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The sun rises behind Shanghai's Lujiazui Financial District of Pudong.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Berridge is a partner with Urban Strategies. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is author of Perfect City, to be published this month by Sutherland House, from which this essay is adapted.

Shanghai occupies a critical geopolitical position at the delta of the Yangtze River, the great route into China’s interior, and for much of its history it has been the Chinese city most engaged with the rest of the world. For two thousand years, China was the most populous and prosperous country on Earth. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did European, American, and Japanese powers challenge its supremacy. The logic of China’s size and foundational geography is now vigorously reasserting itself.

China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has in the delightful lexicon of Chinese planning introduced the notion of ‘One Belt, One Road’ to characterize his country’s newly declared geopolitical economic strategy. The One Belt is the newly reconstituted Silk Road, which for much of its route inside China follows the Yangtze. One Belt is being reinvented as a high-speed rail route leading from Shanghai to the interior and on through Eurasia, as well as to Malaysia and Singapore. The One Road consists of the network of sea routes springing from the megacities running along the country’s eastern maritime border, principally centred on Beijing/Tianjin, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

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Now, as through China’s extraordinary history, the One Belt and the One Road intersect at Shanghai.

REVIVING THE SILK ROAD

Silk Road Economic Belt

New Maritime Silk Road

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

(AIIB) members

RUSSIA

BRITAIN

CHINA

IRAN

Shanghai

EGYPT

INDIA

INDONESIA

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

REVIVING THE SILK ROAD

Silk Road Economic Belt

New Maritime Silk Road

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) members

RUSSIA

BRITAIN

CHINA

IRAN

Shanghai

EGYPT

INDIA

INDONESIA

AUSTRALIA

NEW ZEALAND

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

REVIVING THE SILK ROAD

Silk Road Economic Belt

New Maritime Silk Road

Projects subsumed under China’s Belt and Road initiative

Gas pipelines

Existing railroads

Ports with Chinese engagement

Oil pipelines

Planned railroads

Planned or under construction

Proposed economic corridors

RUSSIA

BRITAIN

SPAIN

CHINA

Shanghai

IRAN

EGYPT

INDIA

SINGAPORE

INDONESIA

AUSTRALIA

Asian Infrastructure

Investment Bank

(AIIB) members

NEW ZEALAND

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

London and New York, the world’s current leading cities, share Shanghai’s foundational geographic logic. Their safe harbours are easily accessible to the world’s trade, and their Thames and Hudson Rivers provided a ready route into a huge hinterland. Despite all the changes in transport modes and technology, geography will out, which is why Shanghai will be the capital city of the future. The world’s centre of economic gravity is steadily moving back to where it started.

Shanghai currently has a population of 24 million, almost equal to those two other global urban leaders combined, and it is projected to grow to between 35 and 45 million by 2050, with the surrounding Yangtze Delta region surging to about 200 million. This extraordinary rate of growth has been consistent since the 1980s when the population of the city was less than half of what it is today. What is remarkable about Shanghai, and why it is so significant an example of the planet’s relentless urbanization, is that few, if any cities have coped with such dramatic urban growth as effectively.

Planning for Shanghai’s future started in earnest in the late 1980s, with a vision and an effectiveness unmatched in urban history. Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s mid-19th century remake of Paris might come closest, but even that monumental and rapid urban transformation pales in comparison to the past 30 years in Shanghai. All Robert Moses’s megalomaniac visions for New York would not even make the scorecard.

Shanghai decided to completely retool its machine. Just one statistic: The Shanghai metro system, with its 12 lines, is now the most extensive in the world, yet its first line opened only in 1993. Four new lines are under construction and five existing lines are being extended. No city outside of China can compete with so comprehensive a transit expansion, and that is just one facet of the rebuild. Shanghai has provided one of the world’s largest and most rapidly growing urban populations with a quality of life and a breadth of infrastructure unmatched by any other megalopolis. It has done so in less than three decades.

Shanghai is growing at the rate of 700,000 to 800,000 people a year. Toronto, the fastest growing urban region in Europe or North America, is growing by only 100,000 to 125,000 a year. London and New York are far slower. If current trends continue, one billion people will live in China’s cities by 2025. In that short time, the country will add a new urban population greater than the current population of the United States. Those new citizens will be migrants from the Chinese hinterland, and the majority will be living in one of the country’s 23 cities with a population greater than five million, of which eight will have populations of more than 10 million. Shanghai will be the largest.

There has never been urbanization of this scale in the history of the world. All of the world’s great cities are struggling to cope with growth and, generally speaking, they have no clue how to provide a decent quality of urban life to newcomers in such numbers. Yet, in a highly imperfect profession, Shanghai provides perhaps the best example of megascale urban planning that works.

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Shanghai, 2006: A woman dries laundry in soon-to-be-demolished old houses, soon to make room for the skyscrapers and affluent neighbourhoods that have transformed the Chinese city.

EUGENE HOSHIKO/The Associated Press

For decades, demolished homes have been a common sight in Shanghai. At left, a woman lays out winter quilts to air amid the rubble of a demolished house in 1993; at top right, a man collects recyclable materials from a demolition site in 1999 that would later become the tony Xintiandi neighbourhood; and at bottom right, heavy machinery breaks up the remains of a building in 2004 as the Oriental Pearl Tower looms in the background.

Associated Press and Reuters

Shanghai, 2019: A man checks his phone amid the skyscrapers of the financial district in Pudong. Shanghai is growing at the rate of 700,000 to 800,000 people a year.

ALY SONG/Reuters

Shanghai stands apart from much of China’s recent urban growth. The country’s first decades of urbanization were not terribly successful. Heavy doses of Robert Moses with Jane Jacobs nowhere to be seen. Relentless stretches of tower blocks, mindless erasures of historic districts, freeways everywhere. All of the worst aspects of American development in the 1960s, on steroids. Cities looked like vast science-fiction movie sets. To his credit, President Xi recently called a series of party congresses to re-invent the rules for Chinese urbanization, advancing a series of principles with a distinct familiarity: urban growth boundaries, denser street networks, mix of uses, transit primacy, healthy communities, energy efficiency, good urban design. Ms. Jacobs had arrived. It is fascinating when, in the Middle Kingdom, sensitive city building becomes a national government priority. China now has a fairly sophisticated planning and municipal government system, one that borrows the antique parlance of Britain with its 2008 Town and Country Planning Act. It wrestles with the same issues of top/down and bottom/up, with boundary fights between boroughs and the big city, with the status of detailed plans and urban design, with managing rampaging developers and quieting angry neighbours.

Shanghai has been the exception and the leader of urbanization in China because its growth has actually been based on plans, a series of which have been developed since the 1980s. The themes of the plans are familiar to anyone who reads their equivalents in the big cities of the Europe and North America: transit-oriented development, green corridors, heritage preservation, economic development, sustainability. The language of Shanghai’s plans, however, is uniquely expressive. The new 2040 Plan translates as “Guiding Opinions on Compiling the General Urban Plan for a New Round of Overall Redevelopment in Shanghai.” Its intent is to make Shanghai “a global city glittering with charm and attraction.” The Shanghai Metropolitan Plan calls for “One Dragon Head, Four Centres.” This means that Shanghai will be the dragon head of the entire Yangtze River region, containing an international economic centre, a financial centre, a trade and logistics centre, and “an international centre of socialist modernization.” This is all to be achieved by 2020. I love this language. What a relief from the leaden prose in the comparable documents in most other cities.

What is also different about Shanghai’s plans is that they work. The city, already twice as dense as New York and London, and four times as dense as Toronto, has put itself in position to achieve one of the most difficult feats for so dynamic a metropolis: to stop sprawling and accommodate all its millions of newcomers within the current city boundary. That is why the carefully conceived, remarkably extensive grid of transit lines is so important. It provides a robust, flexible structure to carry the population that is coming. Rates of car ownership are still very low, about one sixth that of the United States, so the challenge is to see if, in the face of rapidly rising incomes and expectations, China can skip a whole generation of auto-based urban development and create the world’s largest postcar city. That would be a gift to the world. And Shanghai will need to do it. Air pollution, exacerbated by the city’s marshy maritime location, has a tangible presence.

A cyclist wears a face mask while riding along a bridge on a polluted day in Shanghai.

ALY SONG/Reuters

The city’s planning success is largely attributable to doing the big things well. The cleverest move was to recognize the scale of impending growth and create a massive urban relief valve by developing Pudong, a completely new downtown district. A largely agricultural and low-intensity industrial area 30 years ago, Pudong is today the very model of the planned business and financial city centre, home to a succession of stunning high-rise office towers. There were two essential drivers behind the creation of Pudong. First, to clearly establish Shanghai as the country’s premier business centre, in a central location with the scale to accommodate really large, tall buildings. Second, to relieve the pressure for redevelopment of the city’s heritage districts.

The high-rise office towers have mostly been designed by foreign architects, raising the frequent query as to whether the Chinese will ever have the creativity and imagination to service a more consumer-based, high-value-added economy. The Shanghai Tower should set that silly question to rest. The most recent of the office towers, designed by Chinese architect Jun Xia, consists of a simple oval shaft cloaked in an elegant sheath dress reminiscent of a thirties ball gown. It shares the striking beauty of New York and Chicago office towers built in their glory days.

The great advantage of the city’s mid-20th-century time-out was that it largely avoided the most destructive modernist era of city planning in the 1960s. Not entirely, as there was a period of extensive inner-city expressway building and slum clearance followed by the construction of dense tower blocks. In fairness, it is hard to imagine how Shanghai could have accommodated such massive population growth without some demolition. And I have to admit a guilty pleasure in one of the most obviously destructive projects from this era, the double-helix expressway ramp spiralling down from the Nanpu Bridge. It is the acme of kinetic urban delight.

The spiraling ramp from the Nanpu Bridge, shown in 2002.

CLARO CORTES IV/Reuters

The majority of the traditional city fabric has been left in place. The Bund buildings, the French Concession, several historic neighbourhoods including the original walled city and numerous individual historic buildings remain with strict orders for their preservation. As a result, central Shanghai has a feel almost European in many parts. The French, in particular, left not only fine parks but a robust street grid that has proved highly adaptable to the city’s growth, lined with mature plane trees and high-walled cantonments. Stucco and verdigris walls, heavy gates leading to inner passages, all with that magic mix of obviousness and concealment characteristic of a Haussmann arrondissement. In behind the gates are dense, maze-like districts, the lilongs that retain the mystery and memory of the old Shanghai of movies and legend, when the city was alternately known as "The Paris of the East” or “The Whore of the Orient.”

Without Pudong, without the chessboard grid of high-intensity transit stations, the pressure for redevelopment of the lilongs would have been irresistible. Restaurants and shops occupy every nook and cranny of the street edge. The alleys of shikumen, tight 19th-century workers housing, are packed with businesses. Most of these are tiny, barely five or 10 square metres, and each has a dedicated owner determined to make a living. It is that manic entrepreneurial drive that is the dominant note of Shanghai. Twenty-four million utterly determined business people cannot be denied, and thousands more arrive every day. Even the sidewalks are cluttered with commerce as trucks full of heavy cardboard boxes, containing who knows what, pull over to be unloaded onto bicycles and ubiquitous electric scooters.

I am led on a tour around Pudong by a member of its city planning team, a Shanghai native but educated, like so many of the professional class I meet, at a first-rate European university, in her case Pont et Chaussées, one of the French grandes écoles that have a surprising presence in Asia. Indeed, the French origins of Pudong go a long way to explain the district’s planning successes and failures. In the 1990s, the city government ran a series of design competitions to determine the best layout for the new city district, involving many of the world’s great architectural practices. To give the new district some overall coherence, they turned to the Paris regional government for advice. The pattern of rond-points and grand boulevards that resulted do undoubtedly establish a greater urban order but much has been executed at so absurdly oversized a scale that the environment at street level is unfriendly and charmless. Pudong demonstrates more clearly than any other new city district I know why large-scale city building has to be led by planners and not architects. Architects always get it wrong when given a problem that is too large. They treat a city district as if it were merely a bigger building, an abstract code of angles and intersections, rather than as an organic place that must be allowed to evolve into its optimal form.

Pudong is fixable, however, if only because the massive densities involved are generating enough human activity to take over even poorly designed spaces. A program of de-engineering is under way to reduce the amount of space devoted to automobiles. In the centre, at Lujiazui, the city has given up on the street level entirely and created a huge, circular, above-grade walkway accessible by escalator and connecting to all surrounding buildings. It breaks every rule of contemporary city planning and is a great success, full of liveliness and an endless selfie opportunity.

Shanghai, 2018: Three women take a selfie on the promenade at the Bund, with the financial district visible behind them through the smog.

JOHANNES EISELE/Getty Images

My guide tells me of the difficulties for young aspiring professionals who live in Shanghai, which sound much the same as those in every successful city. While office rents have been flat over the past decade, housing costs have increased three to four times. Residential property prices have exploded, forcing choices between desired but cramped city-centre living and or a long commute from way out in the family-friendly suburbs. One bright note is that since the private sector replaced the state as the main housing supplier, units are becoming more numerous and more spacious.

I take a long subway ride out to the suburbs, to the end of the line, intending to see the lovely lakeside city of Hangzhou, location of the 2016 Group of 20 summit. You get to Hangzhou from the railway station at Hongqiao, which is also the terminus of the high-speed rail to Beijing, a multilayered rail, bus and air terminal building of a scale and ambition quite unmatched by anything in Europe or North America. I was intimidated by this vast windowless building, the swirling crowds, the insignificance of my Canadian-ness despite my height and bulk. I got lost down on the lowest level and, feeling as if I was underwater, drowning and desperate for contact with the outdoors, any outdoors, I swam up a series of limitless escalators to catch a glimpse of sunshine on the next level. And up again to rush out through the first available door onto a dimensionless outdoor plaza.

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I had walked through the looking glass into the future. The plaza formed the terminus of a huge, new city being built around the HSR terminal and airport. It had been invisible from inside but now stretched as far as I could see. A perfect city of neat tree-lined boulevards, bike lanes, well-designed office complexes and street-animating shopping centres. All completely empty, with the surreal feel of The Truman Show or one of Jacques Tati’s futurist urbanscapes.

The still-under-construction venues in Hangzhou for the 2022 Asian Games stand behind a field of differently coloured flowers marking the upcoming event.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

I cannot fathom the development economics of this fully finished but barely occupied new city centre. Certainly no other world city or development company could afford it. I was continually being counselled by Westerners about an impending debt crisis set to engulf China at all levels: government, corporate and personal. There is no shortage of evidence on the ground and Hongqiao would have to be a leading example of massive public and private investment requiring an extremely long horizon for any reasonable return. But outsiders lecturing China on indebtedness is a bit rich. Leaving aside the glaring overbuild of Versace and Prada outlets, most of what I was looking at around Hongqiao was solid, growth-positive infrastructure investment of a kind that the West, despite its own mountains of debt, has neglected. Rail terminals, airports, office buildings and bus stations are useful, productive elements of the urban machine which, though rattling empty now, will doubtless be filled in a decade or less given the city’s current rate of growth. What we are seeing in China bears many similarities to the successive railroad booms and busts that characterized the settlement of the United States. And Hongqiao? It will soon be a lovely place, enjoyed by many people, I am sure, once it is finished.

I am convinced that Shanghai is destined for global supremacy. Three connected reasons: its muscular city-building strategy, its colossal scale and the entrepreneurial energy of its citizens. I have talked about the effectiveness of Shanghai’s city’s planning. What is just as significant is its newness. Other great cities are still heavily reliant upon the infrastructure of their periods of peak development, the great Victorian city-building legacy of European cities and the Eisenhower-era interstate highway developments of North America. That essential urban equipment, built by each generation’s incarnation of Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses, is getting old, and cities are often unable or unwilling to modernize it. Beyond the physical infrastructure, the city-management skills of too many European and North American cities have congealed almost to the point of dysfunction. Shanghai’s municipal machine is more productive than its competitors and clearly demonstrates good government, whether in the form of impeccably clean streets, or the clever public land leases that provide revenue to fund infrastructure projects and social housing. Shanghai has both the economic power and the basic infrastructure to provide a good quality of life for the populations streaming into the city. It is all very top down, controlled and planned. Prototypical Jane Jacobs stories of small businesses and property owners being chased out by big money and big government abound. But it is hard to see how else the mistakes of every other city in the rapidly urbanizing world could have been avoided. There does however seem to be an inexorable unfolding logic to city building. I met the impressive Xia Liping, head of the Shanghai Planning Institute, responsible for all of the city’s long-range planning, who indicated that she felt the process of planning had now to move towards greater public engagement and a more local focus. She’s right, of course, but living as I do in a city where no planning thought can be uttered without a public meeting, I wondered whether to warn her. There is no question that it will take them longer to build their future subway lines.

Above, migrant workers demolish a residential site in 2012. Below, another group of migrant workers drink beer in their dormitory after their shift in 2013.

Aly Song/Reuters

ALY SONG/REUTERS

What ultimately determines the success of cities is immigration. In China’s case, that migration has been internal, from the countryside to the cities. The government has actively managed the process with its hukou residency permit system but, like all such attempts to curb the flow of the rural poor to available urban jobs, it has been only partly effective. About half the population of the city still lacks this long-term residency permit. Indeed, it is on the backs of something resembling the quasi-illegal immigrant class that I met in New York’s Bronx and London’s Barking that Shanghai’s great subway investments and high-rise towers have been built. Of course, it is on their urban energy, their striving, their determination to improve their life and that of their families, that all great cities are built and their futures made. Shanghai simply has more of that energy than anywhere else.

As it grows, Shanghai will have to attract not only China’s but the world’s best. There is no doubt that it can produce its own creative class. Shanghaiers have an easy familiarity with technology. The city has the highest use of cashless payments of any in the world, and just down the regional rail in Hangzhou is the world headquarters of Alibaba, the huge online retailer that is probably the only rival in the world to Amazon. China, with Shanghai at its centre, is positioning itself as the primary producer of high-tech batteries and robots, surely the key manufacturing activities of the rest of the century. Can the city attract others from afar, that floating global intelligentsia and business class seemingly essential for a higher-order city? Probably not yet. Shanghai’s leading university, Fudan, ranks 155th in the league tables. The city’s cultural offering looks thin and derivative. On the street, Shanghaiers are strivers, not flaneurs. But this, too, will change. This old city is still very young. It is steadily emerging as China’s premier cultural centre, with a lightness of being that Beijing finds hard to muster. Museums and galleries are popping up all over, particularly in the new hip district of the West Bund, several of them funded by the great private wealth the city has created, following the pattern of the Tates, Guggenheims and Fricks in turn-of-the-century English and American cities. Recognizing the economic importance of the creative class, the city has supported it with tax concessions and other inducements under the fine banner of “Culture First, Industry Oriented.” We should also remember that in the thirties, Shanghai did have a distinctive international glamour as an ‘anything goes, end-of-empire’ city. I am not sure this is what the authors of socialist modernization have in mind, but nothing is so permanent as urban character.

The sheer scale of China and its premier cities will exert a force of global economic gravity. In a short time, the country has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the history of the world, employing its particular brand of illiberal capitalism, and its great, exploding cities are a consequence of this magnificent project. The success or failure of the country’s next great transformation, from cheap production to sophisticated service and manufacturing economy, will take place in the cities. Will a perhaps inevitable urban democracy grow? There seems some evidence already. Hints of Jane Jacobs sprout like grass between the paving stones of the overwhelmingly Moses-built city. Big cities have always to broaden their power base, particularly in the contemporary economy. Perhaps Shanghai has another advantage in China unique to great commercial cities: an ability to experiment and take risks, giving a flexibility unavailable to the other Chinese megalopolises. It is not the capital, Beijing, where an excess of government power seems to have constrained its urbanity. It is not Hong Kong, whose ambiguous governmental status and business culture could limit its influence. And it is not Shenzhen or another of the instant cities that have developed in China in the past three decades. A city with a dynamic trading culture and a long sense of itself, it will make its own history. There is a fine Chinese proverb of which Shanghaiers are fond: “The mountains are high and the emperor lives far away.” Cities may be more powerful than countries.

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China Stringer Network/Reuters

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