Issue: 2009: Vol. 8, No. 1

Urban Shanghai: Form, Function and Planning Challenges

Article Author(s)

Susan M. Walcott

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Susan Walcott is Professor of Geography at the Unviersity of North Caroline, Greensboro. 
2009: Vol. 8, No. 1
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Urban Shanghai: Form, Function and Planning ChallengesShanghai Spatial Development

Shanghai, the giant “Head of the Dragon” at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta, supports a population of over 20 million that more than doubled over the previous 20 years. Its current name, meaning “on the ocean”, comes from recognition in the 11th century Song Dynasty of its importance as a port and budding industrial center. Modern Shanghai’s major development periods include its prosperity in the 1930’s (“Paris of the Orient” was one of the nicer nicknames) and its post-1991 release from the Maoist era central government control as a “cash cow”, recovering its glitz in a repeat performance as a traditional center of foreign direct investment. Shanghai’s land area covers 6,218 sq. km. (2,401 sq. mi.), roughly the size of metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, which supports only one-fifth of Shanghai’s population. By 1992 Shanghai was Asia’s second busiest cargo port, second only to Singapore in terms of tons of cargo handled (56 million in 2007).

The energy and vision of Shanghai’s planners are currently focused on readying the city to host the World Expo 2010 from May to October of next year. The omnipresent slogan of “Better City – Better Life” seeks to project an image of towering office-residential blocks interspersed with pockets of green space linked with elevated transportation arteries. The global economic downturn hit Shanghai’s real estate-based boom hard, so cranes poised to construct Expo buildings and related projects such as the Bund waterfront building cleanup constitute a welcome sight. Rapid extension of subway and elevated train lines in the past decade, along with development of Pudong, fueled a boomlet of apartment construction. Rents remain high, prompting the government to supply subsidized quarters for less affluent workers.

Planning History: Impact on Form and Function

As a megacity, Shanghai can be divided into three scales, each with important and dynamically evolving planning shapes and functions: the central city, the orbiting suburban satellite cities, and the extended metropolitan region.

Shanghai Proper: Central City

Three ring roads encircle Shanghai. The “inner road” (nei huan) encompasses the old central core, followed by the outer ring (wai huan) that was to be the outer city limit. To these were added the third or middle ring (jong huan) in recognition of the expanded spillover of the central business district in the last decade and as an attempt at containment. Six districts comprise the city core: Zhabei, Hongkou, Yangpu, Huangpu, Luwan, and Jing’an. By the year 2007 the population of the central city of Shanghai was estimated to be 18.58 million, out of which almost 5 million were considered to be rural migrants, apart from those with city residential status. Shanghai’s second wave and second generation migrants fill service and retail niches, in addition to first wave construction workers.

Envisioned in 1992 as a “development pool with four cores”, Pudong is an “instant city” on the eastern side of Shanghai (hence its name meaning east of the Huangpu River) and a story in itself. The current population of 7 million resulted from carefully planned growth parameters. Main districts in the new peninsula include Lujiazui, the industrial area of Jiading, the high tech park area of Zhangjiang (established in 1992 with a currently developed area of 25 sq. km., planned to almost double over a decade), export processing center of Waigaochiao, and offshore eastern island of Chongming. Each of the four main cores is under the planning authority of a state owned development body. In 2007 the boundaries of these districts were enlarged to be contiguous, enveloping formerly rural land and expanding the previous area by four to 10 times its original extent. New planned areas, as in the eight satellite cities, are separate from older village centers still existing to serve local functions primarily of more longterm inhabitants. In addition, an administrative area of Huamu was added along with a residential area of Sanling planned for lower to middle class workers.

Suburban Satellite Orbit

Shanghai’s spatial morphology is based on the “Nine Towns, One City” model of smaller “satellite” settled concentrations in a similarly spaced “orbit” around the anchoring giant. Of the eight satellite cities, only three are currently considered to be successful projects in terms of developing an economically self-sustaining core, focused in turn around a harbor, a major company, and a university core. Development in each involved the principle of clustering of industry, services, residences, and farming areas in order to save land for other uses. Several traditional villages could be combined into one larger entity, saving land for higher yielding tax and transfer fee income. Pre-21st century satellite cities have an old town center and their own industries, such as Fengxian’s carpentry base that became a furniture industry core. New sites in these cities are quite separate from the old organic hub, with economic themes and types of housing determined by the local municipal planning body reflecting the decentralization characteristic at the dawn of the 21st century. Municipal level authorities promoted the new projects, while district level authorities controlled the old sites, so the most remote areas were chosen for the new municipality – independent of location logic such as transport proximity.

In Jinshan, for example, the idea was to build a support cluster around the automobile industry, which in reality was not spatially or functionally well integrated. District leadership in cooperation with Shanghai Mobile eventually created some stable population settlement and city activities. Baoshan District, one of three relatively successful cases, grew around the giant steel complex of Baoshan Steel that was relocated from the banks of heavily polluted Suzhou Creek in Shanghai’s core. Bao Steel was well integrated in its new setting with downstream manufacturing. Success lay in building on an existing flagship company with support facilities that were at least attached, if not yet fully integrated. Yangpu harbor town, with its university cluster anchoring that most remote site, is the third success example. Second stage funds for satellite city development dried up in 2004-05, leaving two out of the original ten (plus the new Yangshan Harbor City project) as semi-self sustaining. A particular disappointment and example of planners’ architectural overreach was the failure of the global city scheme wherein each satellite city adopted its own theme of ultimately over-expensive, too high quality housing design. Furniture city Fengxian has rows of “Spanish” Mediterranean type empty residences, while other satellites sport ill-suited Scandinavian and German residential motifs.

Each of the satellite cities were designed to be linked to Shanghai by a metro line, now under construction. The successful Yangpu harbor city project was enhanced by attraction of Fudan and Tongji University, creating a “Central Intellectual District” that is considered a possible future model for utilizing branches of Shanghai’s half dozen universities. Minhang sports a new East China Normal University segment (first discussed for relocation in the late 1990s) and a section of Jiaotong, combining predominantly liberal arts and engineering schools. Universities were at first seen as a negative drain on area budgets, since the land they cover must be given for free. However, their economic multiplier effect from student and well-compensated professional purchases coupled with services, residential, and innovative business income possibilities made them worth competitively attracting. Legally, universities are one of the few entities that are subject to transfer from one area to another, so are hotly contested with offers of an additional 100 million RMB as a subsidy. The model is also termed “UT 2.0”, or the next university town model similar to Boston’s Cambridge region. Hospitals are also under consideration as possible development cores.

Yangtze River Delta Metropolitan Region

By the year 2005 the Yangtze River Delta, with major cities Hangzhou, Suzhou, Ningpo, Nanjing and Wuxi, comprised 1% of China’s land, 6% of its population, produced 18.6% of its GDP, attracted 43.5% of the country’s FDI, and enjoyed 3.4 times the national average per capita GDP. Out of the land area of 110,000 sq. km., 52.5% could be classified as urban; out of the 87.4 million population (2000), 88% lived in urban areas. An illustrative typology of the Delta’s spatial organization classified the region as “3 layers, 3 metropolitan regions” with three triangles anchored by Shanghai in the east, Nanjing in the west, and Hangzhou in the south. The most prosperous Big Eight include Suzhou, the classic garden city and now home to several successful high technology parks, Taizhou on the outskirts of Shanghai and home to FDI in the form of small and medium enterprises, and Changzhou. The major corridors are delineated by interlinked infrastructure of highways, water ports, railroads, air transport, and pipeline systems.

The notion of an Asian extended metropolitan region draws on several strands of literature reflecting patterns over different decades of evolving development. The notion of a Metropolitan Integrated Region (Zhou 1988) envisioned linked urban patterns of major city cores primarily along China’s east coast in the first decade of post-Cultural Revolution accelerated urban recuperation. Based on Southeast Asia’s exploding cities and highway network, McGee (1991) proposed the picture of a kotedesai, an extended string of relatively urban function areas along routes linking larger cities. The notion of a global city region (Sassen 19, Scott 2001) reflected a proposed elevation of major urban centers to a new level in the city hierarchy, wherein global/world cities interacted with each other as well as their functional near-equals within the nation and contiguous areas. Shanghai’s position on this scale is further detailed in the following section.

World City Evolution

Shanghai’s current position as the economic center of China is roughly equivalent to New York City in the United States in terms of its internal national ranking and position as the financial center of the country. Assessments of its “world city” status vary widely, depending on the proxy measurements selected. The Loughborough Group, for example, assigns Shanghai to the same level as Atlanta, Georgia based on producer service headquarters: second in banking and legal services, so in the lowest of three categories they are just making the grade as a world-city.

The post-1990 push of municipal and national leaders for Shanghai to excel as an economic powerhouse eclipsed other development priorities such as human welfare that planners are bringing into consideration at the close of the 21st century’s first decade. While one set of non-Chinese observers declare Shanghai not open enough to global society to merit Global City designation, comparing it unfavorably to Kuala Lumpur, for example, other largely Chinese critiques decry Shanghai as an overly fused fan of Western influences, losing its Chinese soul. Indeed, Shanghai’s promotion of the “creative industries” such as painting, print, sculpture, fashion design and “performance art” were largely seen as a real estate and prestige function to utilize closed factories and add an innovative component to compete with Beijing’s “798” warehouse-studio district. Economically, what Shanghai lost in economic prowess in trade it made up for in the overheated value of its real estate market. Even the vaunted Zhangjiang High Tech Park at the eastern edge of Pudong – seen as nurturing world class R&D and attracting global investors as well as indigenous entrepreneurial talent – serves as a real estate development scheme.

Shanghai’s 8th Five Year Plan from 1985-1990 prioritized development of a service sector to raise the value added element of its growth engine and shift the economic base to a more mature level. Two thirds of locals state owned enterprises were closed, 1.4 million workers were retrained over 15 years. Involvement of the government in both the state enterprises helped to sequence the transition process in a fairly orderly fashion (Tu 2007).

Meeting Contemporary Challenges

Changes promulgated in the land act of 2007-08 allowed for the transfer of land use rights and compensation by governments exercising eminent domain to offer resettled former inhabitants either monetary compensation or housing (with the government choosing the monetary amount and apartment facilities and location). The local government encourages building apartments on abandoned former factory land, providing higher value use for often centrally located parcels. Planning units in each sub-core each have their own vision plans – occasionally competing.

Government policy currently focuses on creating what is termed the “Three Stabilities” through organizing clusters based on the following categories:

  1. Population by skill level (e.g., integrated high tech parks and industrial districts);
  2. Industrial location (away from environmentally sensitive areas)
  3. Agricultural land (combined into larger units more productive for technology introduction and separated from urban, other economic use areas)

The continuing increase in the size of ocean-going vessels such as oil tankers and cargo ships continues to bedevil Shanghai’s port planners. Completion of Yangpu port city at the tip of a line of islands extending off Shanghai’s southeastern coast was to enable the Delta to rival the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong. However, Ningpo is currently the only city in the area with a deep enough harbor for sixth generation ships. The Yangtze River can carry ships up to 10 meters (with one of the major goals of the Three Gorges Dam construction being to permit transport up to Chongqing deep in the interior), while Yangshan can handle ships with depths up to 15 meters, but 10th generation ships require a capacity of 18 meters.

Challenges for urban planners lie in the socio-economic sphere of service sector growth. While FIRE functions remain at Shanghai’s core, the tertiary sector’s contribution remains stuck at 50% through the first decade of this century, from 18% of GDP contribution at the beginning of Shanghai’s modern take-off in 1978. Planners currently question whether the solution lies in working to create a more efficient growth engine, or adding a second engine to attain a higher development “cruising altitude”. Candidates include encouraging the growth of more R&D concentration, nurturing “creative industries”, or university-centered cores. Creative industry elements at M50 and Tianzifang filled old warehouse areas with art, fashion and craft designs. The pressure of the current economic downtown reveals their high elasticity and fragility – nice for attracting lookers, but greatly decreased consumers with sharply curtailed personal spending in the face of economic uncertainty.
Combining cores to enhance development synergy from similarly skilled labor bases could be a step to produce multiple growth engines. One example would be locating a major hospital complex in combination with a research university specializing in biomedical research and a medical school producing physicians, nurses and medical technicians along with pharmaceutical manufacturers in a similar, integrated location. This would cover major life science elements along the chain of skills, and cover economic elements from R&D through service and manufacturing entities.
Shanghai’s constantly reinvented pieces witness one constant: persuade the right policy-makers, and planning is implemented.