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May 17, 2021

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City moves to decentralize its urban core

Look at the many challenges confronting any megacity today: dense population, traffic congestion and constrained room for expansion. That, in a nutshell, explains why Shanghai is embarking on a radical program to build on some new cities on urban fringes to relieve pressure on the downtown area, and sustain its growth momentum.

The program, which will dramatically change the city’s structure, is part of the “five new cities” project. It will essentially decentralize the urban population by developing relatively self-sufficient population hubs in the outlying districts of Jiading, Qingpu, Songjiang and Fengxian districts, and in the Nanhui area of the Pudong New Area.

At a press event last month, members of a government think tank involved in developing those plans explained some of the concepts behind the “five new cities” — some of the new cities were first developed two decades ago.

Wu Jiang, president of the Shanghai Urban Planning Society and former executive vice president of Tongji University, told the media that the history and unique characteristics of each new population hub are being incorporated into the planning.

He cited the ancient culture of Qingpu as one example worthy of preservation.

Wang also said the human element is an important factor in development, along with improved public transportation and services that will allow residents of the cities to go about their daily lives without having to commute long distances to the city center.

“According to our vision, these new cities will hold populations in excess of 1 million each — a huge city by any standards,” he said. “Thus, it’s necessary to make them self-sustaining. That leads to livability, which in turn attracts talent and professionals.” The arrival of trained and educated labor will encourage technology companies and high-end manufacturing to move in.

Wu said ordinary citizens will also weigh in by suggesting how to make the new cities havens of comfort, convenience and eco-friendly living. The new cities would feature the so-called “15-minute neighborhoods,” providing services, entertainment and shopping within walking proximity.

Wu said the unique characteristics of each new city will be wrapped into their development, to avoid repeating the mistake of churning out many lookalike new cities. The new city in the Qingpu District is one example.

“Qingpu is steeped in history and a culture that reflects the region south of the Yangtze River,” he said. “Thus, areas like that were obvious choices for sub-centers.” Located in a low-lying areas dotted with lakes and crisscrossed with waterways, the district is home to some of the most picturesque watertowns in the city, being soaked by water flowing from nearby Taihu Lake, the third largest fresh water lake in China. The extensive wetland and an intricate network of water system play a crucial role in regulating ecosystem in the area.

Therefore, Wu said, protecting the environment will be a core focus in developing the new cities.

Shanghai, a city of some 24 million permanent residents, has traditionally evolved like most big cities in the world. From a central core, it sprawled ever outward, paving over agricultural areas in its path. Newly developed suburban cities basically became bedroom communities of residents who had to endure time-consuming commutes to work in the inner city. Subway provides a more efficient and reliable option for commuters, but during the morning rush hours, getting onto the train, or getting into the station, can be intimidating.

The improved new cities would effectively allay such concerns. These new cities are designed to provide the amenities of downtown living, and their relative independence means that most residents would be spared the misery of long commutes.

Another urban planning expert speaking at the recent press conference was Tang Zilai, professor of the Department of Urban Planning at Tongji University.

He agreed that the new cities are independent, but stressed that the new cities need a solid base of industry and commerce that taps into Shanghai’s strategic position as a gateway city to the Yangtze River Delta region inland and to the greater outside world.

Tang said the new city will “empower” by applying smart manufacturing technologies, dependent upon existing industries, policy incentives, and market opportunities. The positioning of the new cities should be better understood in the context in which the concept was first brought up.

In the city’s 14th Five-year Plan (2021-2025), the city’s blueprint is summed up in an aspirational 16-character statement, namely zhongxin fushe, liangyi qifei, xincheng fali, nanbei zhuanxing, or, literally, “centrally radiating, taking off on both wings, new cities empowering, and transformation at north and south” (the two wings refer to the construction around the Pudong International Airport and the rail hub around Hongqiao Airport, while the transformation refers to the Baoshan (with Baosteels) and Jinshan (with chemicals plants) districts. Tang said that while the new city assertion is of paramount importance, the 16-character statement also mentions the relationship between the center and the peripherals.


Therefore, the empowerment about the new cities will be viewed in light of the downtown city or even the Yangtze River Delta area. For instance, construction of Shanghai-Jiangsu-Huzhou railway started last year, with Songjiang expected to be a major hub.

Tang agreed that only when the new cities become charming, desirable places to live will talent and skilled labor flow to them.

Local infrastructure needs to be adaptable to changing needs, Tang added. For instance, recent research suggests that professional talent is highly mobile and often involves single or childless households. That suggests a need for smaller residences and more rentals.

The human element of the new cities is reflected in their attention to local needs. Tang cited a survey of professionals in the Zhangjiang High-Tech Park, which pointed to education of children as a key consideration in skilled labor choosing to live there. As a result, Zhangjiang today has some of the city’s best schools.

The third speaker at the media conference was Li Jian, a research professor of Institute of Urban and Demographic Studies. He said the traditional delineation between urban and rural areas in Chinese cities will be more blurred in the new cities.

New administrative practices will need to be adopted for the multi-centered concept of the city to be successful, Li added.

Although Shanghai officials formally unveiled the blueprint for the new cities early this year, much of the groundwork has already been laid, with each of the new cities being developed around a specific theme.

The new city in Qingpu will build on its rich water resources and scenic beauty spots to create an area of ecological development. Among its advanced industries will be research into hydrogen energy as a future power source.

Qingpu also has the advantage of inclusion in the nationally designated Yangtze River Delta Integrated Demonstration Zone. That positions it to both assist — and benefit from — trade and commerce as inland cities in adjacent Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces are developed.

That factor is a major reason why companies such as China Veterans Capital & Industrial Group, a leader in commercial application of artificial intelligence, are setting up major operations in Qingpu.

“With a base in Qingpu, it’s easy to radiate out to the broader Yangtze River Delta region,” company President Xia Haitian said. “This is the place where talent, markets, and related resources converge.”

In 2018, the group has started a project creating robots that can be used for medical purposes.

“We can center our sales head office and our research and development in Shanghai, while going to more spacious adjacent areas of neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces when we need more room for facilities,” Xia said.


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