Shanghai’s Grand Plan for Suburbia: Avoid Becoming Like L.A.

The vast suburbs of Shanghai, with their large parks, lakes and famed waterways, have long served more as weekend retreats for city dwellers than desirable places to live. Now, in a bid to ease congestion downtown, the government wants to make these satellite cities desirable places to live in their own right.

One such suburb is Qingpu, with lies about an hour’s drive west of the metropolis and attracts day trippers due to its picturesque green spaces and the ancient water village of Zhujiajiao. Away from the picture-perfect old town, however, are swathes of drab residential and industrial buildings that the municipal government wants more people to move to.

Shanghai’s Grand Plan for Suburbia: Avoid Becoming Like L.A.

There are many reasons why Shanghai residents, however, are staying away. For one, Qingpu only has about a dozen metro stations for an area almost as big as Singapore. Getting a seat in the morning for the long commute into the city can be tough.

Under a new plan announced earlier this year by the municipal government, a cluster of new cities will be built in Qingpu and four other suburbs in the hopes that they’ll be vibrant and economically viable enough to draw people from Shanghai and elsewhere to live and work there. If successful, the cities could each have a population of 1 million by 2035, while their total gross domestic product could reach $168 billion by 2025 -- equivalent to nearly 30% of the current economy of Shanghai, China’s financial hub.

It’s easier said than done. The suburbs where the new cities will be built -- which also include Jiading, Songjiang, Fengxian and Nanhui -- remain largely a huge sprawl of farmlands and factories, with relatively limited public infrastructure including transport and quality hospitals and schools. Without those amenities, residents of those suburbs will continue to travel into Shanghai proper, often by car and through severe congestion.

Shanghai’s Grand Plan for Suburbia: Avoid Becoming Like L.A.

It’s the sort of traffic nightmare found in other mega cities in the world, and one that Shanghai’s planners say they want to avoid.

Wu Jiang, professor of the College of Architecture and Urban Planning of Shanghai’s Tongji University and an adviser for the city government, said China should draw a lesson from the development of Los Angeles.

“We must avoid that in China. It (Los Angeles) is a city without any planning,” Wu said at a recent briefing for journalists during an organized visit to Qingpu, highlighting in particular the city’s poor public transportation system.

Ambitious Plans

The Shanghai government has pledged to expand the metro network and other public transport infrastructure in the suburbs. The new towns will also be more closely connected to other cities in the Yangtze River Delta, such as Suzhou, through building railways and highways. The delta is China’s most developed economic belt, accounting already for about a quarter of the country’s GDP.

Wang Yanyan, a retiree who purchased two apartments in Jiading, northwest of Shanghai, seven years ago, said she’s happy living there overall due to the improving physical environment. A major disadvantage, however, is that the closest subway station for her is 20 minutes from her home by bus.

“We hope the situation will be improved soon, as the government has said in its plan it hopes to build more stations,” said Wang.

In addition to transport upgrades, the municipal government is trying to recruit more medical professionals to the suburbs, with hospitals there recently holding a joint employment fair.

“Public services are highly concentrated in the city center. The model must change for new town development,” said Li Jian, a senior researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

The government has ambitious industrial plans for the new cities too. Economic planners say that the cluster will host companies in high-tech sectors. For example, tech titan Huawei Technologies Co. signed an agreement last year to build a new R&D center in the west of Qingpu. The Nanhui new city, located near Tesla Inc.’s gigafactory, will focus on artificial intelligence, aerospace, integrated circuit and biomedicine.

Not forgetting that the cities ultimately also need to be livable, local authorities have asked architects including Australia’s Hassell Studio to share ideas on how to develop a riverbank area in Jiading.

Shanghai’s Grand Plan for Suburbia: Avoid Becoming Like L.A.

All this development, however, is more than just a matter of urban planning, for even in municipal matters, the cloud of geopolitical tensions looms large.

The project will no doubt be a major economic boon for Shanghai, and fits broadly with China’s plan to further drive urbanization and increase the share of domestic consumption in the economy. Those goals, however, have attained a new sense of urgency in the face of weakening external demand amid worsening relations between China and the U.S. and other democracies.

The focus on high-tech industries in the new towns, for example, include sectors that have fueled trade tensions with the U.S., and that have been earmarked as strategic emerging industries that China aims to dominate.

Shanghai has been successful in the past in developing new towns, such as the transformation of the Pudong New Area in the city’s east, now home to more than 5 million people and the China headquarters of the likes of Citigroup Inc. and HSBC Holdings Plc.

However, Li, the researcher at the government think tank, struck a more cautious note for Shanghai’s new grand plan. He said that Pudong’s development over three decades was possible due in part to an influx of foreign capital and technology driven by globalization.

“We’ve lost the kind of winds that used to be on our backs,” Li said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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