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2021-03-08 05:31:24 Voices

This January, Shanghai mayor Gong Zheng announced that Shanghai’s days as a unified city were numbered. Instead of one sprawling city covering the entire municipality, Shanghai is planning to build five new cities within its boundaries, as the suburban districts of Jiading, Songjiang, Qingpu, Fengxian, and Nanhui are turned into what Gong termed “comprehensive node cities with radiating and driving functions.”

Gong’s speech marked the first time this plan had ever been included in a Shanghai municipal government work report, and it represents the latest step in Shanghai’s efforts to balance the needs of its growing population with its hard space constraints.

The terminology of Chinese urbanism can be complex, but it’s important to note that Gong’s “new cities” are not the same thing as more commonly used terms like “urban subcenters” or “satellite cities.” Urban subcenters exist in fixed relationships to a city’s “downtown.” That is, they are still part of the same city. For example, Shanghai has set up urban subcenters in its northeast with Wujiaochang and in its east with Huamu, which both remain oriented toward the city’s downtown.

The concept of “satellite cities,” meanwhile, is not limited by municipal or even provincial boundaries. The cities of Kunshan and Taicang in neighboring Jiangsu province could be considered satellites of Shanghai, despite being administratively separate.

But the plan for Shanghai’s five new cities clearly states that they should be “independent.” There are multiple reasons for this shift in approach, not least the desire to transform some of the more economically depressed areas of Shanghai’s outskirts. For example, Qingpu District has certain obvious geographical advantages, but in its role as a district of Shanghai it retained a large amount of land for agricultural purposes. This has resulted in a relatively lower level of development even when compared with nearby Kunshan, not to mention other parts of Shanghai proper.

In theory, the five new cities plan should make up for these shortcomings. Each new city is expected to develop industries based around its own unique characteristics, as well as large, core enterprises capable of radiating out and driving the development of small- and medium-sized firms — the “radiating and driving” functions Gong mentioned in his speech. The good news is, some of this work was already done under previous development plans, such as Jiading District’s auto plants, Songjiang District’s G60 Science and Innovation Corridor, and Nanhui’s new free trade zone.

The second major motivation for the new cities plan is Shanghai’s need to promote new business clusters and ease the pressure on its population and land. In the past, China’s suburban development has often neglected the integration of industry and city, with the suburbs only assuming the function of providing living space. People were expected to work downtown and live in the suburbs, resulting in long, draining, and environmentally costly commutes. By transforming the suburbs into new cities of their own, this can hopefully ameliorate the flaws of this older model and replace suburbs with comprehensive, livable cities.

The third and final motivation for the plan is arguably the most ambitious: the desire to further integrate Shanghai into China’s Yangtze River Delta megacity cluster. This cluster consists of a ring of cities stretching across the distinct administrative regions of Shanghai, as well as Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. To complete the loop, however, Shanghai needs to build out toward its administrative borders, and these five new cities just happen to be at nodal positions along the loop.

People were expected to work downtown and live in the suburbs, resulting in long, draining, and environmentally costly commutes.

Of course, it’s easy to dream big, but it’s another thing to make dreams reality. Shanghai faces two major obstacles in accomplishing this plan, the first of which involves China’s largely inflexible administrative borders. All five planned cities are located close to cities in neighboring provinces, and it will be important to find ways of ensuring they are integrated with urban centers in Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

An even bigger obstacle is China’s hidebound approach to urban planning. Frankly speaking, the country’s current planning mindset is very traditional, and oriented around copying existing models rather than innovating. This has led to a fixation on things like wide roads and low density.

I already mentioned the importance of making the new cities livable. Most new cities in China are structured around car traffic, meaning they are cut through with vast roads, which encourage driving and make it harder for people to be more active. I hope that, as Shanghai plans its new cities, it keeps the streets narrow and focuses on density and walkability. Planners should also make provisions for high-speed rail connections linking these new cities with both downtown Shanghai and neighboring cities throughout the Yangtze River Delta, something that would greatly improve people’s commutes.

Fortunately, there is an international model for the city’s planners to study. Singapore faces many of the same spatial constraints as Shanghai, and its solutions, including comprehensive land-use, vertical infrastructure, and mixed-use zoning, offer valuable lessons in city planning. Perhaps it would be possible to collaborate with Singaporean planners — or even innovative Chinese enterprises — directly.

Whatever happens, the construction of these five new cities will radically alter the Shanghai landscape. Shanghai has long acted as a model for cities elsewhere in China. Hopefully its latest experiment can provide new impetus for rethinking how the country restructures its urban spaces.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Shijue Focus/People Visual)