After three decades of rapid development, China today faces urgent problems that have accumulated in the recent past. These include an expanding financial and social disparity between people, the loss of public goods such as a clean environment and social welfare (housing, health and education) and the destruction of historical urban fabric. In the last instance, this includes not only the physical demolition of courtyard houses and laneways, but also the erosion of the overall quality of urban public space that was previously humane, habitable, accessible and green. Although current government policies aim to correct the one-sided development with many regulations issued to protect by force the environment and some aspects of the social fabric and public service, the critical, informed understanding of urban design in the Chinese context is still missing. For example, there has been a call to make Beijing humane (yiren weiben) and habitable (yiju), yet a body of critical knowledge for urban design in the Chinese context is wanting. How can we reconstitute for the general public a habitable city that has humane and ecological qualities? How can we imagine a new urban public space displaying these qualities that is modern and yet eminently suitable for China? How should modern Beijing evolve, taking along with it useful legacies from its ancient past and cultural traditions? Can traditional Beijing with a 500-year history teach us anything critical and constructive today? Can we situate a discourse on Beijing in an international context so that the project contributes to global dialogue and debate? To offer a preliminary answer to these questions, I first employ European theorists’ readings of Chinese and Asian urbanities as mirror reflections on the Chinese situation, before turning to traditional Beijing directly, on which I will make four observations.