Posted October 26th 2012 at 9:27 am by
in Fresh Eye Friday

Shanghai Then and Now: A View of Urban Development

Fresh Eye Friday: A view of Shanghai

A view of Shanghai that no longer exists

This is a view that no longer exists.  This part of my life is only a memory, sometimes recorded in photographs, other times replayed in my head so often I wonder if I’ve changed the original stories.

This is a view from my grandmother’s apartment, a unit in a mid-rise danwei (work unit) housing, built in Shanghai, China, at the beginning of the economic reform in the early 1980s.  Living quarters were tight so public space was everything outside your small apartment unit; people socialized in the open hallways and downstairs by the stairwell (so you can catch up on gossip from the elders before heading upstairs).  Unlike where she lives now, there was a strong sense of community where everybody knew everybody.

Living in the center of Jing An, the oldest district in Shanghai, meant there was no way rapid urban redevelopment in the 1990s would pass over such prime real estate.  By the time I had graduated college in 2007, years of negotiations between residents and the development company had finally concluded and one of the buildings was immediately torn down so that long term construction worker housing could be built (the brick layering in photo).  A commercial building and a hotel now stand in this area.

Shanghai: A new viewA new view

This is now my grandmother’s daily view: a lush green central park in a semi-gated community where nobody knows anybody because verticality doesn’t facilitate social neighborly interactions.

The cloud of smoke is from firecrackers- someone is either newly married or just moving into their apartment or both.  It’s fun to watch from the balcony to see if you can catch a glimpse of the bride and groom, but the rush of interest soon fades because after all, one is physically distant and therefore emotionally removed. There’s something solemn and unfriendly about how these buildings form a wall of exclusion, both in view and in access.

My grandmother likes the new apartment more than the older one: she says there are fewer mosquitos, more living space, and nice wood flooring.  But, I wonder if living in high-rise buildings for the elderly isn’t too dissimilar from living alone on an island, where your social network has fallen away and you’re afraid of stepping outside because the city you grew up in no longer looks like anything you remember.

Grace Zheng is a MRP/MLA dual degree candidate at Cornell University. Her thesis examines the culture of Chinese landscape architecture practice in Shanghai design firms. 

This post is part of the Fresh Eye Friday photo series.

2 responses to “Shanghai Then and Now: A View of Urban Development”

  1. Zach Hyman says:

    A wonderful entry, and accompanied by beautiful photographs! I’m a fellow CoLab contributor based in Chongqing at the moment, and I’m interested by your statement of verticality not being conducive to building social cohesion amongst residents. Recently I was talking the ear off of anyone who would listen about the changing social dynamics inside of high-rise apartment buildings, and one of my friends told me about a practice here in Chongqing of tenants moving into a floor of all residential building and starting an enterprise there. In one example he told me about, on the 12th floor of a nearby apartment building, on a floor of mostly young families and couples, there is a sushi restaurant that just opened up in one of the apartments. On the 16th floor of another building, a Chinese family recently moved in and opened up a pizza restaurant. While I have no data about how common this practice is, I think it’d be interesting to see how businesses such as these opening up on the floor of one’s apartment building might affect the social life of that floor’s residents.

    Just my two cents – keep up the great contributions!

  2. website designer says:

    Personally Grace, I would be happiest to see my grandmother in the newer building for the reasons your grandmother prefers the newer suite. However, I do agree with you that “verticality doesn’t facilitate social neighborly interactions” in the same way the most large cities don’t facilitate social neighbourly interactions when compared to smaller villages.

    I’m curious about the building in the older view of Shanghai. What were the horizontal… what look like rods on a frames, used for?