First impressions need to be documented, they’re gone before you’ve noticed. Been in Shanghai now a week and still amazed with every new outing. It’s very familiar in a way, a bit of Singapore, a bit of Hong kong, a bit of Bangkok. It’s unexpected nevertheless, in its cleanliness, its luxury, its size, its landscaped and perfectly maintained greenery, its broad shaded sidewalks, its bicycle paths.
We’re living in Pudong, aka Pu-Jersey, a local (expat) pun that only makes sense if you’ve heard about the way New Yorkers seem to talk about their neighbors at the other side of the Hudson river, and know the meaning Pu-Xi (West of the Huang-Pu river) and Pu-Dong (East of the Huang-Pu river).
Pudong is less congested, more spacious and greener than Puxi, Shanghai proper, and obviously first impressions are determined by that. Within Pudong, we live in Jinqiao (approx 20 sq.km), an expat neighborhood, and within that in green city (approx 4 sq.km), which is like a bubble within a bubble. The contractors blurb says it all: After eight years of development, Green City has become a multi-cultural international community, with“Harmony between Man and nature”, various building styles, supreme ecological environment, and tailored for living mold of overseas comers. It is also the most populated and tailored residence for high-level overseas who have come to work or live in Shanghai.
But just a 1o minutes walk North of where we live a much more Chinese part of Jinqiao is to be found with small restaurants, small shops, foot massage parlours, a roofed wet market, some street food vendors, and hardly any long nose on the streets. We did our first longer Puxi-side walk last weekend and despite the bubble within bubble bias of my first impressions, they stood their ground.
I increasingly wonder if my strong reaction to this kind of city planning is rooted in my Dutch youth and the welfare-statist ethos I’ve been raised on. My country has long since changed course and, bewitched by a US-inspired the-market-solves-everything model, slides down the international public service provision and redistribution charts. But in my formative years, the Dutch state still pursued a traditional social/christen-democrat welfare state agenda. Every time I enter a Singaporesque environment like this the same thought surfaces: this is what they envisioned when they build the Bijlmer (a 1960s modernist housing estate in the Southeast of Amsterdam). But they never got it to work as it does here….
This interesting analysis on the Failed Architecture site about the what and why that went wrong with the Bijlmer and all other examples of post-war modernist planning includes a quote by Wouter Vanstiphout, head of the Design as Politics chair at the TU Delft, that rings very true:
The most indicative problem was the fact that it was precisely the collective elements of the Bijlmer that slipped through the cracks of the compartmentalized bureaucracy: they did not fall under the Housing Department – they did the homes; they did not fall under the Municipal Works Department – they did the roads. The Bijlmer was thus the victim of a lack of cohesion and a lack of top-down, autocratic leadership rather than being the ultimate product of cohesion and hierarchy.
A lack of top-down, autocratic leadership, spot on. Not that I am advocating autocracy, but it seems obvious that a public welfare agenda can only be realized if the private interests that are hurt by it can be held at bay.
This is not the place to speculate further about this thought but I find it noteworthy that European welfare states have been much better able to develop their collective social services sector (although it is frightening to think about how short-lived the hey-days of many of them have been), than to develop public infrastrucure. Autocratic systems often use public works to enhance their perceived legitimacy. So the democracy-autocracy dimension (they share more than most think!) must have something to do with it.
In the meantime, I enjoy my new public space. Given my misanthropic nature, the downsides of the benefactors responsible for them will reveal themselves soon enough. What would be more appropriate to evoke this than the bitter-sweet sounds of the blues, sounds from my youth at that.