Sizing Up a Mega-City

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008


"Have you been to Shanghai?" they ask, those who know the city, who know its size and its energy and its awesome spectacle of all things new and global. Old hands will assure you this city of some 20 million people is unlike anything you've seen before. It is big, like Mexico City. It is dense, like Manhattan. And it has been growing freakishly fast and in freakish directions, like Dubai, the city-out-of-sand on the Persian Gulf that is constantly laying claim (for about five minutes) to the tallest this, the biggest that, the most expensive whatever.

Even before you arrive you are reduced to a kind of childlike wonder.

"Are we there yet?" you might ask, as you fly over the city. The pilot has yet to give you the "we're about to descend" warning. The cabin crew has yet to collect the cups and napkins. And yet, you're already over the city. Apartment buildings in neat rows are everywhere beneath you, looking like identical capacitors and transistors glued to some massive circuit board. The plane has yet to make any of the groaning noises that presage landing, and yet you're still not done with the exurban overture to the city proper.

"Are we there yet?" is also the best question you can ask of the Chinese mega-city. The mega-city -- usually defined as a city with a population of 10 million or more -- isn't a new phenomenon, or one that China invented. Yet urbanists are looking to China (where Shanghai and Beijing are already mega-cities, and at least a dozen others are huge, if not "mega") to find the capital of the 21st century, rather like Paris was the capital of the 19th, and New York the capital of the 20th. And these urbanists (the profession that studies urban trends and design with varying degrees of academic legitimacy) are fascinated by Chinese cities, horrified by them, desperate to steer them away from environmental disaster and growing social anomie. Animating all this concern is a basic fact: The Chinese mega city isn't there yet. It is still growing. A migration unlike anything the world has ever seen is in progress, with hundreds of millions of rural Chinese flocking to cities.

The statistics are overwhelming. If China continues to urbanize, if it reaches levels comparable to the United States (around 80 percent urban), there could be a billion people living in its cities sometime in the not-so-distant future. Conservative, near-term estimates suggest that 200 million to 300 million people will leave traditional rural and village life for the economic opportunities of China's exploding urban areas over the next two decades.

Other cities are growing, too, and as fast or faster -- Lagos, Nigeria; Karachi, Pakistan; Mumbai -- but Shanghai is different, because it has money, and lots of it. Of all the "mega-cities" in the world, Shanghai is growing the fastest, economically, according to Xiangming Chen, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. So the city is expanding on all fronts: more people, with more money, who want more space.

It is said that to get a sense of this, you need to visit "the map." It has become one of the strangest tourist attractions in this city that doesn't lack museums, shopping or the distractions of nightlife. The map is located in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a history museum and a shrine to all things urban, located in People's Square in the heart of downtown. It is a 1:500 scale representation of the city, sprawling over 6,400 square feet -- and even then it all won't fit onto a full floor of the exhibition hall. It is surrounded by walkways, and it can be viewed from a balcony above. With the flick of a switch, artificial night falls, and its thousands of lovingly rendered buildings begin to twinkle. It is surreal, and beautiful, a bit absurd, and it seems to offer, in one comprehensive glance, a sense of the city in its massive, skyscraping, outward-spreading totality. Here, perhaps, one can absorb what it means to build some 10,000 high-rise buildings in a quarter-century.

Huang Qi Min is a modelmaker, and it is his company that makes and maintains this mini-colossus. Modelmaking is a competitive sport in China, and that's how Huang got his start. But in the early 1990s, when Shanghai was released from the economic and social strictures that kept its potential in check for more than four decades of communist rule, city leaders decided they needed some way to get a handle on it. The map was an early effort to take the measure of the city. And it just keeps growing. Every few months, Huang says, he must swap out the "white" buildings, which represent projects in the planning or drawing-board stage, for finished models, rendered in color. When necessary, he will walk on the Huangpu River to get to the center of the city.

The map, although it makes the city comprehensible and puts man in charge of it -- the modelmaker walks on water-- misses so much else. There are, of course, no people and no traffic. The thousands of construction sites spread around the city are missing, too. New buildings, on the map, happen as if by magic, without cranes and scaffolding and fences to hide the gaping pits and buzzing hives of migrant workers.

It also leaves out the darker facts of Chinese urbanization: the 750,000 premature deaths (according to the World Bank) caused annually by China's choking pollution. The map shows only construction, and none of the destruction, the loss of old neighborhoods in the center of the city, and with them, the loss of tradition and community. The map doesn't show the massive relocations necessary to reconfigure Shanghai for yet more millions of people. The tens of thousands of residents who have been moved to make new green spaces, to construct new bridges, to build new high-rises, are not heard from.

The map doesn't show you anything on the inside, the way urbanization is changing daily domestic life, the hour the alarm clock must be set to make the longer commute to work, the room you eat dinner in, or the "chicken-soup distance" -- the ideal safety zone that children want between them and their parents. On one level, the story of these changes is the story of any burgeoning city riding the wave of economic boom times. People want to live large, and they are moving to the city's edges to find more space. But there are some major differences. Shanghai, like most of China, largely sat out the second half of the 20th century. The social change here feels like a hopscotch across history.

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