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Shanghai, one of the planet's most populous urban centres, is growing at breakneck speed. But thanks to its massive economic power and decades of planning, it's doing it right. The city, writes Joe Berridge, is destined for global supremacy

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Saturday, April 20, 2019 – Page O1

Joe Berridge is a partner with Urban Strategies. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is author of Perfect City, to be published this month by Sutherland House, from which this essay is adapted.

Shanghai occupies a critical geopolitical position at the delta of the Yangtze River, the great route into China's interior, and for much of its history it has been the Chinese city most engaged with the rest of the world. For two thousand years, China was the most populous and prosperous country on Earth. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did European, American, and Japanese powers challenge its supremacy. The logic of China's size and foundational geography is now vigorously reasserting itself.

China's current leader, Xi Jinping, has in the delightful lexicon of Chinese planning introduced the notion of "One Belt, One Road" to characterize his country's newly declared geopolitical economic strategy. The One Belt is the newly reconstituted Silk Road, which for much of its route inside China follows the Yangtze. One Belt is being reinvented as a high-speed rail route leading from Shanghai to the interior and on through Eurasia, as well as to Malaysia and Singapore. The One Road consists of the network of sea routes springing from the megacities running along the country's eastern maritime border, principally centred on Beijing/Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Now, as through China's extraordinary history, the One Belt and the One Road intersect at Shanghai.

London and New York, the world's current leading cities, share Shanghai's foundational geographic logic. Their safe harbours are easily accessible to the world's trade, and their Thames and Hudson Rivers provided a ready route into a huge hinterland. Despite all the changes in transport modes and technology, geography will out, which is why Shanghai will be the capital city of the future. The world's centre of economic gravity is steadily moving back to where it started.

Shanghai currently has a population of 26 million, almost equal to those two other global urban leaders combined, and it is projected to grow to between 35 and 45 million by 2050, with the surrounding Yangtze Delta region surging to about 200 million. This extraordinary rate of growth has been consistent since the 1980s when the population of the city was less than half of what it is today. What is remarkable about Shanghai, and why it is so significant an example of the planet's relentless urbanization, is that few, if any, cities have coped with such dramatic urban growth as effectively.

Planning for Shanghai's future started in earnest in the late 1980s, with a vision and an effectiveness unmatched in urban history. Georges-Eugène Haussmann's mid-19th century remake of Paris might come closest, but even that monumental and rapid urban transformation pales in comparison to the past 30 years in Shanghai. All Robert Moses's megalomaniac visions for New York would not even make the scorecard.

Shanghai decided to completely retool its machine. Just one statistic: The Shanghai metro system, with its 12 lines, is now the most extensive in the world, yet its first line opened only in 1993. Four new lines are under construction and five existing lines are being extended.

No city outside of China can compete with so comprehensive a transit expansion, and that is just one facet of the rebuild.

Shanghai has provided one of the world's largest and most rapidly growing urban populations with a quality of life and a breadth of infrastructure unmatched by any other megalopolis. It has done so in less than three decades.

Shanghai is growing at the rate of 700,000 to 800,000 people a year. Toronto, the fastestgrowing urban region in Europe or North America, is growing by only 100,000 to 125,000 a year.

London and New York are far slower. If current trends continue, one billion people will live in China's cities by 2025. In that short time, the country will add a new urban population greater than the current population of the United States. Those new citizens will be migrants from the Chinese hinterland, and the majority will be living in one of the country's 23 cities with a population greater than five million, of which eight will have populations of more than 10 million.

Shanghai will be the largest.

There has never been urbanization of this scale in the history of the world. All of the world's great cities are struggling to cope with growth and, generally speaking, they have no clue how to provide a decent quality of urban life to newcomers in such numbers. Yet, in a highly imperfect profession, Shanghai provides perhaps the best example of megascale urban planning that works.

Shanghai stands apart from much of China's recent urban growth. The country's first decades of urbanization were not terribly successful. Heavy doses of Robert Moses with Jane Jacobs nowhere to be seen. Relentless stretches of tower blocks, mindless erasures of historic districts, freeways everywhere. All of the worst aspects of American development in the 1960s, on steroids.

Cities looked like vast sciencefiction movie sets. To his credit, President Xi recently called a series of party congresses to re-invent the rules for Chinese urbanization, advancing a series of principles with a distinct familiarity: urban growth boundaries, denser street networks, mix of uses, transit primacy, healthy communities, energy efficiency, good urban design. Ms. Jacobs had arrived. It is fascinating when, in the Middle Kingdom, sensitive city building becomes a national government priority.

China now has a fairly sophisticated planning and municipal government system, one that borrows the antique parlance of Britain with its 2008 Town and Country Planning Act. It wrestles with the same issues of top/ down and bottom/up, with boundary fights between boroughs and the big city, with the status of detailed plans and urban design, with managing rampaging developers and quieting angry neighbours.

Shanghai has been the exception and the leader of urbanization in China because its growth has actually been based on plans, a series of which have been developed since the 1980s.

The themes of the plans are familiar to anyone who reads their equivalents in the big cities of the Europe and North America: transit-oriented development, green corridors, heritage preservation, economic development, sustainability. The language of Shanghai's plans, however, is uniquely expressive. The new 2040 Plan translates as "Guiding Opinions on Compiling the General Urban Plan for a New Round of Overall Redevelopment in Shanghai." Its intent is to make Shanghai "a global city glittering with charm and attraction." The Shanghai Metropolitan Plan calls for "One Dragon Head, Four Centres." This means that Shanghai will be the dragon head of the entire Yangtze River region, containing an international economic centre, a financial centre, a trade and logistics centre, and "an international centre of socialist modernization." This is all to be achieved by 2020. I love this language. What a relief from the leaden prose in the comparable documents in most other cities.

What is also different about Shanghai's plans is that they work. The city, already twice as dense as New York and London, and four times as dense as Toronto, has put itself in position to achieve one of the most difficult feats for so dynamic a metropolis: to stop sprawling and accommodate all its millions of newcomers within the current city boundary. That is why the carefully conceived, remarkably extensive grid of transit lines is so important. It provides a robust, flexible structure to carry the population that is coming.

Rates of car ownership are still very low, about one sixth that of the United States, so the challenge is to see if, in the face of rapidly rising incomes and expectations, China can skip a whole generation of auto-based urban development and create the world's largest postcar city.

That would be a gift to the world.

And Shanghai will need to do it.

Air pollution, exacerbated by the city's marshy maritime location, has a tangible presence.

The city's planning success is largely attributable to doing the big things well. The cleverest move was to recognize the scale of impending growth and create a massive urban relief valve by developing Pudong, a completely new downtown district. A largely agricultural and low-intensity industrial area 30 years ago, Pudong is today the very model of the planned business and financial city centre, home to a succession of stunning highrise office towers. There were two essential drivers behind the creation of Pudong. First, to clearly establish Shanghai as the country's premier business centre, in a central location with the scale to accommodate really large, tall buildings. Second, to relieve the pressure for redevelopment of the city's heritage districts.

The high-rise office towers have mostly been designed by foreign architects, raising the frequent query as to whether the Chinese will ever have the creativity and imagination to service a more consumer-based, high-value-added economy. The Shanghai Tower should set that silly question to rest. The most recent of the office towers, designed by Chinese architect Jun Xia, consists of a simple oval shaft cloaked in an elegant sheath dress reminiscent of a thirties ball gown. It shares the striking beauty of New York and Chicago office towers built in their glory days.

The great advantage of the city's mid-20th-century time-out was that it largely avoided the most destructive modernist era of city planning in the 1960s. Not entirely, as there was a period of extensive inner-city expressway building and slum clearance followed by the construction of dense tower blocks. In fairness, it is hard to imagine how Shanghai could have accommodated such massive population growth without some demolition. And I have to admit a guilty pleasure in one of the most obviously destructive projects from this era, the doublehelix expressway ramp spiralling down from the Nanpu Bridge. It is the acme of kinetic urban delight.

The majority of the traditional city fabric has been left in place.

The Bund buildings, the French Concession, several historic neighbourhoods including the original walled city and numerous individual historic buildings remain with strict orders for their preservation. As a result, central Shanghai has a feel almost European in many parts. The French, in particular, left not only fine parks but a robust street grid that has proved highly adaptable to the city's growth, lined with mature plane trees and high-walled cantonments. Stucco and verdigris walls, heavy gates leading to inner passages, all with that magic mix of obviousness and concealment characteristic of a Haussmann arrondissement. In behind the gates are dense, maze-like districts, the lilongs that retain the mystery and memory of the old Shanghai of movies and legend, when the city was alternately known as "The Paris of the East" or "The Whore of the Orient."

Without Pudong, without the chessboard grid of high-intensity transit stations, the pressure for redevelopment of the lilongs would have been irresistible. Restaurants and shops occupy every nook and cranny of the street edge. The alleys of shikumen, tight 19th-century workers housing, are packed with businesses. Most of these are tiny, barely five or 10 square metres, and each has a dedicated owner determined to make a living. It is that manic entrepreneurial drive that is the dominant note of Shanghai.

Twenty-four million utterly determined business people cannot be denied, and thousands more arrive every day. Even the sidewalks are cluttered with commerce as trucks full of heavy cardboard boxes, containing who knows what, pull over to be unloaded onto bicycles and ubiquitous electric scooters.

I am led on a tour around Pudong by a member of its city planning team, a Shanghai native but educated, like so many of the professional class I meet, at a firstrate European university, in her case Pont et Chaussées, one of the French grandes écoles that have a surprising presence in Asia. Indeed, the French origins of Pudong go a long way to explain the district's planning successes and failures. In the 1990s, the city government ran a series of design competitions to determine the best layout for the new city district, involving many of the world's great architectural practices. To give the new district some overall coherence, they turned to the Paris regional government for advice. The pattern of rond-points and grand boulevards that resulted do undoubtedly establish a greater urban order but much has been executed at so absurdly oversized a scale that the environment at street level is unfriendly and charmless. Pudong demonstrates more clearly than any other new city district I know why large-scale city building has to be led by planners and not architects.

Architects always get it wrong when given a problem that is too

Associated Graphic

Shanghai's three tallest skyscrapers, Shanghai Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao Tower.


Shanghai is growing at a rate of as many as 800,000 people a year; by comparison, Toronto is growing by only 100,000 to 125,000 people a year.

Huh? How did I get here?
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