Urban Connections


Nahda Suleiman





More than just guided tours, these field trips are led by people from various fields such as photojournalism, civil engineering and architecture and are aimed at creating local awareness, opening up dialogue and stimulating creativity. Lea Ayoub, a Lebanese national based in Shanghai is one such guide. ‘[The tour] is like a walking think-tank whereby you develop ideas through your direct experience of the city. The talks are led by people who have various urban expertise and can offer alternative readings of the city. The direct experience and the feel of the city give a far greater sense of reality than reading a book or an article, however well it is written or documented. The contact with people is also great. There is much to learn from seemingly mundane details of urban life. It is amazing what one can get out of these trips,’ says the 32-year-old who moved to China just over a year ago.

Held every weekend since 2010, these walks are all part of an initiative called Shanghai Flaneur, organised by a local consultancy firm Constellations, specialising in exploring urban spaces. Ayoub, a postgraduate in City Design from the London School of Economics says she has always been fascinated by cities and how urban design affects the interplay between social, political and economic factors with the spatial distribution of the population.

Previously working in a London-based engineering firm, Ayoub moved to Shanghai after her partner was offered a job there. Due to her insufficient knowledge of Mandarin Chinese coupled with her lack of work experience in Shanghai, she says it was difficult to get a job in her field. ‘It did not work out so I found alternative ways of working.’

By collaborating with Constellations, Ayoub is now bidding for a grant that will enable her to conduct research on urban regeneration projects and eventually lead these tours. ‘Shanghai Flaneur is always looking for people who have some kind of expertise and can provide a reading of the city through their lens. The grant simply allows me to build on my knowledge of this place. For instance, I have the expertise on regeneration of heritage quarters but do not have in-depth knowledge of such projects in Shanghai, this money will allow me to do research,’ she explains. If she obtains the grant, she says, it might be six months before she can start heading these walking lectures.

Once Ayoub is able to conduct her walking tours, she plans to take her group to the areas that her research will focus on. The urban designer says that for those who live in Shanghai, the challenge will be to make them see these areas from a new perspective.

‘Urban regeneration takes many forms and is very difficult to achieve. It is also a word that is abused in the development world. Some developers talk about regeneration but what they really do is strip a place from their inhabitants and put the buildings to commercial uses. Social regeneration is more difficult and I need to be able to convey that clearly to people joining me.’

Ayoub is currently making a living out of teaching English to local students and maintains that it is crucial for her to live in a place where she can walk. ‘Shanghai does not appear to be a walkable city at first, but the pedestrian network is definitely there and it is very permeable.’

Ask her about what her favourite place in the city is and quite naturally, she is stumped. ‘I can’t decide on which is the best area in Shanghai,’ she laughs.

‘I guess what I love is its variety. The central districts are very diverse. The former French Concession area has a very European feel, with low buildings and European housing typologies. Other places have a less defined character and are a mix of low-rise housing communities and gated compounds with tall buildings. If you look closely, you will be surprised by many interesting, albeit more modest buildings and places.’

Despite the communication issues, Ayoub says that adapting to life in Shanghai was not challenging. Her way of getting accustomed to a new place is by getting a sense of its geography. ‘I have to map the main areas of the city and that is how I orientate myself and understand the place. I need to feel I have some autonomy to move about.’

Commenting on the expat community in her current place of residence, Ayoub is quick to lament that the number of Arabs living in Shanghai is far fewer than in other Chinese cities. ‘We were extremely lucky to meet one Lebanese man when we first arrived here and then he introduced us to seven others so my partner and I immediately integrated into a close-knit group. They gave us lots of advice and helped us find our way around. I would love to meet more people from the Middle East. I am especially interested in why foreigners come to China because it is always a question I ask myself.’

Ayoub admits that despite not being particularly attracted to Chinese culture in the past, she has grown to love residing in Shanghai. ‘Just living in China is unique enough,’ she says. ‘Being immersed in a totally different culture and trying to understand and unravel it, is pretty amazing. This city has the added advantage that lots of foreigners live here so you don’t feel totally out of touch with familiar things. Also as expats, it has to be said that we are in a fortunate position because we are able to afford a lot of things here.’

For now, Ayoub plans on staying in Shanghai at least until the end of her third year. ‘I want to improve my Mandarin and get more involved in urban-related projects. Hopefully in a couple of years, my Mandarin will be quite good. Honestly, I would feel a bit gutted not to be able to capitalise on all my efforts since I arrived,’ she concludes.