shanghai skyline via wiki commons

Looking Desperately for Urbanism in Shanghai’s Pudong District

There is nothing more urban, in a visual sense, than the iconic skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong district, which in recent years has vaulted into global prominence, both physically and as a symbol of China’s surging growth.

Viewed from across the river on the Bund, the old British heart of the city, Pudong’s iconic skyscrapers vie for my attention. There’s the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower, that looks like it is made of tinker-toys, with its three-legged base, and bulbous middle. It reminded me of a striving teenager, in its combination of awkwardness and soaring ambitions. Then there’s Shanghai Tower, designed by Gensler, the tallest building in China and second tallest in the world, whose double-glass skeleton twists upward in a rotating spiral. And Shanghai World Financial Center, designed by KPF, which has a trapezoidal hole at the top, large enough I bet for a daredevil pilot to fly through. Locals refer to it as “the bottle opener.”

These three magnificent skyscrapers sit among a forest of other ones, all noteworthy, just not as tall. So if by urban you mean a great skyline, Shanghai’s Pudong district, which amazingly was still largely farmland two decades ago, is thoroughly urban.

But if by urbanism you mean streets with sidewalks where people can walk into shops, restaurants, schools and banks, streets that function as little rivers of life. Well, then, Pudong, which looks so glorious from a distance, is not urban at all.


A view of the skywalk near the Lujiazui subway station.


Instead, the goliath-like skyscrapers sit, each on their own pod of lawn, plaza or driveway. In between them are not streets, but what can only be called highways. There is shopping nearby, but these are self-contained luxury shopping malls, each in their own box. Futuristic-looking sky bridges connect these separate realms, or sidewalks that are more like lanes, separated from the highways by fences. Those are the essential components.

So how do you get to and into these places?

You might think, given the many cars and highways one sees, that most people would arrive by automobile. But I saw no giant parking garages, just some discreet underground lots. Although I don’t have exact data, it appeared that most people arrived by subway, using Shanghai’s magnificent modern system, which has sprung to life continuous with Pudong itself, and is now roughly the size of New York City’s. People leave the subway station in droves, and walk over sky bridges and then along lanes to whichever skyscraper or shopping box they are visiting. There is no street-level retail, no coffee shops or odd store or service. There are actual intersections where two highways come together, which have crosswalks and where one can cross on foot. But I doubt anyone does so unless they have to.


The “streets” of Pudong resemble parts of Houston or Tampa.


On a recent visit this was fascinating—and sobering. Here you had all the components of urbanism—density, mass transit, deemphasized parking—without any actual urbanism being produced. I was humbled to realize my first book, How Cities Work: Suburbs, Sprawl and the Roads Not Taken (Texas 2000), which ironically is being translated now into Chinese, had it wrong, or at least not entirely correct. There I argued that transportation is destiny. That different types of transportation produce different types of cities. I thought that if you invested in mass transit, you would come out the other end with some form of traditional urbanism. But the world—post-automobile—is more complicated than that. There is no traditional urbanism in Pudong, not a drop of it.

Lin Wang, Director of City Lab at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a former senior Shanghai city planner (and like me a former Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design), said Pudong functioned the way the planners intended. It was designed to create a great skyline and to support and showcase the use of automobiles. The underground parking, she said, is extensive. There is, however, growing recognition of the pleasures of street-based urbanism, Wang said, and she believed it would be possible to build street-level urbanism from anew, if one started with that goal in mind.

You can still find a fair amount of remaining street-level urbanism across the river, on the west bank of the Huangpu River that cuts through Shanghai, as the Seine does Paris. These older urban areas, virtually all tracing back to the French, British or other international “concessions” and built a century or more ago, were until recently being wiped out by road crews hell-bent on widening streets into highways, for the sake of better traffic. But in recent years the city of Shanghai has started to realize what it is losing, and right now at its enormous, five-story urban planning museum (how amazing that the city has such a thing), has actually an exhibit on 64 older streets, “never to be broadened,” an exhibit Wang had a part in setting up.

But Pudong is a different story. I see no hope that anything resembling traditional urbanism could ever appear. The parts just aren’t there, despite there being density. It appears once again that traditional urbanism can be preserved, renovated or enhanced, but not built anew. It’s so difficult to build traditional urbanism anew—I’m not saying impossible, although I’ve rarely if ever seen it—because the designers always end up accommodating the automobile in gross ways, something which was largely not a factor in any area laid out a century or more ago.

In Pudong, the placement of swooping, higher speed arteries, along with driveways fronting skyscrapers, kills the urbanism. The height and bulk of the skyscrapers have little to do with it. Skyscrapers can support urbanism. Just require the walls meet sidewalk in a traditional way, and for street level retail, with smaller storefronts, to be mandatory and extensive. The Empire State Building is urban at street level. But no contemporary skyscraper district is.


I do ask myself, both while there and now home in New York, if my desire for traditional urbanism is merely nostalgia, or a kind of reactionary embrace of the status quo ante.


I do ask myself, both while there and now home in New York, if my desire for traditional urbanism is merely nostalgia, or a kind of reactionary embrace of the status quo ante. Transportation and other forms of technology change. It’s natural that urbanism would too. But be that is it may, I haven’t found any new type of urbanism that mixes people in the democratic way that traditional urbanism does. Instead, in Pudong as well as other newer cities I have seen, we get a collection of private spaces, connected by corridors that, if nominally public, are not places anyone would choose to tarry in. It’s a form of urbanism without any mixing.

Whatever the causes, I see no choices than to accept it. We have new places like Pudong, which although it seemed sterile and monotonous to me up close, hopefully have their own pleasures. Maybe even some could be called “urban.” But I haven’t found any yet.

Featured image via Wikipedia Commons. Other images by the author. 


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