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Divining the future - Shanghai style

Notes from shanghai

There are said to be three million non-local building workers in Shanghai (population 13 million), writes Paul Finch. You can see why: high-rise construction everywhere you look, convoys of lorries on the night roads taking fill who knows where, hoardings round every other corner disguising another construction site, a diminishing old town as the forces of comprehensive redevelopment move onward and upward. A visitor to the city says it has changed not quite beyond recognition but getting on that way since his last visit (14 months ago). Now there is a fast road, plus elevated motorway, from the airport into town - a minor piece in a civil engineering jigsaw which is creating an additional metro line and a new water system, as well as the inevitable new road connections. It all seems like London Docklands multiplied by 20.

Already the old image of the city full of bicycles has changed, with an uneasy truce between cars, buses, pedestrians, cyclists in which, unless some dramatic initiative takes place, the car will win. Great swathes of urban development exist without the interruption of green open space, so that when you see a piece of (to us) conventional planning, with separation of uses, it comes as a surprise. Across the river from the Bund, the old commercial riverside area (being revitalised now, with Donald Insall refurbishing the old Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, and a new Foster tower in the offing), is Pudong, one of several zones enjoying special tax and customs concessions.

The occasion for a visit was a conference on quality of life in twenty- first-century cities, part of the 'Gateways to the Future' programme mounted by the British Council in an initiative to strengthen links between the uk (especially London) and China (especially Shanghai). The British speakers comprised Richard Burdett from the lse, who set the future development of cities in the context of sustainability, traffic management and other issues concerning western planners; Cedric Price discussed the importance of health, water, convenience of communication, overload and learning; James Woodhuysen of Seymour Powell urged the Chinese to remember their role as manufacturers, and to ignore the advice they would receive from the West to control their expansion. 'Yours is an industrial, not an information society,' he suggested. Mike Maternaghan from British Telecom, in a presentation entitled 'Cities of the Mind', put an opposite view - or at least one which bypassed physical means of communications to new degrees, implicitly questioning one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of the city as we know it.

The Chinese speakers dealt with the problems of rapid expansion and the need for (and difficulties of developing) mixed-use cities. Not so different from the never-ending discussion in London along the same lines. Academic Zheng Shiling, president of the Shanghai Architectural Society, noted that Chinese culture was itself a combination of different cultures, and the way that change had been so rapid that it was almost beyond reaction; he wanted traffic reform to cope with cars, preservation of the historic city, an acknowledgement that future quality of building was based on current construction; and a realisation that Shanghai was in a 'process of constant adjustment'.

Xiang Zuquan, president of the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute, noted that the continuing development of high-rise buildings (there were 28 by the end of the 1930s) meant the landscape was all landmarks. He argued for streets to be thought of as green spaces, and suggested that garden city ideas should be adopted to create green strips along the riverside. A Beijing perspective was offered by Bai Demao, who regretted the impact of private cars on townscape, and the replacement of 1950s buildings, which combined Western and Chinese characteristics, with 1990s buildings which were all about volume. A simple way of life of life had changed in the capital; what was need was a return to the sorts of mixed use found in ancient paintings of city life.

It was left to the final speaker, Siegfried Wu, of Tongji University, to suggest that the ancient ideal of harmony should underlie approaches to urban development. People and nature could no longer operate in conflict; the past and the present should be reconciled by giving residents a bigger say, and by using urban design principles rather than simply building high.

Jumping into the car to go to dinner, all one could say was that it is development which is calling the shots in Shanghai; the finer points will have to wait.

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