One City, Nine Ghost Towns

Today I went to Sweden, yesterday to England, and tomorrow I will go to Germany. My mode of transport? Metro! While China’s one child policy is preventing uncontrolled population growth, its megacities are still facing an ever-ongoing expansion. The obvious reason is migration of workforce to cities as China undergoes transformation from a rural to urban society expecting to reach the 50% mark within less than 5 years.

Weimar in China? Or Shanghai in Germany? Or just ghosts?

However, it is not only migration that puts pressure on real estate and urban borders. As China has the world’s largest growing middle class and a congregation of super rich within cities, the expectation to domiciles is undergoing change. Young and wealthy Chinese do not wish their lifestyles squeezing together with parents and grandparents in small apartments, which means that more square meters of residential area is needed per capita.

Decentralization of Shanghai: new residential compounds.

A third reason for expansion is the immense speculation in real estate. As property values have reached soaring heights over the last 10 years, and a continuous belief in unlimited amounts of potential buyers migrating to the city, speculation and risk of a housing bubble has become a major topic threatening urban development. Unconfirmed reports of readings of electrical meters suggest that 65 million apartments are vacant throughout China, enough to house 200 million people.

The government’s recent measure for reducing real estate speculation has been prohibiting 3rd mortgages and imposing higher taxes on 2nd homes in Shanghai and Beijing. Whether this is enough to slow down the inflation of rent and real estate value only time will tell. According to Bloomberg the effect is not yet visible. Meanwhile, to keep people off the streets, authorities have decided to build 10 million low-income homes in 2011 opposed to 5.2 million the previous year.

Typical orientation for Chinese residential compounds facing South.

Speculation is, of course, poison for the urban poor as rent increases straightly with property value. This post aims to show an example of real estate speculation becoming urban development’s all bad guy, severely affecting space making and community building. The example used is Shanghai’s ‘One City Nine Towns’ project. With growth of megacities, urban planners and strategists are facing new challenges. As there is no ‘idiot’s guide to expanding megacities’, a number of colorful attempts have been made in the process.

Weimar village… in Shanghai (Anting).

In the decentralization process of Shanghai the strategic plan of 2001 proposed 9 new town centers, of which 4 towns were to be developed from scratch. As a marketing strategy in distinguishing the new towns from each other and Shanghai’s existing city center (Shanghai C), they were to be themed as cities from different geographical regions. Of these developed the new towns of Gaoqiao (Holland), Fengcheng (Spain), Pujiang (Italy), Anting (German), Songjiang (England), Luodian (North European), Fengjing (North America), and Zhoujiajiao (traditional Chinese style water town). A last town, Zhoupu (Mixed Vestern), was canceled.

Swedish traces… in Shanghai (Luodian).

The aim was to develop self-contained entities, which reduce pressure on Shanghai C, enabling the metropolitan area to accommodate future migration. In order to reduce mass commuting to Shanghai C the strategic plan aimed to avoid mistakes occurring in western satellite cities, which often have become only residential ‘sleeping towns’.  The new towns in Shanghai’s periphery were planned to become 24-hour cities by providing future job opportunities and services as well as residential areas.

Dutch architect Harry den Hartog is the editor of recently published book Shanghai New Towns in which he questions the ideas behind the project and issues that have occurred. Den Hartog explains that the initial preparations and design was developed under a very short time frame. This led to a number of changes, complications, and restrictions during the implementation. The architects behind the new towns that were developed first had most freedom for their design, but as the project progressed the authorities and developers tried to mediate mistakes by restricting the design freedom and making changes to the original plans.

The medieval setting of Thames town is a favorite backdrop for wedding photography.

The involved architects approached their respective new towns in different ways. What has later shown of great importance has been the way this theming has been interpreted. The approach of AS&P’s Weimar village (Anting, German) is e.g. very different from Atkins’ Thames Town (Songjian, English).

Weimar village is based on a road structure and typology, which is inspired from German towns. 3-4 storey courtyard housing frames the streets with building lay-out of retail on ground floor and residential above. The spaces created are as found in European towns with small squares and back alleys connected to the public street system. In the middle of the development is a large square with surrounding office building and a church. The development itself is not a direct copy of something existing, but based on a European approach to urban design.

Thames town (Songjiang)… or should it be theme park town?

Thames town, on the other hand, maintains a more Chinese master plan lay-out. In the middle there is a small pedestrian village center surrounded by gated villa communities. The roads and townscape are not European at all, but the pedestrian village in the middle consists of buildings copied directly from a medieval village in Britain. This pedestrian centre most of all reminds of a historical theme park. It is claimed that some English pub owner found a copy of the actual façade of his pub there.

These differences in the approach showed to have a significant impact for the development of each town. Weimar village experienced a lot of problems with selling off property because the buildings were oriented according to the streets and aligned with them. Typical Chinese residential developments have all buildings facing south, and are secluded from the streets in gated compounds. Further typical Chinese streets are activated by being framed by retail, which is segregated from the residential buildings behind.

Gated community in Thames town.

As Thames town generally follows a more Chinese planning structure, the residential units were more attractive for buyers, and have been easier to sell off.  As a result Weimar village was only built to less than 50% of its original master plan and afterwards redesigned. It is however not only ignorance to Chinese building code and foreign ideals which proved as major problems for the ‘one city nine towns’ project. To which extent buyers liked the developments or not were influencing the developers in return of profit. More severely is that the new towns were only aiming at attracting the upper middle class, and that property prices were not affordable for low-income workers. Even as property was being bought in the new towns they still remained empty. Since the only people who could afford to by property there were rich enough to have it as a second home. So in reality the majority of all residential units have been bought only for speculation in the expectation of rising property value.

Emptiness in Lake Malaren North European new town (Luodian).

This has had a severe effect on place making and community building in many of the new towns. As almost no residents have yet moved into the new towns, retail and public services are not feasible and therefore also left empty. Speculation has become a vicious spiral keeping the ghost towns uninhabited. As a result in 2006 the ‘one city nine towns project’ was discontinued.

This is the reason why there are not many palms in Scandinavia… no-one knows how they ended up in North European town in Shanghai.

It is clear that decentralization of Shanghai is necessary however the ‘one city nine towns’ project shows some of the problems that arise in large scale urban planning. However the decentralization process is not by far limited to this project. Seen upon the expansion of Shanghai these new towns are just very small pieces. Weimar village is e.g. a part of Anting, which has Shanghai’s automobile industry as main economic generator. Anting is again a small part of the Jiading development zone. Jiading being in proximity of Hongqiao airport and train hub, and connected to Shanghai’s main NW access corridor aims to become a new economical centre of greater Shanghai, probably with a population superseding most European capitals.

Scouting after customers. Luodian, Sweden… or at least similar to Sweden.