Thursday, 29 April 2010

Ubanisation in China

China's rapid growth is putting pressure on the ever growing cities. Shanghai's Expo is providing some of the answers. Today's FT gives a nice little summary of the problems that China faces.


China has the world’s biggest urbanisation problem and Expo is promising the world’s best solutions.

By 2030, China will have an urban population of 1bn, having added 350m by then – more than the entire current population of the US, according to a recent McKinsey study, Preparing for China’s urban billion. Even five years before that, China is forecast to have 219 cities of more than 1m each, compared with 35 in Europe today, and 24 cities of more than 5m.

Shanghai, with nearly 20m already, is a living experiment in urbanisation – and one that is mostly failing. The polluted Huangpu river runs between banks crowded with concrete apartment complexes with little or no greenery (but lots of hanging laundry). Parks are few and playgrounds almost unheard of; pedestrianisation is limited and walking is deemed one of the city’s most dangerous sports.

For years, Shanghai has smothered its history in skyscrapers, and Expo has accelerated that process. At the Expo site itself, the Shanghai government did convert one steel plant into a theatre; but outside Expo, numerous traditional buildings have been knocked down.

Wujiang Lu, the city’s famous snack street where stalls served everything from octopus to offal on a stick, is gone. There was nowhere to sit and the rubbish bins were too infrequently emptied – but rather than install benches and schedule extra visits from the trash collectors, the city opted for demolition. Starbucks and Krispy Kreme are there but Little Yang’s famous crispy-bottomed soup dumpling stand is no more.

Part of the point of Expo, whose motto is “Better city, better life”, is to make sure Shanghai thinks twice before demolishing the next Wujiang Lu. “Shanghai could leapfrog the rest of the world [on urbanisation], because the scale of what they want to do and what they need to do is so enormous,” says Anthony Elvey, director of Cisco’s Expo pavilion.

Hoping to sell its integrated city management systems to China’s mayors, the Cisco pavilion is a celebration of the joys of a microchip-enhanced life: right down to wristwatch-sized monitors that simultaneously check the contractions of a pregnant woman, summon the ambulance, inform her husband, rouse the obstetrician from bed and book a delivery room.

Indeed, connected urban living is a main focus of the corporate Expo pavilions: schoolchildren use global positioning devices to find the best bus route home, where they are greeted by a grandmother who has just teleported in from the provinces; cars talk to the traffic grid to find out where best to park themselves.

Some Expos are memorable for inventions that endure; others are mere graveyards for technologies that came before their time. It could take decades before it is known which category Shanghai falls into: a moment that changed urban life forever, or just an urban fantasy.