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The greening of Shanghai is not just imagination

IN 1910, novelist Lu Shi'e predicted that Shanghai would have had subways in 100 years. His "subway dream" came true - much sooner.

This may be overoptimistic, but in another 100 years, I am tempted to say, Shanghai will become dramatically greener, surrounded by a garden of forests and flowers. High-rises and glitz won't be Shanghai's only distinction.

As I said, my view may be too rosy, but I do take hope from what I see and read.

If you know Century Park and love it, there's great news: by 2015, Shanghai will have added public green space equivalent to around eight Century Parks every year for the past decade (Xinmin Evening News, June 13). These will be located in outlying areas, of course.

Shanghai isn't very green when you consider the majestic promenade of the Bund or avenues of Lujiazui.

But even in these two areas, a scattering of trees, parks and low-rise buildings can be spotted quite easily.

Last Wednesday, I stood on the balcony of a tea house overlooking the Huangpu River, and was surprised to see beneath me a large stretch of old two-story houses, bordered on one side by a park full of tall trees.

I used to complain about a Shanghai full of high-rises, too full, but maybe I didn't see the forest for the trees. Maybe I didn't climb high enough to see what else is out there.

Many Western friends, upon their first visit to Shanghai, tell me they are amazed to see row upon row of two-story, red-roofed houses sown around high-rises.

A few months ago, I accompanied an Australian friend to Gucun Park in northern Shanghai, and she couldn't believe her eyes: she saw many birds and gulls darting through forests from dawn to dusk. She had known high-rise Shanghai for a long time.

Construction of Gucun Park began in 2007 and it will be three times the size of Century Park when it is completed in a couple of years. A similar park will rise in the western suburbs of Shanghai, where I now live.

My neighborhood, harboring 408 families, is also like a beautiful garden, bordering Metro Line 17 (under construction) and flanked by rolling farmland and greenery.

Compared with Hangzhou City, Shanghai is far from green enough, largely because Shanghai was an industrial, manufacturing and is now a financial services hub, while Hangzhou has mainly been a tourist destination.

But there is reason to believe that Shanghai will become greener and take its place in a beautiful China. This is not wishful thinking. My view is not just based on the increasing appearance of green space.

It seems to me, and to many economic planners, that Shanghai has already reached the pinnacle of its monumental, high-rise era. It's time to come down. It can, and should, no longer continue to build upward, but needs to adopt a more humane mode of urban development - one that is more low-rise, mixed-use, people-friendly and green.

This is not to turn Shanghai into what it was before it became a treaty port in the 1840s: a countryside. There's no turning back, despite naive hopes of some extreme environmentalists. To them, Shanghai has no green future unless it changes full-circle back to a countryside.

Best of both worlds

An ideal Shanghai will have the best of both a city and a countryside. If there's one big mistake in Shanghai's modernization process since the 1840s, it may be that it has separated farmland from city proper, thus preventing urban and rural species from living cheek by jowl.

In Hangzhou, the ancient eight-diagram royal farmland still sits in the center of the city, and, on average, a couple of hours' casual walk will take you from your downtown office to a rural cottage. You may call Hangzhou a city, but I call it a ruralized city.

In fact, there's no point in juxtaposing a city and countryside. In "Triumph of the City," author Edward Glaeser says: "Echoing antiurbanites throughout the ages, Mahatma Gandhi said that 'the true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its 700,000 villages' and 'the growth of the nation depends not on cities, but [on] its villages.' The great man was wrong. The city has triumphed."

If Gandhi's was a simplistic conclusion, so was Glaeser's.

Shanghai's future defies any simplistic delineation between urban and rural, high and low, fast and slow. It's neither a city, nor a countryside.


 

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