The 小区 xiaoqu is a walled-off apartment complex made to be an oasis in the desert of city life. It sits serenely in the middle of the brown city like a terraformed dome on mars or a curled lizard sunning on hot sand. Green, still, shimmering with life, it is in sharp contrast to the industrial landscape around it.

Under the insulating membrane of the trees, rays of sunlight sprinkle down gently, dappling my hair as I walk out the door of one of the buildings, it clanks shut as I stroll purposefully towards the main mouth of the complex. The air around me has a different quality than that of the outside. Full, oxygenated, silent but for the pulsing of water and the rumble of the living structures above and beneath.

I tunnel through the arteries of the complex instinctively - small rivers weaving gently over slight hills and grassy lawns, thin cobblestone paths weaving and meandering. The paths and rivers seem designed to maximize time spent traveling, to ensure that each appendage of the complex is accessible and is visible. In the center of the enclave is a small pond and a steadily gurgling fountain. The heart of the complex, pumping constantly and incessantly, stronger at night and lighter in the mornings.

Underneath the dome of the trees, life bustles and teems. Even the mottled sunlight rippling down from above feels animated, vital and clean. A pack of wild cats stalks through the grass of the lawn to my left, a mottled tabby, and 4 small kittens wrestling on the curb in the dimming light. A grandmother and her 2 children squat patiently by the edge of the pond watching coy fish circle beneath the surface of the water. I smile at them I pass, winding past ferns, drying racks, and low windows as I make my way intentionally towards the entrance.

Vibrations beneath my feet alert me of tectonic shifts in the multi-storied parking garage beneath us. I can hear dull clunks as cars and motorscooters move, skid and creak in the stomach of the giant organism. It rumbles as it processes, ingests and expels metal and flesh. As I arrive at the gate, a car breaches the garage and passes out the entrance. A sleepy security guard nods at me as the car passes, letting me know he recognizes me, and wearily flicks his lighter towards the tip of his cigarette.

In the brief second before I make the plunge through the gate, I look back over my shoulder. Huge spikes tower above me, a ring of 30 story turrets of tile and concrete, erupting through the lush trees in the complex. Inside each of them, thousands of human lives contained to 50 square meter cubes. They live and breath constantly, moving through these towering appendages, distributing resources, energy, reciprocity and warmth.

All of this creates a magical moment of shared peace, a connection with the organism around me, all the pieces of this creature moving at once, in symphony. Reaching the opening to the street outside, I stop to listen. Behind me there’s only a rustle of leaves, a murmur of soft language, a calm, peaceful focus that for a brief moment is shared by all of us.

A 小区 in Shanghai