Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition

By Bryan • china, urban planning • 16 May 2009

This will have been my second time visiting this exhibition, the first being the summer of last year. I was expecting that with a year of planning studies behind me I would come at the exhibit from a different perspective. 

What I liked about it…

Preservation and emphasis placed upon physical modelling. Physical modelling could be a lost art, possibly due to the time and expense of creating such displays.  But they are incredibly effective, especially this one.  Nothing says our plan is awesome like a model.

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But that is generally what I liked about it during my first visit.

I realized this time that, like Shanghai, the exhibition is image…and an amazing image.  I was hoping that I would be able to pick out the processes that I had missed during my first visit, but I came to understand that they were probably never there in the first place.  I was looking for the the how within the what.  The main goal is articulated with the physical plan, but I wanted to see some objectives, some secondary goals and some implementation processes.  Maybe it is there, hidden among the Mandarin characters…

I just got image…but I suppose that is my elitist planning criteria coming out.  When you prepare for the public, image is everything.

This time around I also was more acute to the political nature of the exhibit, probably most prominent in the ground floor murals and the ideal neighbourhood demonstrating the goal of removing old and dilapidated neighbourhoods with the “ideal” replacement of modern high rises. The government benevolence and narcissisms are blazing.

Statistics regarding how many square meters/kilometres of old shikumen housing was destroyed is strongly highlighted displays on the 4th floor.  I approach such massive urban renewal schemes with my obvious western planning bias and can’t help but see such projects as destroying generational neighbourhoods and their peri-public opens spaces (shared alleys) and street life with segmented and lifeless high rise developments. Is it wrong?  Is it what people want?  Are they even asked?  Who knows.  I easily agree that a lot of the older housing stock deserved to be demolished, but the strong emphasis placed on the greatness of the new forms and the clear righteousness of the planning decision-makers doesn’t jive well with my cultural DNA or what I have been taught to be good planning practices.  Even then, the foundation of good planning practice to most westerners is public participation, something that hardly exists here. That raises the big question.  If the approaches are so polarized, does western planning really has anything meaningful to offer China outside of urban design and maybe some technical methodologies? 

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Interestingly enough, the ideal neighbourhood was one of the only sections to make use of English in a meaningful way – as if this was what they wanted the international community to take out of the whole exhibit.

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