Shape of the City: Shanghai

March 22nd, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Shape of the City


The plane descends through smog the color of cigarette smoke, coasting over low-slung industrial sheds in a brownfield landscape sliced by highways and dirty canals. Distant cranes hover above endless rows of towers, fading in the haze as the tarmac heaves up to meet the landing gear. The gleaming terminal fades into your subconscious as you follow the bilingual signage to your destination.

You take the train, banking its turns as the gauge counts up to 430 kilometers per hour. Speeding across that flat expanse, the maglev tracks rise and fall along with the elevated highways, a symphony in steel and concrete that weaves between Italianate villas, half-timbered faux-medeival chateaus, and the occasional traditional village, whitewashed walls pinned between black tile roofs capped with dragons.

The train pulls to a stop at a station far outside the city, where the steam from dumpling stands barely masks the red glow of a KFC, the bustling subway station an oasis of activity in this exurban noplace that marks the terminal station of the fastest train in the world.

Shanghai is a testing ground, a sandbox on the flats of the Yangtse delta; a laboratory for experimental urbanism.

The long taxi queue and longer ride into the city gives you plenty of time to contemplate the awkward name of Shanghai’s “Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Operation Line,” and you’ll realize that you’ve participated in a grand experiment, more propaganda than public transit. The maglev is only the latest in a series of tests the city of Shanghai has performed on its population. The city has, throughout its modern history, been the site of these urban experiments: theories made manifest in concrete and steel. Hypotheses as urban planning. Shanghai is a testing ground, a sandbox on the flats of the Yangtse delta; a laboratory for experimental urbanism.

Histories of the city treat Shanghai as a city in transition, between a past best forgotten and an undoubtedly glorious future. Today’s enthusiasm for unbridled economic growth and ever-taller skyscrapers has numerous parallels in Shanghai’s modern history, from the birth of a socialist utopia in 1949, to the 1911 revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty, to the influx of enthusiastic foreigners following the establishment in 1842 of a treaty port on the Huangpu. Each of these were significant events, but none truly marked as great a break with the past as contemporary propaganda would have us believe. Today’s myth – that the glittering skyline of Lujiazui arose from farmland in just twenty years – is easily dispelled by a look at old maps of the city – a map from 1912 shows wharfs and cotton mills on the east bank of the river; a map from 1928 shows motor works and heavy industry. While contemporary accounts of the first colonial settlements (following the Treaty of Nanking) attest that the concessions were built on mudflats and otherwise unappealing land, this is surely not entirely true – temple complexes (such as Jing’an Temple) can trace their history back over one thousand years, to sites far from the walled “Chinese City.”

Today’s myth – that the glittering skyline of Lujiazui arose from farmland in just twenty years – is easily dispelled by a look at old maps of the city

By naively ignoring or consciously suppressing the past, Shanghai planners could consider the city a tabula rasa, and thereby have free reign to construct as they wished – whether their aim was to recreate the streets of Paris, or to build a skyline to rival Hong Kong. This attitude has defined the city we see today: a multilayered hybrid metropolis that serves as a living museum of urban planning.

Shanghai was a substantial trading port even in the 16th century: large enough and important enough that it was necessary to construct a city wall in the 1550s to deter marauding Japanese pirates. The old city, then as now, was a dense construct of narrow lanes, inward-focused courtyard houses, the community-oriented urban fabric punctuated by temple complexes. Following the Treaty of Nanking, the city expanded to the north and west, the French Concession developing along wide axial boulevards lined with trees (echoes of Hausman’s plan for Paris, a modernization scheme contemporary with the urbanization of the French Concession). The roads of the International Settlement followed a looser plan with winding roads lined with neo-classical (and, later, art-deco) facades, reminiscent of New York or London. Large-scale urban planning in the city seemed to stagnate during the years of Japanese occupation (though the dates on some historic-preservation plaques around the city suggest that many foreign residents carried on, business as usual) and of civil war, but following the Communist victory in 1949, changes were made. The already-porous boundaries of the concessions were opened completely, and formerly exclusive foreign enclaves were opened to the public (People’s Square, for instance, the old racetrack, became a public park).

In more recent years, the rapid development of Pudong mirrors long-discarded Modernist planning principles, with boulevards the width of whole neighborhoods in older districts. The business district with its superhighrises is surrounded by seemingly endless fields of apartment towers, in a zoning configuration that dispells any nascent street-level vitality. But if Pudong represents the failure of Modernism, drastic interventions across the river have proven more successful. The elevated highways that would have been stalled for decades or simply abandoned in the United States or Europe were sucessfully completed here. Huge debates over intercity highways raged in postwar America, and in most cases, downtown areas were spared these eyesores. In Shanghai, however, the elevated roads seem to work fairly well, alleviating congestion and providing quick links across the city. The multi-level stack interchanges, illuminated at night, become massive infrastructural sculptures. Though these flyovers surely required a substantial amount of demolition, the neighborhoods they cut through don’t seem to be especially affected by their path (possibly due to the location of major roads along previously exiting boundary lines…)

It’s clear that Shanghai continues to act as an urban laboratory, though now the major experiments are relegated to the perimeter: the “nine towns” project may be seen as a partial failure, as houses are often left vacant, purchased as investment properties, but as these satellite cities become knitted more closely with the historical center (via the ever expanding Shanghai metro), observers will get a better sense of their successes and failures.

So, this brings me to the end of the “Shape of the City” series. It’s impossible to summarize a city of 20 million in 10 blog posts, but I hope I’ve managed to clarify some things for myself and readers, and offered some small insight on why and how Shanghai came to be the fascinating city it is.








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