Globalist Analysis

Shanghai's Coming Out Party

How does Shanghai’s hosting of the World Expo 2010 herald its emergence as a truly world-class city?

Takeaways


  • Surprisingly, for a city as vain as Shanghai, there are no superstar architects involved in the World Expo plans. There is no "Birdsnest" or "Watercube" in the works.
  • In the long rivalry between China's two great cities, this is Shanghai's time.
  • True to Shanghai style, the 2010 World Expo's clear aim is to reanimate the Great Exhibitions of a previous age.
  • At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, even the trees are made to keep up with Shanghai time.
  • Shanghai has gone into a frenzy of construction that is unlike anything any city has ever seen.

I have been living in the same apartment in downtown Shanghai for over two years, but in the last few weeks my neighborhood has been radically transformed.

Suddenly, across the street a new subway hub emerged. The street itself is constantly mutating. Teams of workers are busy planting full-grown trees that have just been shipped in.

Welcome to Shanghai circa 2010. Here, if you want to change your surroundings, it's best simply to stay still.

Since 2002, when the city won the right to host the World Expo, it was clear that 2010 would be the year that Shanghai would stage its coming out party.

In the long rivalry between China's two great cities, this is Shanghai's time. While it has yet to make headlines elsewhere, preparations for the Expo, billed here as the “cultural Olympics,” match — or even exceed — the build up to the Beijing Games.

Amazingly, almost every project announced in the city during the last few years had the same completion date. It almost became a joke.

Now as the big moment finally approaches — the official opening is set for May 1, 2010 — the countdown is relentless and inescapable.

Walk through an alleyway, wait to cross a main intersection, go to the library to check out a book — and somewhere, everywhere, a sign seems to be screaming out at you — 40, 39, 38 days left.

Without any doubt, the city has gone into a frenzy of construction that is unlike anything any city has ever seen.

Having lived here for most of the decade, I have certainly grown accustomed to expecting high-speed growth. I have seen entire neighborhoods vanish — and parks and skyscrapers magically appear.

Yet, nothing has prepared me for the mind-boggling change currently underway. The entire megalopolis is now being given a final push in the form of a major spruce-up.

Teams of migrant workers are everywhere — hanging from ladders, dangling from ropes. Brick by brick, they are replacing almost every sidewalk, painting almost every wall and fence, recovering every grid, retouching every facade.

Scaffolding is all around. Roads are dug up, piles of rubble block key passageways. Walking or cycling is often hazardous. Step out of a restaurant, gallery or club — however glamorous — and there they are, hard at work.

From the streets of Shanghai it is no surprise that China has been barely touched by the recession. Its biggest city is one gigantic stimulus machine.

Those zones that are truly impossible to “repair” are being covered up. For example, a huge block at Ulumuqi road and Wuyuan road — one that is filled with crumbling buildings and overgrown vegetation — is still up for rent. Recently a team of workers hid the entire block behind a massive billboard advertising — you guessed it — Expo 2010.

These “minor repairs” are overshadowed by the mega-projects that are currently underway. A few years ago I heard about a plan to bury some of the traffic lanes along the Bund, Shanghai's iconic waterfront strip.

Accustomed to a Western sense of caution and the slow pace of deliberated change, I naively thought it was just a suggestion — something that might be nice some day. But about eight months ago, the barricades went up and the tunnel was dug. The newly renovated Bund is due to reopen this month.

Every district, every major thoroughfare, is due for a similar makeover. Projects that have long seemed dead or stalled have been suddenly set into high-speed motion.

In Lujiazui, a pedestrian skyway is in the works, in Hongkou district a new waterfront, on Huaihai road, a string of new mega malls, on Nanjing road, a cluster of new super towers. All are due to open by May.

On Jumen road, which leads directly into the expo site, a once-seedy street of disused factories has been transformed into a vast “creative cluster” — one of more than 80 already in the city. It too will be ready for the Expo.

Long-term residents who have suffered from the seas of bulldozers, the near-constant sound of jackhammers and massive bouts of cough that inevitably arise when living in a film of dust, now have the pleasure of witnessing the city gradually unveil.

A major corner at Huaihai road and Changshu road — for months concealed by construction — was, just a few weeks ago, uncovered to reveal a subway stop with a small park on top.

At first, the trees were bare and there was nothing but mud. A few days later, however, everything was fully in bloom. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, even the trees are made to keep up with Shanghai time.

Surprisingly, for a city that is otherwise as vain as Shanghai, there are no superstar architects involved in the World Expo plans. In sharp contrast to Beijing, there is no “Birdsnest” or “Watercube” in the works.

Instead, the focus has been underground. In fact, the construction of the subway has been the most astonishing development of all. The network's vast and high-speed expansion is rapidly making Shanghai's subway system one of the most extensive in the world.

Subway stops are sprouting all over town, revolutionizing everyday life for millions of the city's residents. In December, two new lines — No. 7 and No. 9 — opened across the street. In another few weeks, line No. 10 is set to open with a stop only blocks away. When I first arrived in Shanghai in 2002, there were only three lines — and by the time the expo begins, there will be 13.

All this says nothing of the Expo site itself, a vast area straddling both sides of the river that divides Shanghai. This long-neglected zone — with its factories, warehouses and giant shipyard — belonged, up until about a year ago, to the city's industrial past.

Yet, it enjoys a surprisingly central location. Once developed, it has the potential to reorient the entire urban landscape of Shanghai.

Despite the fact that little is known about what will happen to the site once the Expo is over, the new high-rises that are being built nearby are rumored to be retailing at the exorbitant price of 80,000 RMB ($11,715/€8,122) per square meter.

True to Shanghai style, the 2010 World Expo is set to dwarf all other World Fairs in every conceivable way. It has an unprecedented budget, the largest area, the most participants and the biggest projected audience (the government claims 70 million visitors over the course of six months). Its clear aim is to reanimate the Great Exhibitions of a previous age.

Where all this will ultimately lead is still unknown. How the surface spectacle of a future metropolis will mesh with the city's complex reality is impossible to predict.

This much, however, is certain: If you want to know what to watch for in 2010, keep your eye on Shanghai.

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About Anna Greenspan

Anna Greenspan is an assistant professor at NYU Shanghai.

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