China’s Cities: Exotic, Modern, Dynamic — But Never ‘Livable’?
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2017-10-02 04:50:35

Shanghai is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most avant-garde cities, filled with contrasts and extremes, continuously renewing itself and expanding rapidly. It attracts hundreds of thousands of immigrants yearly, including many foreigners, and most of them come for economic reasons. Since 2010, a steadily growing “creative class” drawn from industries like science, academia, engineering, writing, design, and architecture has made China’s biggest city its home.

Yet despite its many advantages, Shanghai rarely appears high up on lists of the world’s most livable cities. The 2017 Mercer Quality of Living Survey, undertaken by the New York-based consultancy firm, ranks Shanghai as the world’s 102nd most livable city, while the Economist Intelligence Unit — a forecasting and advisory service linked to The Economist magazine — ranked it 81st on a list of 140 cities.

Many supposedly authoritative sources define livability in terms of comfort, economic vitality, cost of living, and cultural entertainment. However, the metrics they use are open to question, not least because they associate greater livability with the lifestyles of a wealthy global elite. In addition, their rankings are commonly skewed in favor of contemporary Western lifestyles and ignore how locals have traditionally resided in their chosen cities.

A further issue arises when we consider how to compare such different urban areas. Airinc, a website that strongly considers air quality in determining a city’s livability, puts Shanghai at No. 73 out of 150 cities surveyed. In first place is Zürich, Switzerland; however, Zürich’s population of 400,000 practically makes it a small town compared to the tens of millions of people in Shanghai. How should we account for each city’s ability to deal with vastly different urban development issues?

Shanghai has experienced an unprecedented economic boom and urban growth during the last two decades. This has come at a price, as the city has faced new challenges resulting from the destruction of heritage architecture, unfinished real estate lots, and serious air and water pollution. In recent years, though, the municipal government has worked hard to improve its citizens’ quality of life.

The UN’s criteria consider the living standards of all residents — not only those of social elites, expatriates, and the middle class.

In 2009, the State Council — China’s cabinet — approved Shanghai’s plans to become a leading global financial and shipping center by 2020. Furthermore, in the last two decades, Shanghai has economically caught up rapidly with the likes of New York and London, largely by emerging relatively unscathed from an international financial crisis and rolling out local policies that have enlarged the middle class and drawing increased multinational investment.

In Shanghai’s last two five-year plans, the municipality aimed to become a “global city” by making itself as attractive to the creative class as it is to investors and entrepreneurs. Since the Expo 2010, the city has also invested in new cultural infrastructure such as the Shanghai Biennale and new museums along the West Bund.

The city’s political leaders aim to show how the metropolises of the future should be shaped. Many urban trends in Shanghai are later followed by other Chinese cities, such as transit-oriented development projects linking pedestrianized spaces to a network of metro stations. For example, the concept behind Xintiandi, a walkable shopping and entertainment district built in the style of Shanghai’s traditional alley houses, has been emulated in several other Chinese cities.

Under enormous demographic, economic, and ecological pressure, Shanghai functions remarkably well. With its advanced public transportation system, combined with shared bikes and even shared electric cars, Shanghai is setting examples of sustainable development, despite its historic problems with pollution and congestion.

Shanghai retains its exciting mixture of Eastern and Western architectural styles, an often-overwhelming morass of rich and poor, chaos and order, urban and rural, high-rise and low-rise, old and new, beauty and ugliness. These contrasts were not planned; they emerged thanks to multiple influences from thousands of migrants with all kinds of backgrounds. This wide variety of influences, expressions, and emotions is what gives character and soul to this singular city.

Unfortunately, this uniqueness is now under threat. Like downtown New York, Paris, or Tokyo, rising real estate and rental prices are pushing locals out of the city center. Shanghai is also losing many of its traditional characteristics as public space becomes more formalized, and many small, unlawfully operated roadside businesses are shut down. Government policy now limits the number of household registrations in Shanghai, an act that constitutes a form of financial discrimination against migrant workers who contribute to the city’s vivacity. While the city is on the up, it is still far from perfect.

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, six indicators define a city’s prosperity: productivity, infrastructure, quality of life, equity and social inclusion, environmental sustainability, and governance and legislation. Compared to the rather more biased metrics mentioned above, these indicators cover a broader spectrum encompassing almost all aspects of urban life. Most importantly, the UN’s criteria consider the living standards of all residents — not only those of social elites, expatriates, and the middle class.

Why not use these metrics to shape our ideas of livability, too? Despite its issues, Shanghai certainly deserves a high score by any of the UN’s indicators. Admittedly, the city probably wouldn’t challenge the world’s front-runners, but it certainly wouldn’t languish in mid-table obscurity, either.

Editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A jogger takes some morning exercise on the Bund in Shanghai, Dec. 8, 2016. Hai Sen/VCG)