Shanghai’s Boom: A Building Frenzy

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published April 13, 2006
SHANGHAI, April 12 ó Wu Zigfried Zhiqiang grows animated as he clicks through a PowerPoint presentation of the Shanghai of the future, and for anyone who thinks his city is the last word on post-modernism, with its needle-spire towers and kitschy skyscrapers, he suggests that the surprises have just begun.
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Ryan Pyle for The New York Times
The Nantang district of residences near Suzhou Creek, of interest to preservationists, is scheduled to be replaced by new development.
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Ryan Pyle for The New York Times
The North Bund district is being demolished to create Shanghai’s new passenger ship terminal along the banks of the Huangpu River.
“On the one hand you will see something like New York’s financial district, and on the other, you will see new industrial infrastructure: one of the biggest ports, one of the biggest automobile factories, the biggest shipyards,” said Mr. Wu, who is the project designer for the 2010 World Expo, a vast undertaking that is driving much of the change. “You cannot find these things in New York.”
Within the next four years, Shanghai, the backdrop of so much upheaval and so many rebirths since it became the prized treaty port for European powers in the mid-19th century, will be utterly transformed once again. But critics say it will lose as much, in texture and vibrant community life, as it stands to gain in dazzling, futuristic projects. The notion of what warrants conservation has been highly restrictive, amounting to several hundred buildings in a city of 18 million and to parts of 12 districts, like the leafy and increasingly gentrified former French Concession neighborhood.
Mr. Wu, a 46-year-old urban designer, describes how China’s greatest city is racing to be greater still, aiming for the top as it ascends the hierarchy of world cities, with one eye on longtime champions like New York, and another on its fraternal rival, Beijing.
Like China’s capital, which is undergoing a crash rebuilding program in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Shanghai is using its role as host of the World Expo to shift what had already been a hugely ambitious remake into high gear. By the standards of recent urban development projects in the West ó the so-called Big Dig in Boston, say ó the scale of what the city is undertaking is astounding.
Along the western banks of the Huangpu River, site of the historic Bund thoroughfare, a 2,000-plus-yard-long stretch of the waterfront is being razed and redeveloped. The essence of the Bund, a virtual museum of Western architecture, flush with classical, Gothic and Art Deco landmarks, will be preserved, but densely inhabited neighborhoods at its edge are already being demolished.
This fresh development zone in the heart of central Shanghai, facing the newly minted skyscrapers of the Pudong district across the river, and every bit as attention-grabbing, will extend more than 700 yards inland at its widest point, with sleek halls and pavilions and green spaces.
Nearby, there will also be a modern passenger ship terminal and the world’s fastest commercial train service, a high-speed magnetic levitation line from Shanghai’s international airport, will be extended to Hangzhou, a city 100 miles to the southwest. The airport, meanwhile, is adding a second terminal whose futuristic design by the Xian Dai Architectural Design Group, is to complement the original terminal, designed by the French architect Paul Andreu.
Mr. Wu said that the architectural layout of the riverside project would take advantage of seasonal winds to assist climate control and that a water purification project aims to make the river water that flows through a 1.8-mile canal safe enough for swimming.
If the Expo seems intended to dazzle ó and it is ó the project is merely the central nugget of a far larger undertaking, one that will leave very little of this huge city untouched. Shanghai already boasts 4,000 skyscrapers, nearly twice as many as New York, and plans to add 1,000 more in the next decade. Elevated expressways are being built to channel above-ground traffic, and a gigantic push is under way to expand the subway system.
Many feel, though, that what Shanghai is losing is even more vital than what it will gain. Shanghai was China’s first, and remains its most distinctive, experiment in modern urbanism, and conservationists say that much of what made it so special in the last century will soon fall victim to the wrecking ball.
The severe damage begins at the very edge of the Bund, in the crowded neighborhoods peopled by generations of workers who have migrated here during more than a century’s worth of economic booms. They have fashioned what has come to be Shanghai’s signature urban lifestyle: walkup apartment buildings, often connected by a network of lanes, and an extraordinarily rich street life steeped in street cuisine, open-air produce markets and the ever-present bicycle.
Many of these neighborhoods, often starting just a couple of blocks in from the grand riverfront, or at its northern and southern ends, are already being demolished. Another area facing destruction soon, the north bank of Suzhou Creek, is of prime interest both to big developers and to historians and preservationists. The buildings there are of uneven architectural interest, though many are considered precious. But the area is considered a vital matrix of Shanghai’s authentic lifestyle.
Chen Guang, an architect who belongs to a civic group involved in conservation efforts makes clear how precarious the situation is, both for the city’s old neighborhoods and for those who wish to preserve them. “Our group is comprised of people who share an interest in protecting old neighborhoods,” he said, “although we don’t use the word protect in our name, even if this what we dearly hope to do.”
By the time of the World Expo, in 2010, Mr. Chen estimates, only five percent of the old neighborhoods existing in 2003 citywide will remain. “Suzhou Creek is a bit special for us, though, because of its special status in Shanghai’s history, and it has many units that are still intact. Suzhou Creek is a complete entity unto itself, in the same way that the Bund is a unit.”
The city’s plans call for the leveling of much of the creek’s north bank and building green promenades in place of the old tenements and brick-walled lanes. In Shanghai, as in the rest of China, where development proceeds largely by fiat, such things can happen with astounding speed. While rules have recently been amended to help residents bargain for better compensation from developers, there is no real choice about moving.
There have been no public hearings, and no votes on the matter. Even budget estimates are hard to come by. Shanghai’s eviction of hundreds of thousands of mostly low-income people from the city center has caused occasional protests, and there have been persistent reports of large-scale, high-level corruption involving politicians and developers.
Shanghai is building no new housing for low-income residents in the city’s core. “Shanghai is a 100 percent private market,” said Cheng Yun, chief researcher at the Shanghai offices of Centaline Property Consultants, a Hong Kong real estate company. “There is no social development in the central city. This is unique in the whole world, and it is not healthy.”
The city’s approach to public information about real estate is also unusual by the standards of most nations. The press is barred from reporting on ties between officials and developers, and even detailed maps showing patterns of demolition and redevelopment are as closely held as secret documents.
The concerns of many of those forced out are much more down-to-earth. “We have to move to an area which is far away from here, a suburban area, and we don’t want to go there,” said Zhu Yumei, 57, a woman who has lived her whole life on the north bank of Suzhou Creek. City officials say that they are mindful of the need to preserve a slice of the old town, but that working block by block with residents in buildings that have suffered decades of decay is impractical.
They contend that although less pronounced than in many Western cities, the hollowing of the central city is part of a broader regional trend. “From Singapore to Tokyo, Asian cities are experiencing this emptying out,” said Tang Zhiping, a senior city planner. “It’s more appropriate to compare Shanghai to places like these.”
For others, though, that is precisely the fear, that in a few short years Shanghai will have become just another in a group of largely anonymous Asian megacities in its haste for sleek modernity.
Zheng Shiling, the dean of urban planners here, and a man who has worked hard to lobby city officials on the importance of historic preservation, said: “Government officials like to be promoted according to their achievements, and that means having something to show. So this is an approach for government officials, not an urban planning approach.”
In the 1960’s, Mr. Zheng said, building new things in Chinese cities was revolutionary. Now it is conservation that is radical. “Once the reform period started, we wanted to have everything at once,” he said. “We were constructing modernization, but without a clear mind of modernity.”

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