Shanghai’s Urban Design in the Epoch of Simultaneity

Since China entered the reform era with Deng Xiaoping’s signature “gai ge kai fang” policy, the rising power has developed rapidly and without historic parallel. But how can cities’ layouts keep pace with such growth? How can a city, already without a clear urban center, be carefully and consciously planned when its growth in the past 40 years matches the growth of London in the past 150? Dr. Tong Ming is a professor of Urban Design at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning at Shanghai’s Tongji University as well as principal at TM Studio. His research focuses on the historical and future development of Shanghai. Shanghai, he posits, is unique among global and Chinese cities for its rapid development and long history and is an excellent case study for the future of the postmodern city. 

Shanghai has been China’s largest city for decades, owing to its important coastal location at the mouth of the Yangtze. Already crowded, its many systems of governance over the past centuries has led to a disjointed and poorly unified city architecture. For example, not only is colonial architecture still in place that must be preserved, but the city was also largely left to develop organically after the PRC abandoned its 1949 central plans during the Cultural Revolution. This, compounded with its rapid development, (China has nearly 500 million more vehicles than it did in 1980, and Shanghai’s population has risen by nearly 20 million) has led to an almost complete breakdown in any logical layout of the city.

This rapid development represents the root of Shanghai’s problems. In a city so crowded, the push for space has averted attempts to plan. Dr. Tong points out the example of two twin skyscrapers located in Central Shanghai. Originally built in the late 80’s in an attempt to create high rent space in an area crowded by low end hardware and drug store, it was quickly colonized by those same stores after a brief and unsuccessful tenancy. As a result of this overcrowding and bleeding together, Shanghai has emerged as a city with no center, but instead a group of “urban archipelagos” with few corridors between them. This, Dr. Tong explains, is a problem: cities are traditionally represented by concentric rings. In middle is the business district, outside lies the industrial area, and lastly is the residential zones. These zones correspond to the “bid-rent curve” which reflects pricing of land in those areas and the amount of traffic each zone receives. When this model breaks down, districts become muddled and mixed and a city becomes more and more difficult to plan.  One of Dr. Tong’s most illustrative points through his whole presentation was Cedric Price’s egg analogy. If the ancient city is a boiled egg, with a clear city center “yolk” and egg white outskirts, and the industrial era city is a fried egg with a looser distinction between the yolk and white, then the modern city is a scrambled egg, with no distinction between districts.

But not all hope is lost for urban planners. Dr. Tong’s latest project is the revitalization of the Xuhui district in the core of Shanghai. Currently, the district is plagued by poor design, especially the oddly shaped Shanghai South railway station, which interrupts traffic flow and unnecessarily occupies valuable space. His solution is to develop the waterfront and surrounding area into a walkable and useable space, inserting a much-needed corridor into the district. This will not only beautify and develop the immediate space, but also prompt secondary development of the newly opened area. This development follows the current school of thought in modern urbanism: large, postmodern cities must be developed district by district, opening new shopping centers, waterfronts, event centers, etc., thereby creating new corridors between districts and prompting more development. As he put it, “designers will have to work with increasingly irrational systems.”

In Dr. Tong’s eyes, what is happening in Shanghai is the future of the modern city. No one actor can be in charge of a vast, developing, postmodern metropolis; the master plan will disappear. 

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