When I moved to China in 2008, my first practical concern was finding a good place to live. Coming from the Netherlands, where most people live in small terraced houses — or in my case, on a farm — I was very excited to live in a skyscraper in a dynamic metropolitan environment. Once I arrived, however, I was surprised that large parts of Shanghai were low-rise as well, albeit much more densely packed than I was used to.
My first house was an apartment on the 17th floor of an anonymous suburban high-rise. Within my compound alone, there were 23 other towers exactly like mine. After a while, I came to like the idea of living in a less anonymous neighborhood where I might actually know my neighbors. I decided to move into one of Shanghai’s lane houses to feel more a part of the city. Such lane houses, or lilong, refer to the city's traditional residential communities built around a network of alleys leading off a main street.
My Chinese relatives helped me find a handsome house in a lilong neighborhood. Although the area had seen better days, it still featured high ceilings, wooden floors, a split-level layout, and other architectural details characteristic of the lilong style. I sacrificed panoramic views of the city for a small, five-meter roof terrace on which to hang my laundry or enjoy a cup of tea.
To the untrained eye, it may seem that Shanghai’s high-rise compounds have little in common with a lilong. However, to an architect, there are a few broad similarities. Both constitute mass housing blocks where space is parceled out rationally, so as to maximize the number of residents within it. In both cases, the compound is surrounded by a high wall with a limited number of entrances, isolating the area from the outside world and encouraging people to share facilities, thereby fostering a sense of community.
Of course, one crucial difference is that the feeling of occupying a shared space is omnipresent in a lilong, where people are much more likely to interact with their neighbors. This has been sacrificed in high-rise estates, where large amounts of green space between buildings extend walking distances, privileges openness, and leads to fewer interactions between residents. Additionally, high-rise apartments tend to be much larger and come equipped with their own kitchens and bathrooms, so there is no need to share with others.
According to the Shanghai Statistical Yearbook, during the first decade of the 21st century, on average 50,000 lilong housing units disappeared every year. The majority were replaced by modern high-rises. The figures make for grim reading, especially when we consider that the actual number may be even higher. Lilong play a key part in the narrative of Shanghai’s urban planning today — namely, how to protect the city’s architectural heritage.
I quickly fell in love with my lilong house. Curiously, though, while I was working on my book “Shanghai New Towns,” many local people I interviewed said they preferred living in high-rises with modern sanitation and amenities to living in a lilong and similar old neighborhoods. At the time this shocked me, but now, having experienced both forms of housing, I can understand why.
One main problem is that residents of lilong and other traditional low-rise areas feel less responsible for their homes. This is because they usually neither own the property nor can afford to invest in it. The homeowners — who may be registered to the address without actually living there anymore — have usually moved out to a high-rise themselves, and also feel equivocal about maintaining the property. A simple solution is to rent out their property to migrant workers — who, without local residence permits, can be easily relocated or simply sent away.
The picture is complicated by the ubiquitous threat that the lilong will be destroyed in favor of another mall or skyscraper, both of which carry lucrative compensation fees for homeowners. Thus many landlords are content to wait for the moment that a developer or local government decides to build a shopping mall or skyscraper on top of their old property, and collect the windfall that comes with it.
The result of this lack of maintenance is a general cluttering and decaying of property, exacerbated by the transient lifestyles of people who treat such neighborhoods as merely a temporary residence. Walking through the lanes can give one a feeling of moving through a kind of social underworld akin to Wong Kar-wai’s “2046” or Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” where the poor languish in decaying housing, while all around the upper classes inhabit glittering skyscrapers.
Consequently, the public image of living in a lilong is rather negative. Most Chinese people I speak to often describing it as “backward” and “not 21st-century enough.” Yet turning our collective backs on the lilong would be to ignore many other examples of traditional, urban, low-rise housing, such as Berlin’s Hinterhofe, Amsterdam’s hofjes, or London’s mews. These structures were historically pilloried and have been destroyed on a large scale too.
More recently, however, the remaining ones have become some of the hottest properties in these cities, as they carry a certain patina, an intangible sense of history, a desirable feeling of intimacy despite being located in the midst of dynamic, modern cities. The trend is not limited to Europe; these days, low-rise accommodations in both Tokyo and Singapore are some of these cities’ most upscale properties.
In Shanghai the gentrification of the lilong is also underway, though it is playing out slightly differently. Whereas in the aforementioned cities, such traditional housing has retained its original residential purpose, albeit for a different group of residents, in Shanghai the lilong is increasingly being repurposed as commercial property.
The Xintiandi area stands as the most extreme example of this to date: a full replica of traditional housing devoted to shopping and entertainment. Other areas, such as Tianzifang and the now partly closed Yongkang Road bar street, attest to the difficulty of preserving traditional ways of living in the face of consumerism. But they are also evidence that the way of life in a densely packed lilong is important — even essential — to the future identity of this metropolis.
Local governments could inject new life into urban regeneration projects by combining preservation of the original architecture and lifestyle with innovative, targeted housing solutions. One idea would be to transform lilong into housing for students or first-time buyers. Similarly, housing for the elderly would be a strong alternative if basic sanitation and facilities could be improved. Neither of these groups are too fussy about floor space, and they would likely thrive in the social environment a lilong house can offer.
(Header image: A woman walks through an alley of a ‘lilong’ in Shanghai, March 30, 2013. VCG)