August 24th, 2007

Shanghai: Creative Destruction?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation by Mary Soderstrom

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Linden trees in the old French concession

In 2010, when Shanghai hosts the World Expo, 35 percent of the city is supposed to be dedicated greenspace. The stated goal is provide 15 square meters of green space per resident, with a park or other green feature no farther away than a half-kilometer walk from anyone’s home. It is an amazing challenge for such a huge and overcrowded city. Nevertheless, Shanghai will probably succeed in meeting it, but at great cost to the fabric of this enormous metropolis.

When I picked Shanghai as the Chinese city to consider in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, I had no idea of the ambitious plan. As an example of what can be done when powerful government combines with capitalistic fervor, however, I quickly learned that Shanghai is unparalleled.

The fruit of this green effort was evident from the elevated highways when I first arrived in Shanghai on the airport bus. Steel mills and industrial plants line the edges of the nearby waterways, their red brick buildings smudged by smoke, gray and black piles of slag and other waste lining the surface roads. But the edges of several compounds are planted in bushes and trees, producing a green contrasting brightly with the dark industrial tailings.

The highway right-of-ways are also lined with green, with footpaths and benches that people use, at least in the center city, like any other park. Further out in the new towns, I later saw that district governments often make other choices, grouping the required green space together to produce big parks filled with sports facilities.

Shanghai, a vast cornubation of about 18 million people, is situated on the Huangpu River, a tributary of the great Yangtze river which originates 6,400 kilometers away in the mountains near Tibet. Shanghai has been a busy port since the fifteenth century, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was in effect an international city, with foreign states actually governing their own outposts within the city, independent of Chinese authorities. Part of the legacy of this period are the linden trees that line the streets in the former French Concession. Planted at least 80 years ago, they are coddled by the current government and shed leafy shadows over busy Nanjingxilu, or West Nanjing Road.

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Shanghai aims to have 35 per cent of its surface as greenspace by 2010 when it will host a World Expo of the sort that Montreal had in 1967. To accomplish this ambitious goal, traditional housing is being torn down in the center of the city, to be replaced by high rises and parks.

It remains to be seen whether the many trees being planted today will fare as well as those planted nearly a century ago. They are crowded together, apparently because when calculating green space, the diameter of tree trunks count, but their crown of their branches don’t. In two or three years, many of trees are going to be fighting each other for space, with dire consequences for the urban forest unless some judicious tree-thinning is done.

Yet the trees are undoubtedly healthier than Shanghai’s traditional housing. Until not very long ago about 80 per cent of Shanghai’s population lived in longtangs (from the word “long,” meaning alley) which are formed by two- or three-storey buildings fronting on the road. Rows of attached houses fill the interior space of each block, with room for children to play, for people to sit and gossip, for growing plants in pots or in little gardens at doorsteps. Shopping and work are nearby. Each block — each longtang — is an urban village, defensible by its inhabitants, with room for life to unfold peaceably.

In order to meet the green space norms in these dense neighborhoods, however, the old buildings are being torn down on a massive scale. Since this is a Communist state, no individual has title to the land, although the right to buy and sell houses, apartments and other buildings has been recognized since 1995. When the decision is made to raze a longtang, residents get some compensation and new housing is usually arranged in high-rise apartment blocks, frequently in outlying areas. The changes are met with mixed emotions.

People obviously like the new parks: they are full of people all day long, beginning early in the morning when groups of older folk gather for exercise. Line dancing, various martial arts, running backwards, group exercises and jitter bugging are all popular. I’m about the same age as many of the early birds, and when I stopped one morning to watch about 35 men and women of a certain age doing the tango at seven in the morning, I was politely invited by an English-speaking man to join in. In another, older park, I watched family groups — mother, father, one child, and two grandparents — enjoying paddle boats in a small lake on a warm spring Sunday, while late on a weekday afternoon another park had groups of children — about three-quarters of them boys — playing games on the grass.

Yet the massive dislocation of the population in order to create this green space may produce big social problems down the line, particularly because transportation and job creation aren’t always coordinated with the construction of new housing.

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Until recently 80 per cent of Shanghai’s residents lived in longtangs like this one. Two and three storey attached buildings facing the street form a courtyard filled with more low housing. Inside the protected place people grow plants and live an almost village-like life in the center of the city.

The expansion of the city is also destroying agricultural land that, until recently, produced much of the food sold in Shanghai. What this will mean in terms of the food supply isn’t clear; the municipal officials I asked about the situation didn’t seem concerned. The land is now much more valuable for uses other than agriculture, they said simply, sounding much like real estate developers in North America.

No one seemed very concerned about air pollution either. “We’re near the sea, of course we have fog,” I heard more than once, but what I smelled was smog of the kind I remember from my childhood in Southern California. Only the rich can afford cars now, but given China’s rising standard of living, air quality is going to get much worse as a private automobile comes within the reach of more and more and people.

The official website for Shanghai’s World Expo says that there are less than 1,000 days to go before it opens, and work is proceeding at a dizzying pace. Construction crews are on the job from 6am to midnight, trees appear on newly-vacant land overnight, flowers are planted by the hundreds of thousands. It will be very interesting to see whether the exposition actually helps the city live up to the Shanghai World Expo’s slogan: Better City, Better Life.

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Jing’an park is a heavily-used oasis of green just of West Nanjing Road.


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2 comments

  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    I was horrified by the total disregard for architectural heritage in China. The attitude seems to be that if you keep a tiny sample of these “feudal” neighbourhoods or buildings, you can have a clear conscience to demolish the surrounding 90%. Shanghai wasn’t so bad because of the green plan, but traditional neighbourhoods are being torn down to build ten-lane highways in Beijing. And things are even worse in the far west, where the old Central Asian bazaars are being turned into monotonous rows of tiled high rise buildings fronted by neon plastic palm trees.

    See my previous post:
    http://www.urbanphoto.net/blog/2006/10/13/another-great-leap-forward/

    August 26th, 2007 at 11:45 am

  2. Desmond Bliek says:

    It seems like bad things happen whenever there’s a push to quantify abstractions like ‘green’ or ‘open’ space. All those highway-side berms add up to a nice percentage in the ‘Open space progress report’ but do they really add up to anything in everyday life?

    August 27th, 2007 at 5:00 pm