Sizing Up a Mega-City

In Shanghai, There's Almost Too Much to Take In.

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008


"Have you been to Shanghai?" they ask, those who know the city, who know its size and its energy and its awesome spectacle of all things new and global. Old hands will assure you this city of some 20 million people is unlike anything you've seen before. It is big, like Mexico City. It is dense, like Manhattan. And it has been growing freakishly fast and in freakish directions, like Dubai, the city-out-of-sand on the Persian Gulf that is constantly laying claim (for about five minutes) to the tallest this, the biggest that, the most expensive whatever.

Even before you arrive you are reduced to a kind of childlike wonder.

"Are we there yet?" you might ask, as you fly over the city. The pilot has yet to give you the "we're about to descend" warning. The cabin crew has yet to collect the cups and napkins. And yet, you're already over the city. Apartment buildings in neat rows are everywhere beneath you, looking like identical capacitors and transistors glued to some massive circuit board. The plane has yet to make any of the groaning noises that presage landing, and yet you're still not done with the exurban overture to the city proper.

"Are we there yet?" is also the best question you can ask of the Chinese mega-city. The mega-city -- usually defined as a city with a population of 10 million or more -- isn't a new phenomenon, or one that China invented. Yet urbanists are looking to China (where Shanghai and Beijing are already mega-cities, and at least a dozen others are huge, if not "mega") to find the capital of the 21st century, rather like Paris was the capital of the 19th, and New York the capital of the 20th. And these urbanists (the profession that studies urban trends and design with varying degrees of academic legitimacy) are fascinated by Chinese cities, horrified by them, desperate to steer them away from environmental disaster and growing social anomie. Animating all this concern is a basic fact: The Chinese mega city isn't there yet. It is still growing. A migration unlike anything the world has ever seen is in progress, with hundreds of millions of rural Chinese flocking to cities.

The statistics are overwhelming. If China continues to urbanize, if it reaches levels comparable to the United States (around 80 percent urban), there could be a billion people living in its cities sometime in the not-so-distant future. Conservative, near-term estimates suggest that 200 million to 300 million people will leave traditional rural and village life for the economic opportunities of China's exploding urban areas over the next two decades.

Other cities are growing, too, and as fast or faster -- Lagos, Nigeria; Karachi, Pakistan; Mumbai -- but Shanghai is different, because it has money, and lots of it. Of all the "mega-cities" in the world, Shanghai is growing the fastest, economically, according to Xiangming Chen, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. So the city is expanding on all fronts: more people, with more money, who want more space.

It is said that to get a sense of this, you need to visit "the map." It has become one of the strangest tourist attractions in this city that doesn't lack museums, shopping or the distractions of nightlife. The map is located in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a history museum and a shrine to all things urban, located in People's Square in the heart of downtown. It is a 1:500 scale representation of the city, sprawling over 6,400 square feet -- and even then it all won't fit onto a full floor of the exhibition hall. It is surrounded by walkways, and it can be viewed from a balcony above. With the flick of a switch, artificial night falls, and its thousands of lovingly rendered buildings begin to twinkle. It is surreal, and beautiful, a bit absurd, and it seems to offer, in one comprehensive glance, a sense of the city in its massive, skyscraping, outward-spreading totality. Here, perhaps, one can absorb what it means to build some 10,000 high-rise buildings in a quarter-century.

Huang Qi Min is a modelmaker, and it is his company that makes and maintains this mini-colossus. Modelmaking is a competitive sport in China, and that's how Huang got his start. But in the early 1990s, when Shanghai was released from the economic and social strictures that kept its potential in check for more than four decades of communist rule, city leaders decided they needed some way to get a handle on it. The map was an early effort to take the measure of the city. And it just keeps growing. Every few months, Huang says, he must swap out the "white" buildings, which represent projects in the planning or drawing-board stage, for finished models, rendered in color. When necessary, he will walk on the Huangpu River to get to the center of the city.

The map, although it makes the city comprehensible and puts man in charge of it -- the modelmaker walks on water-- misses so much else. There are, of course, no people and no traffic. The thousands of construction sites spread around the city are missing, too. New buildings, on the map, happen as if by magic, without cranes and scaffolding and fences to hide the gaping pits and buzzing hives of migrant workers.

It also leaves out the darker facts of Chinese urbanization: the 750,000 premature deaths (according to the World Bank) caused annually by China's choking pollution. The map shows only construction, and none of the destruction, the loss of old neighborhoods in the center of the city, and with them, the loss of tradition and community. The map doesn't show the massive relocations necessary to reconfigure Shanghai for yet more millions of people. The tens of thousands of residents who have been moved to make new green spaces, to construct new bridges, to build new high-rises, are not heard from.

The map doesn't show you anything on the inside, the way urbanization is changing daily domestic life, the hour the alarm clock must be set to make the longer commute to work, the room you eat dinner in, or the "chicken-soup distance" -- the ideal safety zone that children want between them and their parents. On one level, the story of these changes is the story of any burgeoning city riding the wave of economic boom times. People want to live large, and they are moving to the city's edges to find more space. But there are some major differences. Shanghai, like most of China, largely sat out the second half of the 20th century. The social change here feels like a hopscotch across history.

"It came out bursting, like a fireball," says Da Xin, chief engineer of the urban planning center. The speed of Shanghai's development, which often bewilders outsiders, is a point of pride among many here.

In China you also have to remember the larger statistic: the total population of more than 1.3 billion people. In the shadow of that number, statistics about private space in Shanghai -- since 1990, the average amount of living space, per person, has increased from 8 to 15 square meters (86 to 161 square feet) -- become rather ominous.

To see these changes from the inside, you might study the photographs of Hu Yang, a photographer who has trained his lens on the rapid change in Shanghai lifestyle and domesticity in recent years. In a series called "Shanghai Living," he photographed hundreds of the city's residents in their domestic spaces, ranging from the bunk-bed dormitories of the city's poorest workers to the sun-dappled, white-walled aeries of its wealthiest. The series captures multiple social trends. In some of the most humble spaces, every inch of wall space is covered, with clocks and baskets, cookware, old photographs and newspapers. Bags and tools hang from the ceiling, and the kitchen table is doing triple duty: a place to cook, eat and work. In the apartments of the wealthy, rooms are filled with furniture that looks elegant but unused. But Hu hasn't just captured the wealth differential, he's also hinted at the growing isolation and solitude of the middle class, with clean, orderly spaces filled with generic Ikea-like bookshelves. The chaos and clutter and crowding of the old Shanghai has given way to one person to a room, engaged in some solitary activity, such as playing the piano or reading.

"When we got a living room, I thought, what is the use of this living room?" says a young Chinese professor of architecture who spends time in both China and the United States. "I thought it was crazy to have two bathrooms. Now bedrooms are just for sleep."

Standardization is the norm in Shanghai's building boom, and the standard can be gleaned from the names of the projects. Consider a development that the Vanke company -- the largest real estate developer in China -- is designing near Nanjing. Called Stratford, it is entered via an automobile passageway through a luxury shopping strip. You then pass over a bridge into three areas of Western-style homes and apartments, zoned into three economic classes.

But it is the river under the bridge that says the most about this development. The river is polluted, so polluted that it would depress home values. And so the old, fetid river has been buried in a giant pipe, underground, while a new, ornamental river (really just a small lake) has been placed above it. Rivers are picturesque, part of the lifestyle.

This sort of thing horrifies Western observers: the imitation of Western materialism, the borrowing of outside architectural styles, and the ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand response to environmental degradation (just hide it!). Of course, other people's cities have always haunted us. Europeans new to Chicago or New York at the beginning of the 20th century were mesmerized and horrified by the crass commercialism, the speed, the apparent indifference to human scale or Old World values. It was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, who taught New Yorkers how their "other half lives" and helped lead the tenement reform movement. The British were for centuries horrified by Paris, by its squalor and its bad habit of coughing up violent revolutions. Westerners are often aghast at the playgrounds of the Persian Gulf, their tawdry display of conspicuous consumption and their Disneyland silliness.

One might say that fear of the Chinese city is the only prism through which we can see it. "In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life," Aldous Huxley wrote of Shanghai in 1926. Huxley was impressed by that mysterious coefficient of urban life in Shanghai, its vigor and bustle and industriousness. But that word, "rank," captures an undercurrent of urban fear that still haunts the Western mind as it contemplates the explosive growth of Shanghai.

"China, whose determined pursuit of economic growth at any cost was blamed by many for finally tipping the world into catastrophic climate change, has suffered massive population loss through floods and storms," writes Elizabeth Farrelly, an architecture and urban critic. That passage comes from the final chapter of a new book called "Blubberland," an extended argument about how democratic freedom and the desires it liberates is killing our cities, and perhaps our planet. The final chapter is her vision of the future, in which China has met its presumably deserved end as the dystopian embodiment of untrammeled capitalism.

It's a sci-fi vision, but hardly a new one. For a century, at least, there has been a not-so-subterranean (and often racist) fear among Westerners about the big "what if" of China. What if a billion people are suddenly thrust into modernity? What if they suddenly have access to modern weapons? Or modern science? Or modern "lifestyles"?

That kind of fear -- that China's cities may be out of control -- colors much of the urbanist discourse about China. The Chinese city isn't seen as a Chinese problem but a global problem -- a problem so big it could take the world down with it. And it isn't just an environmental problem but a social problem: The ugliness of the Chinese city, the uniformity of its mass-produced housing, is seen as a huge step backward, into some gray, quasi-authoritarian, Orwellian nightmare.

Even as Chinese cities spread out, there is also deep concern about the density at their center. Unlike postwar American suburbanization, which emptied out the inner cities in places like Detroit, China's urbanization isn't fueled by any deep-seated cultural antipathy to city life. Suburbs spread, but cities remain extraordinarily dense.

"Mega-cities are the most vulnerable structures mankind has ever created," says Johannes Dell, the head of AS&P architects in Shanghai. And so his firm is proposing something that might seem radical to anyone who has followed the death and life of American cities: de-densification. One possible future, emerging from the Chinese mega-city, is a world of "city clusters," vast networks of cities linked together by the kinds of infrastructure investment -- high-speed trains, new highways and bridges -- that would make American taxpayers quail and revolt.

None of this seems particularly surreal to the Chinese. When it comes to price tags, a billion is the new million. And while they are happy to solicit lots of advice from Western planners -- they will pay for multiple master plans and then cherry-pick ideas from them all -- the Chinese also are convinced that their situation is unique and will require unique solutions.

"We like to learn from mistakes after we've made them," says Ma Yansong, a young but busy architect in Beijing.

Meanwhile, a cynical despair begins to seep into rhetoric of Western urbanism, which simply can't compete with what is happening in China. While American cities struggle to find the millions necessary to fix bridges or extend subway lines, the Chinese city blazes forth: $1.3 billion for a new magnetic levitation train in Shanghai, $30 billion for a new, high-speed rail link to connect the city to the capital, Beijing. Outside Shanghai, the world's longest bridge connects the edge city to the world's busiest deep-water port. And that's just Shanghai. In the United States, there are nine cities with a population of 1 million or more. In China, there are more than 100.

Are we there yet? Absolutely not. And that is the most astonishing thing about the new Chinese city. Nobody knows where it is going, whether it will create, like 20th-century New York, a new ideal of city life. Or if it will implode. Or simply recast the old urban problems -- traffic and crowds, squalor and wealth, isolation and community -- on a new, and unprecedented, scale. "The Chinese city threatens to outpace our understanding of it," said Ackbar Abbas, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who was invited to address a Columbia University symposium on Chinese architecture and urbanism in February.

Many thousands of miles away, there are plenty of people who would echo that sentiment. "We could do much better if we could think more," says Zhang Lei, a prominent Chinese architect who has gained international exposure. "But you don't have so much time for thinking."