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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Welcome to the Good Life?

“One city, nine towns.”  This is the initiative passed by the Shanghai Planning Commission in 2001, calling for the creation of nine new urban developments outside of the Shanghai city center to provide an alternative living condition.  Thames town in the Songjiang district, and Zhujiajao in the Qingpu district were two towns we toured a week ago, Thames town a new development, and Zhujiajao an ancient river town around which a new development is being planned.  Visits to their respective urban planning exhibition halls preceded our arrival, as we learned of the district’s new plans for urban growth in the area.  What was most interesting about these new developments was their seemingly “reverse” urban strategy.

As we have studied over and over, the development of great cities is wedded to the infrastructural networks that sustain them.  Following this notion, airports, train lines, subway systems and highways often develop simultaneously with the city itself, if not before.  Thames Town and Zhujiajiao’s development strategy has proposed the opposite; Build first, infrastructure later.  Neither town has it’s own metro station in place or any semblance of a major transportation hub.  Our group arrived by bus to both locations, after more than an hour travel time from Shanghai’s center.  So what of their success and vibrancy, without a critical infrastructure in place?  In Thames Town’s case, it is quite dead.  Empty streets, vacant shops and restaurants, a strange ghost-town feel pervades the atmosphere.  The only sign of life comes in the form of young Chinese newly-weds, who flock here for a photo shoot against the picturesque English market town backdrop, after which the architecture is modeled.

Zhujiajao is much more promising.  Woven through the context is a small river, from which the life of the historical village thrives.  It is along this waterway where the most vibrant street life can be found… hundreds of small shops, cafes, restaurants and residences line the riverbanks, and crowds of people wander through the narrow streets and over the bridges of this old fabric.  A Far East Venice, if you will.  Interestingly enough, this small river which now only serves tourist boat rides was once a major infrastructural artery, providing transport and goods into and out of the village.  Even though it cannot be considered a major piece of infrastructure in the contemporary sense of an urban node, it was still essential to the sustainment of the area, and eventually the decision to develop around it.  The new development under Shanghai’s initiative seems to be working as well, and feeding off of the inner-vibrancy of the waterway.  Quite literally, this historical pocket is being left alone, as new development is building up around it.

Another question to ask of these new development models concerns their legitimacy within a larger urban agenda.  As mentioned before, the goal of the “one city, nine towns” initiative is to provide a different living condition from the “suffocating” city center.  In doing so, many of these towns are appropriating new, undeveloped land around the periphery of central Shanghai.  This could have a negative affect however, and result in vast urban sprawl and inactivated developments, especially due to the missing infrastructure.  As Robert A.M. Stern argues in his piece Urbanism is About Human Life, “We don’t need new cities; we need to reuse and make better use of our existing urban areas.  We don’t need to take new land; we need to reclaim wasted, abandoned land.”  I am not arguing that Shanghai should not be expanding, but only to consider solving some of its urban issues from more of a “compact urbanism” standpoint, from which more broad scope urban tactics can be reasoned.   If “urbanism is about human life”, than our urban interventions should respond to it, and enhance it.  Developments like Thames Town seems to be completely re-defining what life is for Shanghai; Cobblestone streets, red brick buildings, and Victorian churches couldn’t be further away from city life, and as of now are proving unsuccessful.  New life doesn’t necessarily mean better life.  Ultimately, we should continually remind ourselves of the questions Stern asks… “What is a good city?  What is the good life that we as architects should advocate?”

Alex

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Filed under: About, China, Infrastructure, Robert A.M. Stern, Shanghai, Thames Town, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Urbanism Is About Human Life, Zhujiajiao

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu