riverfronts, the good, the bad and the ugly

Rivers are redeeming features for any city. I’ve lived in quite a few that are mostly or partly defined by their rivers and haven’t come across any for which their riverfront was a total negative. However, what cities do with and to the rivers can  enhance but also obliterate most of their positive potential. Shanghai is working hard to make the most of it.

The Huangpu river, a geographic dwarf (a length of only 113 kilometers), but a commercial giant, cuts right through the center, separating Puxi (West of the Pu), the historic Shanghai with its Bund and international concession areas, and Pudong (East of the Pu), of the post 1980s financial centre of Lujiazui and its skyscrapers. The city and its district governments have a policy of riverfront redevelopment that focuses on ensuring as much public, contiguous traffic free space as possible. Based on what I’ve picked up from the Shanghai daily and hearsay from acquiantances, it looks like the medium-term ambition is to pedestrianize most of the core 25 kilometers of  the Huangpu from the Shanghai Fashion Centre to the forner Longhua airport on the Puxi side and from the Xupu bridge to the grain silos just South of the Yangpu bridge on the Pudong side. That is 50k+ of pedestrianized riverfront!

Huangpu riverfront

The Huangpu river cutting right through the inner ring road area of Shanghai

There is a long way to go but even in the two years I’ve been living here new bits and pieces have been added to what was already public traffic free waterfront. Everyone knows the Bund, most are aware that the Pudong side opposite also has a promenade, but surprisingly few people have actually gone all the way to its current Southern end where the Zhangjiabang flows into the Huangpu. On the Puxi side, North of Suzhou creek, the riverfront redevelopment is still limited, but in between the cruise terminal green and the Shanghai Fashion center, two more bits have opened up during the last couple of months. The opposite Pudong side was already further developed and it looks like the whole stretch between where the promenade currently ends to the grain silos may be opened up within the next two years. Going South from the Bund, the connection with the cool docks area looks well under way, and the South Bund promenade is going to extend both South (connecting with the former Longhua airport redevelopment) and North (at least as far as Nanpu bridge – including the expo2010 area on the Puxi side. South on the Pudong side, the former expo area needs further redevelopment but the potential is obvious, Houtan park is open (and connected to the expo’s Shibo park) and South of it the riverside is also a park but not yet publicly accessible. From there it is still quite a stretch to Xupu bridge but Qiantan is building up quickly and its Southern part between Sanlin and the Huangpu is currently the largest contiguous bit of land made ready for redevelopment that I have come across in all my explorations of Shanghai.

If Shanghai is a good example of riverfront development, Cairo is a bad one. Every little bit of riverfront is privatized and only accessible to the fortunate few. Without the view of its bridges and the occasional little bit of sidewalk overlooking the river, the majestic Nile is all but invisible. Sure, one can find places with a view, rooftop terraces, pricey riverside  restaurants, and there is the one redeeming option, boat rides, but the citizenry of a metropolis deserves more, needs more, and needs it for free.

And then there is the ugly: Kathmandu’s Bagmati river is a sewer, despite an ongoing clean up campaign. And besides that, the river banks apart from some historic ghat areas (including Pashupatinath) were on the outskirts of the city until quite recently, and incorporation into the urban landscape was often through slum settlement. Current planning seems to focus on evicting slum dwellers and (crappy) road building.

The other cities I’ve lived are more of a mixed bag, with Nijmegen at the good end, Phnom Penh at the acceptable one, and Varanasi remaining in a league of its own.


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