Decoding Shanghai, gently

  • Thick air

    Thick air

    A hazy view of elevated freeways and tall buildings in Shanghai

    Photo courtesy of Gordon Prize

  • Separated circulation

    Separated circulation

    Beneath a blue-lighted Shanghai freeway, cars dominate at street-level, and pedestrians use an elevated crossing.

    Photo by Michael Alexander, courtesy of Gordon Price

  • A Shanghai park

    A Shanghai park

    Each new development area in Shanghai includes a park, Gordon Price reports.

    Photo courtesy of Gordon Price

  • Illuminated freeways

    Illuminated freeways

    Some of Shanghai's elevated freeways are spectacularly illuminated, consistent with a city that uses nighttime lighting dramatically.

    Photo courtesy of Gordon Price

  • Older lilong housing

    Older lilong housing

    In between arterial roads in Shanghai, there remain some rows of lilong, a traditional form of urban housing along narrow lanes, blending British terrace row housing and a Chinese courtyard style. Many have been replaced by "towers in the park."

    Photo courtesy of Gordon Price

Better! Cities & Towns

Some of us have a persistent worry that China is going to both eat our lunch and wreck the global environment.

Last week, fear of the Asian giant was further heightened by the Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who warned that China's recent growth has been built on a real estate boom that displays "all the classic signs of a bubble." China's seeming instability—a reflection of dynamism, government corruption, and who knows what else—may imperil an already shaky world economy.

After reading Krugman, I wasn't sure what to expect when the latest issue of Price Tags, the "electronic magazine" of Gordon Price, arrived in my e-mail box.

Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, has always struck me as less excitable than Krugman, but Price Tags number 110 focuses on Shanghai, a city that's growing at a ravenous rate and sprouting some development patterns that seem guaranteed to exacerbate global warming. So I wondered how evenhanded his tone would be.

Price's essay does in fact steer clear of anger or disdain. The fact that Price served from 1986 to 2002 as a council member in Vancouver, British Columbia, probably helps him avoid being strident on the topic of China. Vancouver has a strong Chinese influence—nearly 30 percent of the city's residents hail from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or mainland China—and this has no doubt given him a more nuanced understanding of China's direction and a more diplomatic manner than many of us possess.

Enormous expansion

"Is Shanghai the city of the 21st century?" he asks. Is Shanghai the equivalent of New York in the 20th century, Paris in the 19th century, and Florence in the 15th? "It's in the running," he replies, its region of 23 million people spread over 2,450 square miles and growing by 300,000 people per year.

One photo in Price Tags shows an astounding scale model of central Shanghai. The model's vast expanse of tall buildings makes New York seem dinky by comparison.

From there, Price goes on to tell a bit about the newly developed Pudong area and its Lujiazui district—"a financial centre of overwrought towers and overscaled avenues," a hard place for walking on a good day and even worse on one of the many days when the air is thick with pollution.

Why so much pollution? One reason is that Shanghai has been shifting enormously from bicycles to automobiles. It now has a network of 14 elevated and surface expressways, and plenty of car traffic.

Price finds pleasant surprises, however, in the midst of all the highway engineering. And he points out the wonders of areas both new and old—including the Bund, where European powers once reigned. There are beautiful places in the city. Can Shanghai create parks and green landscapes? Look at some of his photos, and you'll know for sure that it can.

The essay captures a huge, ambitious city in all its contradictions. Price devotes somewhat more space to the admirable than the appalling. The errors being made in Shanghai, however, will be glaringly obvious to anyone who knows urban planning and development. After all, many of the mistakes that Shanghai is making are mistakes that North America pioneered.

I'm grateful to Price for this illuminating piece, which grew out of a study tour he took last May. Yet in the end, I'm left in a mood more like Krugman's. To me, the big question is what it will take to get China to see how damaging its modernization program is turning out to be.