From quaint canal towns to mega blocks, how a Chinese city pretzeled my planner’s brain

Shanghai is a city of extremes – it is both incredibly modern and ancient; wildly dense and charmingly quaint; a sea of asphalt and paved with waterways, lush gardens, and parks; packed with people and honking mopeds, but with green spaces quiet enough to hear birds. As a planner, it boggled my mind.

After my recent vacation there, there few thoughts I find myself still chewing on:

Big communist-style development… but better?

  • At first, Shanghai reminded me of East Berlin. Outside of the city center, towering residential high-rises are copy and pasted in oversized mega-blocks. Wide streets feel eerie and intimidating. Massive malls and modern skyscrapers punctuate the sprawling density. But where East Berlin felt somewhat cold and under-inhabited, the streets of Shanghai were lined with trees and bustling with activity. The sheer density and warm climate has injected so much life into an otherwise unforgiving development pattern. While the mega blocks were out of scale, they all had ground floors lined with mini-marts, delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and coffee shops. While the streets were oversized, they were also crowded with pedestrians, mopeds, and cyclists. While the density was sprawling, it was surprisingly walkable and public transit made all parts of the city accessible.
  • Some cities feel impersonal and impossible to navigate in their monotony. I expected that from Shanghai, but I was surprised to find distinct neighborhoods with their own sense of community. In Zhenru we sat at a makeshift brewery patio and watched the neighborhood come to life in the evening: people sitting outside of businesses chatting, playing mahjong, drinking beer, or gathering around to watch the grocery store clerk cut up durians. It’s hard to pinpoint what contributes to the close-knit culture, but I have to imagine it has something to do with the density, the popularity of walking and biking (cars are so impersonal), the lack of “mine” vs “yours” in a city without single family homes or personal yards, and the neighborhood shops and services on every street corner.

Constructed for cars but seemingly no longer for them?

  • Wide streets and raised highways with spaghetti interchanges certainly give the impression of a car-driven city. However, in our two weeks there, we only hopped into cabs a few times and never once saw a surface parking lot. Instead, we opted to travel like most Shanghainese – on the metro system that spans the city with unbelievable frequency; on the buses that provide key linkages throughout the transit network; on cheap rental bikes that line almost every street corner; and by foot on wide, shaded sidewalks. The only method we didn’t indulge in, but is a favorite of the locals, were the tricked out mopeds that flew through crowded intersections and carried everything from children, to takeout, to packages, to construction supplies. 
  • My biggest takeaway was that a transportation network with first and final mile connections can work at any scale – the variety of options in the network may scale up or down (high-speed metro vs Bustang) but as long as there are multi-modal choices at each leg of the trip, it will be far more usable. My other takeaway was that the higher cost of hiding parking in well-disguised garages, underground, or even just behind buildings makes places feel like they’re for people.

Urban Planning is alive and well in Shanghai, sort of.

  • The Shanghai 2035 Master Plan was adopted in 2017, and I got to live the planner’s dream of exploring the plan’s content in their Urban Planning Exposition, a 6-story building dedicated to showcasing the history of Shanghai’s land use, urban form, and future vision. The plan was, frankly, state of the art – full of visionary ideas and best-practices. My favorite passage was about the City’s culture: “explore further the rich cultural connotations of Shanghai, carry forward its historical context, preserve its memories, stimulate cultural innovation and create vitality.” This rang so true after wandering through the many well preserved ancient towns within the City’s limits. The history of agriculture and fishing, international settlements, rapid industrialization, and modern trade create a rich urban tapestry. The way these historic and cultural “memories” have been integrated into the city has created a sense of place that can’t be faked.
  • My jaw hung open as I read recommendations that could have been written by me or my colleagues, but did they have community buy-in? To give credit where it’s due, there was engagement, but from what I could gather it was primarily online and only a small portion of the population. I found myself wondering if best-practice policies without the political infighting and NIMBY objections typical to a US planning process, and implemented with a stern, top-down approach would be effective? My best answer – maybe. Perhaps in certain places, with different cultural values, but I left the Exposition with my faith in public processes and community-driven planning fully in-tact.

So what can planners in mountain and rural places learn from a city like Shanghai? While Shanghai is a far cry from the rural western towns we work in, there may be some parallels and lessons to be drawn – from the power of neighborhood shops and gathering places, to the freedom of travel without relying solely on a car, to the power of authentic history and culture to bring a place to life. While there’s much more to learn than my two week trip provided, I left with a renewed hope in the power of people, community, and strategic retrofitting to make even the most poorly designed places feel both exciting and inviting.

As a disclaimer: I only spent two weeks in Shanghai and for the most part, kept to the nicer, more touristed areas. A few local friends of friends showed us some places off the beaten path, but we were likely still screened from poorest, most marginalized communities that don’t benefit from Shanghai’s virtues I’ve extolled above.

  • Community
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  • Environment
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  • Placemaking
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  • Transportation

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