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The rise of urban free-rangers

A group of young urbanites challenges consumerism by exploring free weekend activities, redefining wealth beyond money, Gui Qian reports.

By Gui Qian | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-17 05:58
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The Gratis members organized a workshop titled "100 Ways to Enjoy a Weekend in a Big City Without Spending Money" for young people in Shanghai in December 2022. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Formula of leisure

The Gratis members boiled down their experiences to a formula for enjoying weekends in big cities without spending money. This blueprint involves four core free resources: urban spaces, public services, sharing of goods, and creative activities.

Zhang, a social science major with a focus on Media Culture and Creative Cities, delved deep into people's interactions with urban environments. He discovered that modern urban spaces often cater to consumer behavior, leading people to naturally trust places designed for consumption.

For example, he conducted a survey on park toilets and found that despite many meeting sanitation standards, people still subconsciously perceived them as unclean, preferring to use restrooms in shopping malls.

Hong Kong's community libraries provide another interesting example. Zhang pointed out that they coexist with vegetable markets within buildings, typically situated on the top floors. However, he observed that many of the seats were often left unoccupied. "People's use of public spaces is very limited," he said.

Zhang emphasized the importance of true communication and interaction between individuals and their urban environments. He mentioned that for many young people, the act of traveling has become quite mechanical: they follow guides, snap a photo upon arrival, and then move on.

"This approach shows a reluctance to truly engage with the city, opting instead to follow certain conventions and routines. Personally, I prefer not to have a predetermined destination or schedule," Zhang said.

He shared a memorable experience from last summer when he gained a fresh perspective on his hometown, Rizhao, East China's Shandong province, through walking. It took him 2.5 hours to walk from the westernmost to the easternmost coastline of this seaside town. Along the way, Zhang noticed how two rivers divided the city and how the living environments of the local residents varied in different neighborhoods.

For Zhang, open urban spaces not only provide opportunities for leisure activities without spending money but also bring the joy of exploration and contemplation.

As for the second element in the prescription — public services — it offers even more benefits to city residents. People can easily find affordable or even free night school courses and community dining halls in many cities.

The philosophy of the group, "access is better than ownership", promotes the sharing of goods, prolonging their lifespan and usefulness while also saving money. Chen regularly shares her wardrobe with friends and often hosts exchange parties to swap idle items, skills, and even knowledge.

The last element, creative activities, emphasizes human initiative. "But don't feel pressured as if you have to do something grand," Chen explained. "Any small act that disrupts the routine can be considered a creative activity. Just stir up a bit of trouble for yourself, like joining a dance in the streets."

Looking back at the past year and a half of carrying out their program, Chen realized that she has developed a new understanding of managing money.

"Most of us never learned how to manage our relationship with money during high school or university, so I was very anxious at first when I had little savings. But now, I understand that one's attitude toward money is like a spectrum, with uncontrolled spending on one end and extreme frugality on the other," she said.

Looking ahead, she expressed a desire to participate in more activities and to release a second magazine, with the goal of establishing a healthy relationship with money.

"Through collaborating with other 'free-range chickens', I've discovered that the camaraderie we share is what motivates me," Chen said.

Zhang also highlighted how his participation in The Gratis project had opened him up to meaningful communication with others. He came to understand that the bond between people goes beyond financial exchanges and is, instead, rooted in a shared sense of creativity.

"We've committed to try our best to enhance public spaces, making life more comfortable for everyone. This, in turn, also enriches our personal lives, leading to countless moments of joy and fulfillment," he said.

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