulously, yet surprisingly fast, bordering every lamppost, tree or irregularity encountered. The end results are smooth and clean pedestrian passages that reflect the care and expertise poured into them.

The old bricks are first removed and the sidewalk area is leveled out with dirt and compressed to flatten it. Pavements like these get deformed over time because the roots of the trees that are in the sidewalks grow and nature wants to take over. Sidewalks are also used by bicycles and small scooters when the streets are too packed with cars—a rather annoying sentiment I will not elaborate on right now. At times, segments of the roots need to be cut to facilitate the evening out of the sidewalk.

The trees are then enclosed by cement extensions before the brick layering commences. The tree enclosures allow the water to remain within the tree area when watered. The rest is like putting together a long extended puzzle, except that the pieces are all the same. In the corners, bricks are cut and shaved and the angle of the sidewalk is lowered at street crossings to facilitate wheelchair access. When all the pieces are in place, another worker comes through and distributes fine sand to fill in the gaps between the bricks, following up with a final sweep of the area.

Finally, I need to mention the yellow-ridged bricks. These are a series of square-shaped bricks following one line, designed to let visually impaired walkers feel the road direction under their feet and enable them to stay on path. Although I have not seen it in use, all Beijing sidewalks share that feature.

The impressive display of workmanship I have seen in sidewalk reconstruction and the fine attention to detail make me consider the laborers artisans as much as workers. Collins English Dictionary states, "Workmanship is the skill with which something is made and which affects the appearance and

quality of the finished object." Now, walking along the sidewalks in my neighborhood in the mornings, I can see and enjoy the exhibition of fine workmanship under my feet.

Rebuilding the sidewalks doesn't end here. Part of the Chinese Government's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), reflecting the needs of the growing middle-income urban population, is to turn the focus toward improving the quality of the urban living space. For Beijing, main host of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, this means increasing accessibility for the physically challenged, cleaning up and beautifying neighborhoods, including closing up what are known as hole-in-the-wall businesses, and converting idle spaces into public parks with added leisure facilities.

The accelerated process has come to fruition as we see many local unused spaces, no matter how small, being converted into green areas with benches and accommodations for all to enjoy. More than just a green area, these small parks are designed to make the utmost of the limited space, while blending into the local environment. 

All these small ameliorations, made possible through the expertise of planners, designers, and skilled workers, transform what would otherwise be a concrete jungle into congenial surroundings meeting the needs of visitors and locals alike. They are integrated into the bigger infrastructure and urban renewal plans of the Beijing administration and give hope to a better quality of life for all capital dwellers—one brick at a time.

(Print Edition Title: Brick by Brick) 

The author is a Canadian living in Beijing 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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