[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Sizing Up a Mega-City - Shanghai

jancius at ohio.edu jancius at ohio.edu
Mon Aug 11 17:18:01 EDT 2008

Sizing Up a Mega-City

The Olympics Will Draw the World's Eyes to China. In Shanghai, There's Almost
Too Much to Take In

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008; Page C01


"Have you been to Shanghai?" they ask, those who know the city, who know its
size and its energy and its awesome spectacle of all things new and global. Old
hands will assure you this city of some 20 million people is unlike anything
you've seen before. It is big, like Mexico City. It is dense, like Manhattan.
And it has been growing freakishly fast and in freakish directions, like Dubai,
the city-out-of-sand on the Persian Gulf that is constantly laying claim (for
about five minutes) to the tallest this, the biggest that, the most expensive

Even before you arrive you are reduced to a kind of childlike wonder.

"Are we there yet?" you might ask, as you fly over the city. The pilot has yet
to give you the "we're about to descend" warning. The cabin crew has yet to
collect the cups and napkins. And yet, you're already over the city. Apartment
buildings in neat rows are everywhere beneath you, looking like identical
capacitors and transistors glued to some massive circuit board. The plane has
yet to make any of the groaning noises that presage landing, and yet you're
still not done with the exurban overture to the city proper. 

"Are we there yet?" is also the best question you can ask of the Chinese
mega-city. The mega-city -- usually defined as a city with a population of 10
million or more -- isn't a new phenomenon, or one that China invented. Yet
urbanists are looking to China (where Shanghai and Beijing are already
mega-cities, and at least a dozen others are huge, if not "mega") to find the
capital of the 21st century, rather like Paris was the capital of the 19th, and
New York the capital of the 20th. And these urbanists (the profession that
studies urban trends and design with varying degrees of academic legitimacy) are
fascinated by Chinese cities, horrified by them, desperate to steer them away
from environmental disaster and growing social anomie. Animating all this
concern is a basic fact: The Chinese mega city isn't there yet. It is still
growing. A migration unlike anything the world has ever seen is in progress,
with hundreds of millions of rural Chinese flocking to cities.

The statistics are overwhelming. If China continues to urbanize, if it reaches
levels comparable to the United States (around 80 percent urban), there could be
a billion people living in its cities sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Conservative, near-term estimates suggest that 200 million to 300 million people
will leave traditional rural and village life for the economic opportunities of
China's exploding urban areas over the next two decades.

Other cities are growing, too, and as fast or faster -- Lagos, Nigeria; Karachi,
Pakistan; Mumbai -- but Shanghai is different, because it has money, and lots of
it. Of all the "mega-cities" in the world, Shanghai is growing the fastest,
economically, according to Xiangming Chen, a professor at Trinity College in
Hartford, Conn. So the city is expanding on all fronts: more people, with more
money, who want more space.

It is said that to get a sense of this, you need to visit "the map." It has
become one of the strangest tourist attractions in this city that doesn't lack
museums, shopping or the distractions of nightlife. The map is located in the
Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a history museum and a shrine to all
things urban, located in People's Square in the heart of downtown. It is a 1:500
scale representation of the city, sprawling over 6,400 square feet -- and even
then it all won't fit onto a full floor of the exhibition hall. It is surrounded
by walkways, and it can be viewed from a balcony above. With the flick of a
switch, artificial night falls, and its thousands of lovingly rendered buildings
begin to twinkle. It is surreal, and beautiful, a bit absurd, and it seems to
offer, in one comprehensive glance, a sense of the city in its massive,
skyscraping, outward-spreading totality. Here, perhaps, one can absorb what it
means to build some 10,000 high-rise buildings in a quarter-century.

Huang Qi Min is a modelmaker, and it is his company that makes and maintains
this mini-colossus. Modelmaking is a competitive sport in China, and that's how
Huang got his start. But in the early 1990s, when Shanghai was released from the
economic and social strictures that kept its potential in check for more than
four decades of communist rule, city leaders decided they needed some way to get
a handle on it. The map was an early effort to take the measure of the city. And
it just keeps growing. Every few months, Huang says, he must swap out the
"white" buildings, which represent projects in the planning or drawing-board
stage, for finished models, rendered in color. When necessary, he will walk on
the Huangpu River to get to the center of the city.

The map, although it makes the city comprehensible and puts man in charge of it
-- the modelmaker walks on water-- misses so much else. There are, of course, no
people and no traffic. The thousands of construction sites spread around the
city are missing, too. New buildings, on the map, happen as if by magic, without
cranes and scaffolding and fences to hide the gaping pits and buzzing hives of
migrant workers.

It also leaves out the darker facts of Chinese urbanization: the 750,000
premature deaths (according to the World Bank) caused annually by China's
choking pollution. The map shows only construction, and none of the destruction,
the loss of old neighborhoods in the center of the city, and with them, the loss
of tradition and community. The map doesn't show the massive relocations
necessary to reconfigure Shanghai for yet more millions of people. The tens of
thousands of residents who have been moved to make new green spaces, to
construct new bridges, to build new high-rises, are not heard from.

The map doesn't show you anything on the inside, the way urbanization is
changing daily domestic life, the hour the alarm clock must be set to make the
longer commute to work, the room you eat dinner in, or the "chicken-soup
distance" -- the ideal safety zone that children want between them and their
parents. On one level, the story of these changes is the story of any burgeoning
city riding the wave of economic boom times. People want to live large, and they
are moving to the city's edges to find more space. But there are some major
differences. Shanghai, like most of China, largely sat out the second half of
the 20th century. The social change here feels like a hopscotch across history.

"It came out bursting, like a fireball," says Da Xin, chief engineer of the
urban planning center. The speed of Shanghai's development, which often
bewilders outsiders, is a point of pride among many here.

In China you also have to remember the larger statistic: the total population of
more than 1.3 billion people. In the shadow of that number, statistics about
private space in Shanghai -- since 1990, the average amount of living space, per
person, has increased from 8 to 15 square meters (86 to 161 square feet) --
become rather ominous.

To see these changes from the inside, you might study the photographs of Hu
Yang, a photographer who has trained his lens on the rapid change in Shanghai
lifestyle and domesticity in recent years. In a series called "Shanghai Living,"
he photographed hundreds of the city's residents in their domestic spaces,
ranging from the bunk-bed dormitories of the city's poorest workers to the
sun-dappled, white-walled aeries of its wealthiest. The series captures multiple
social trends. In some of the most humble spaces, every inch of wall space is
covered, with clocks and baskets, cookware, old photographs and newspapers. Bags
and tools hang from the ceiling, and the kitchen table is doing triple duty: a
place to cook, eat and work. In the apartments of the wealthy, rooms are filled
with furniture that looks elegant but unused. But Hu hasn't just captured the
wealth differential, he's also hinted at the growing isolation and solitude of
the middle class, with clean, orderly spaces filled with generic Ikea-like
bookshelves. The chaos and clutter and crowding of the old Shanghai has given
way to one person to a room, engaged in some solitary activity, such as playing
the piano or reading. 

"When we got a living room, I thought, what is the use of this living room?"
says a young Chinese professor of architecture who spends time in both China and
the United States. "I thought it was crazy to have two bathrooms. Now bedrooms
are just for sleep."

Standardization is the norm in Shanghai's building boom, and the standard can be
gleaned from the names of the projects. Consider a development that the Vanke
company -- the largest real estate developer in China -- is designing near
Nanjing. Called Stratford, it is entered via an automobile passageway through a
luxury shopping strip. You then pass over a bridge into three areas of
Western-style homes and apartments, zoned into three economic classes.

But it is the river under the bridge that says the most about this development.
The river is polluted, so polluted that it would depress home values. And so the
old, fetid river has been buried in a giant pipe, underground, while a new,
ornamental river (really just a small lake) has been placed above it. Rivers are
picturesque, part of the lifestyle.

This sort of thing horrifies Western observers: the imitation of Western
materialism, the borrowing of outside architectural styles, and the
ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand response to environmental degradation (just hide
it!). Of course, other people's cities have always haunted us. Europeans new to
Chicago or New York at the beginning of the 20th century were mesmerized and
horrified by the crass commercialism, the speed, the apparent indifference to
human scale or Old World values. It was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, who
taught New Yorkers how their "other half lives" and helped lead the tenement
reform movement. The British were for centuries horrified by Paris, by its
squalor and its bad habit of coughing up violent revolutions. Westerners are
often aghast at the playgrounds of the Persian Gulf, their tawdry display of
conspicuous consumption and their Disneyland silliness.

One might say that fear of the Chinese city is the only prism through which we
can see it. "In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of
dense, rank richly clotted life," Aldous Huxley wrote of Shanghai in 1926.
Huxley was impressed by that mysterious coefficient of urban life in Shanghai,
its vigor and bustle and industriousness. But that word, "rank," captures an
undercurrent of urban fear that still haunts the Western mind as it contemplates
the explosive growth of Shanghai.

"China, whose determined pursuit of economic growth at any cost was blamed by
many for finally tipping the world into catastrophic climate change, has
suffered massive population loss through floods and storms," writes Elizabeth
Farrelly, an architecture and urban critic. That passage comes from the final
chapter of a new book called "Blubberland," an extended argument about how
democratic freedom and the desires it liberates is killing our cities, and
perhaps our planet. The final chapter is her vision of the future, in which
China has met its presumably deserved end as the dystopian embodiment of
untrammeled capitalism.

It's a sci-fi vision, but hardly a new one. For a century, at least, there has
been a not-so-subterranean (and often racist) fear among Westerners about the
big "what if" of China. What if a billion people are suddenly thrust into
modernity? What if they suddenly have access to modern weapons? Or modern
science? Or modern "lifestyles"?

That kind of fear -- that China's cities may be out of control -- colors much of
the urbanist discourse about China. The Chinese city isn't seen as a Chinese
problem but a global problem -- a problem so big it could take the world down
with it. And it isn't just an environmental problem but a social problem: The
ugliness of the Chinese city, the uniformity of its mass-produced housing, is
seen as a huge step backward, into some gray, quasi-authoritarian, Orwellian

Even as Chinese cities spread out, there is also deep concern about the density
at their center. Unlike postwar American suburbanization, which emptied out the
inner cities in places like Detroit, China's urbanization isn't fueled by any
deep-seated cultural antipathy to city life. Suburbs spread, but cities remain
extraordinarily dense.

"Mega-cities are the most vulnerable structures mankind has ever created," says
Johannes Dell, the head of AS&P architects in Shanghai. And so his firm is
proposing something that might seem radical to anyone who has followed the death
and life of American cities: de-densification. One possible future, emerging
from the Chinese mega-city, is a world of "city clusters," vast networks of
cities linked together by the kinds of infrastructure investment -- high-speed
trains, new highways and bridges -- that would make American taxpayers quail and

None of this seems particularly surreal to the Chinese. When it comes to price
tags, a billion is the new million. And while they are happy to solicit lots of
advice from Western planners -- they will pay for multiple master plans and then
cherry-pick ideas from them all -- the Chinese also are convinced that their
situation is unique and will require unique solutions.

"We like to learn from mistakes after we've made them," says Ma Yansong, a young
but busy architect in Beijing.

Meanwhile, a cynical despair begins to seep into rhetoric of Western urbanism,
which simply can't compete with what is happening in China. While American
cities struggle to find the millions necessary to fix bridges or extend subway
lines, the Chinese city blazes forth: $1.3 billion for a new magnetic levitation
train in Shanghai, $30 billion for a new, high-speed rail link to connect the
city to the capital, Beijing. Outside Shanghai, the world's longest bridge
connects the edge city to the world's busiest deep-water port. And that's just
Shanghai. In the United States, there are nine cities with a population of 1
million or more. In China, there are more than 100.

Are we there yet? Absolutely not. And that is the most astonishing thing about
the new Chinese city. Nobody knows where it is going, whether it will create,
like 20th-century New York, a new ideal of city life. Or if it will implode. Or
simply recast the old urban problems -- traffic and crowds, squalor and wealth,
isolation and community -- on a new, and unprecedented, scale. "The Chinese city
threatens to outpace our understanding of it," said Ackbar Abbas, a professor at
the University of California at Irvine who was invited to address a Columbia
University symposium on Chinese architecture and urbanism in February.

Many thousands of miles away, there are plenty of people who would echo that
sentiment. "We could do much better if we could think more," says Zhang Lei, a
prominent Chinese architect who has gained international exposure. "But you
don't have so much time for thinking."

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