Shanghai on the brink of becoming a global city

Imagine a city in which you can get from the airport to the city within a couple of minutes after landing by a high-speed electric train running at 430 km/h; in which a metro network of almost 600 km renders cars needless, and a phone application renders cash dispensable because you can manage everything, from shopping to paying bills, with using a QR code; in which you can make appointments with your hairdresser or at your sports centre by your phone, and you do not need to spend time with shopping because you can buy everything for delivery straight to your home, saving time to spend with your family, leisure, or – as it is most expected in the modern world – work.


There have been many visions describing the “city of the future” with similar ideas. But the description above is not a utopia, but parts of the everyday life of completely average person living in Shanghai – and emphasis is placed on average, that is widely spread, here.

In history, Shanghai has always been regarded special. More than one and a half centuries had to pass for the city to transform from the eastern bridgehead of the West and then the neglected big city of Mao’s China into the new showpiece of the country, which wants to meet the challenge of becoming into one of the major economic, financial and cultural centres of the 21th century in all aspects, no matter how much money and energy it takes.

Until the end of the 21th century, Shanghai was not more than an insignificant fishermen’s village. After the appearance of the British, however, it became one of the centre of opium trade by the early 19th century. The Huangpu River crossing the city, and the nearby Yangtze made Shanghai a primary commercial centre, because the goods arriving on see – opium, most of the time – could easily be forwarded on the rivers and canals into inland China.

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking, closing the First Opium War, stipulated the protection of British individuals and goods, and opened up the opportunity to establish trade posts, i.e. consulates. Stimulated by the example of Great Britain, soon the United States and France opened their own consulates in the city, because China presented such vast trade potential that everybody tried to exploit.

Shanghai lived its first golden age between the two world wars, when it was a major commercial of business centre of not only China bit the Far East. Several countriesheld so-called concession (extraterritoriality) rights in the city. In addition to the three most influential states – the British, the American and the French – Japan, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, as well as Switzerland and Brazil had considerable operations. The new business centre of the Far East attracted tradesmen and investors, as well as adventurers, from all over the world. Black trade flourished and opulent western entrepreneurs soon created an environment very similar to the milieu of European and American big cities. Early development presented endless business opportunities, and launched incredible careers. One of them was that of Hungarian László Hugyecz (Hudec), who became one of the most influential and renowned architects of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. He escaped from a PoW camp in Siberia, and made his way to China on a railway hand car, and then he left after the second world war as a wealthy and world famous architect. This excellent Shanghai architect of art deco designed more than a hundred of the city’s buildings, sixty-five of which survive. He is still considered one of the most considerable architects of Shanghai.

The economic and cultural vibe of the inter-war years, the fairy tale world of the city, wrapped in opium vapour and the lights of eastern lanterns, inspired several works of literature and films. According to some sources, Hungarian pulp fiction writer and playwright Jenő Rejtő also was inspired by mystic Shanghai, and the city served as a model for several of his exotic venues set in the Far East.

After the war, Shanghai secluded itself and was stagnating for decades. Owing to the economic reforms announced by Teng-Hsziao Ping, a rapid growth started in 1978, and the city has seen inexorable progress in the past four decades.


Nowadays, more and more articles and papers are about smart cities. Although there is no concensus around the term, and no standard definition exists, the notion of smart cities might be summarised as cities that innovatively utilize state-of-the-art technological solutions to foster the development of a better, more sustainable urban environment. It requires a developed infrastructure (human, educational as well as innovational, transport and cultural) the systems of which are interconnected, and, on the whole, they increase the standard of living and competitiveness.

Shanghai province covers an area of 6,340 km2 (approximately the size of Pest county in Hungary), in contrast with the figure from 1949, when the city had an official area of only 636 km2. In that year, the permanent resident number was merely 5.2 million; today it is 24.3 million. According to the data of the censuses, between 2000 and 2010 population grew by 6.5 million, that is, over 10 million people migrated from rural areas to Shanghai in past decades – presenting incredible challenges to the city, both infrastructurally and socially.

According to the census in 2010, the number of expatriates living in Shanghai reached 208,300. Excluding expats from Taiwan (44,900), Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and Macau Special Administrative Region, foreigners total 143,200 people, and their number is continuously growing. The dynamics of the local economy are well reflected by one of the facts in the Shanghai Fact Book 2014:  the city created 600,500 new jobs in 2013 and the unemployment rate has been roughly between 4 and 5 percent in recent years.

While in the 90s and early 2000s the world was fascinated by the modern high-rises springing up in the city, the main issue in Shanghai in the 2010s is how the sudden enrichment can be spent on sustainability, liveability and the raising the standard of living.


Transport is one of the foundations of the operations of a city. “Time is money” – if the majority of people have to crawl in traffic jams for hours, it costs some of their valuable working, leisure and free time, but, on the whole, it is detrimental to production.  An even more important viewpoint is that stress generated by traffic has significant impact on the everyday mood, the mental health of people and their relationships with their environments, thus, creating well-operating public transport is a key task.

Shanghai’s transport was not able to keep the pace of the population growth; since the 70s, people had to literally fistfight to get onto buses. After the 90s, the city has allocated almost all its resources to develop the metro network. While the first line entered operation in 1994, there are currently 14 lines in operation, and a maglev line of 29 km, connecting the airport and the city and running at a speed of 430 km/h. The network, including the maglev line, extends 588 km, but the extension of several lines and the construction of 8 completely new lines are planned to be finished by 2020. Public transport is extremely cheap, which boosts competitiveness. According to the latest city development strategy, the length of the metro lines will exceed 1,000 km by 2040. Speed is served by using a contactless card that can be used to access many forms of public transport, including metro and the maglev lines, taxis and buses, saving a lot of time and simplifying travelling. A bicycle revolution has just been unfolding, but infrastructure is already available. There is a separate motorbike and bicycle lane in almost every street, several bicycle-renting companies, similar to Hungarian Bubi, flooded the streets of the city with bicycles. The system in Shanghai has no docking stations, an application helps to find the nearest bicycle, which can be reserved and then left anywhere. Legal parking, however, if is rewarded with extra points, which can be used later. Registration via phone takes only 1-2 minutes, and a 30-minute use costs an amount equalling to HUF 20-40 – depending on the service provider –, in a city that is considerably more expensive than Budapest. Until the late 90s, millions of people used bicycles in Shanghai, but they were replaced by motorbikes and later cars. The city, however, cannot cope with congestions, despite the rapid construction of motorways, overpasses, tunnels and multi-storey roads. There are several attempts to restrict traffic, from unrealistically high registration fees to improving public transport, but currently it is hard to curb the motorization boom that started 10-15 years ago.

Shanghai pays special attention to tackling noise pollution. Electric cars are popular and widespread, and the average age of cars, compared to even to Budapest, is young, thus the city is surprisingly quiet. It has many reasons: in addition to quiet cars, noise is reduced by the high quality of roads, the relative distance of buildings from roads, and the ever-present lines of trees absorbing sounds, but noise is considerably reduced by the fact that only electric scooters are allowed in the city. The traffic of Shanghai’s two airports has to bypass urban areas, which is, for example, a significant source of noise in Budapest; similarly, helicopter traffic is also restricted.


In recent years, cultural investments have played a significant role in urban development. Cultural complexes, similar or even larger in size than the Palace of Arts in Budapest, such as The Oriental Art Center concert hall, the Shanghai Symphony Hall, the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Culture Square have been constructed in the las 10-15 years. In addition, several other new museums have been built, and the city organised a world expo in 2010. These institutions always upscale their neighbourhoods, therefore cultural investments are considered a major tool of urban development.

It is a good practice in building new city quarters to have a library, convention centre, university campus or museum of exclusive design in the centre of the new quarter – and, as opposed to the American and Australian model, not a shopping mall. Not only is the cultural offer of the new sub-centre enhanced but an institution is immediately created to attract people from the city centre, promoting local properties.

Since cultural investments have to compete with the “sensations on offer” of the city coming up with something new every day, producing newer and newer skyscrapers, Shanghai “cannot think small”. A disadvantage is that size is one of the primary expectations, in addition to an extravagant look, but it is a frequent problem that the existing area is not exploited and filled with real content. Nowadays examples of natural development can be seen if a quarter is attempted to flourish by preserving existing values and reviving original functions; but the attitude of demolishing and re-building is still more typical, to which a lot of valuable buildings fall victim even nowadays. Unfortunately, heritage protection has a long way to go in Shanghai: lately, the city’s largest, traditional Chinese shikumen quarter has been demolished, and strong protests saved a late 19th century, Spanish Neo-Baroque church. Demolishment was scheduled because of the construction of a new cultural quarter, which could have been housed by the old buildings, but unfortunately these lack prestige in China.


It might be surprising for a big city of almost 25 million people to be astonishingly quiet. One more reason for that is that the leadership of the city and the districts spend immense energy on making the city green. Currently the rate of green space per capita is 7 square metre, but a regulation stipulates to increase it to 13 square metre.

One of the foundations of the increasingly popular Oriental mindset is creating inner peace and contemplation. The Chinese garden has very rich traditions, because even today, Chinese people have the need to tend to the health of their body and soul every day. In order to fulfil this need, a lot of new parks, ponds, canals and urban forests have been created to provide the opportunity for this essential recreation.

Digitalization is a way to make the urban lifestyle more comfortable and the time spent on commuting useful. Some years ago, Shanghai and the developers of the WeChat application – often dubbed as the Chinese Facebook – concluded an agreement enabling users to keep contact with the public utility providers of the city.

As a result, water, gas and electricity bills can be paid via WeChat. You don not need cash for days, because you can pay everywhere, from the largest shops to the grocery store on the corner, via phone, using such applications as WeChat or Alipay. All you need is a smartphone. Eliminating cash payments saves lots of time in everyday life. Similarly, personal shopping is also disappearing as online shopping has become general. Food ordered in the morning is delivered to your home during the day, but online shopping for clothes and other goods is becoming more frequent. However, the spread of digitalisation also has its downside. The old shopping streets of the city centre have to face losing their customers rapidly. In a fightback against the rise of e-commerce, all the historic department stores, built in classic European style, have recently announced togo through major renovations until 2018 in order to improve the shopping experience and attract costumers.

Nevertheless, digitalisation is addictive, posing serious social risks. It is a frequent sight in cafés and restaurants the all the guestsaround the same table are staring at their mobiles, instead of talking to each other. They meet but they are not together. In Japan, alienation caused by the internet world already has extensive literature, and obviously, the problem is aggrevating also in China.


Between 22 August and 21 September, the public could give their opinion on the plan the final version of which was compiled by October, and is called “Shanghai 2040” in short. As similar visions of most cities, Shanghai’s development plan is also extremely ambitious; but there are two reasons why this plan is unique: first, having seen the pace of development in the city in the past three decades, there is a good chance for its contents to be realized, second, as opposed to earlier development plans, economic indicators are not exclusive, but liveability, itself, and ultimately, people are in the focus of planning. To emphasise this, the city made several gestures towards its residents: the plan, unusually, was not just open to public opinion, but special attention was paid to the wording of the document to be easy to read for the public.

As it was told at the press conference presenting “Shanghai 2040”, the primary aim of the city is to become the fifth global city of excellence until the givendeadline, that is, to be mentioned together with New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, as a global city that can influence the processes of the world economy and world politics, and global cultural and technological trends. By 2040, Shanghai aims to become an international economic, finance, trade, shipping (already number one in the world) and scientific innovation centre, as well as a cultural metropolis.

In addition, it also aims to become one of the most liveable metropolises of the world, by strengthening five “happiness concepts” in the next decades: culture, tourism, sports, health and seniors’ care.

As opposed to the past, the city does not regard economic growth the only important factor; cultural and technological developments are equally weighted in its vision. Experience has shown that in the competitiveness of the four global cities a creative environment, maintained by the diverse cultural life of these cities, plays a major role. Competitiveness is also defined by liveability: these cities could not become attractive to those creating a creative environment if they were not pleasant places to live in. Shanghai’s leadership have recognised that “liveability” is also an economic factor.


In a city where population almost doubled by increasing by 10 million people within a couple of decades, creating urban communities has extreme significance. Those ten million people migrating from the countryside have lost their former lifestyles and often their cultural traditions as well, because they do not fit the city or cause problems in the new environment. Their children grow up seeing the parents unsettled in the world, and they take this psychological burden with themselves. To counterbalance this, the creation of urban communities related to the subcentres of the city quarters would be promoted. In addition to the social aspect, it is important because decentralization is essential for the operation of a city of 25 million people.

In order to resolve these issues, the plan includes the principle of “15 minutes’ walks”. It means that by 2040 such city structure will have been created in which all necessary public facilities are within a 15 minutes’ walk, providing basic public services for everyday life (grocery store, shopping mall, bank, park, sports facilities, etc.), and also providing family members with the opportunity to choose workplaces (office buildings) schools and eldercare facilities that are within a 15 minutes’ walk, preventing millions of people from commuting 20-40-60km distances to work or school daily.


It is obvious that a city of 25 million residents (if this commitment of the plan is fulfilled) must give priority to motor vehicle traffic. Years ago, an extremely high duty was introduced for issuing number plates, but it does not discourage people’s needs for individual transport, thus the goal is to create as efficient public transport as possible. Maybe learning from Tokyo’s problem, where millions commute up to 3 to 4 hours, Shanghai has targeted to reduce average commute below 40 minutes. For this purpose, the principle of “three more than 1,000 km” is applied in track-based transport.

Metro lines, 588 km at present, as well as the railway lines connecting the suburbs and Shanghai will reach a total of more than 1,000 km. At least 60 percent of Shanghai’s residents will be within 600 meters of a subway station, and all suburbs with a population of 100,000 or above will have a metro line. Interchanges will be quicker because changing lines from the same platform is considered as early as at the planning phase. An even more ambitious plan is about the revival of the city’s historic tram network: until 2040, more than 1,000 km of tram lines will have been constructed in Shanghai, because it would serve middle-term urban transport the best. This was already a plan in 2014, although at that time the target was to construct 800 km of new tram tracks. At a press conference held in 2014, the argument for trams was that tram’s capacity was ideally suited to suburban residential areas with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million, while no more underground space could be spared for the metro. The average distance between two metro stations in Shanghai is twice or three times more that in Budapest, thus it is not practical for travelling short distances, and the two modes of transport would perfectly complementary.

Tram development seems especially ambitious if we consider the fact that currently Melbourne has the most extensive tram network of 250 km. Nevertheless, only 10 km of these ambitious 1,000 km have been finished in one of the suburbs in Shanghai, and two other lines are expected to enter operation in Shanghai’s Western suburb, Songjiang in December. It demonstrates the fact that the area of the city is very disproportionally divided between individual and community transport. The greenest means of transport is not forgotten, though; by the end of the plan’s timeline, greenways of over 2,000km will be set up so that residents can enjoy walking, jogging and cycling. Leadership intends to radically expand bus lanes and set up Bus Rapid Transit routes; in the case of taxis, however, self-driving cars are not considered, although the development of that technology is going to boom, and the system is used in Masdar city, near Abu-Dhabi.


It is important for the leadership of the city that the master plan for 2040 should be in line with the development plan of the Yangtze River Delta region. Therefore, they consider the “Shanghai 1+6” region, that is, they intend to create an economic and cultural region by involving surrounding cities and their agglomerations. The six cities are Suzhou, Wuxi, Nantong, Ningbo, Jiaxing and the centre of the Zhoushan islands. Together with the cities involved in the cooperation, a region would evolve serving as a place of residence of 50-50 million people and being suitable to settle the masses of people who would still flow into Shanghai. In its development plan to 2020, the city limited its population to 25 million and the same target is set in the master plan to 2040. If the city, currently having a population of 24.3million wants to fulfil this commitment, there is not much room for manoeuvre; establishing a suburb ring seems an obvious solution.

Each city of the ring should be within 90 minutes from Shanghai’s major stations, which has already been realized Suzhou, Wuxi and Jiaxing, after the high-speed railways with a speed of 300 km/h were built. In order to enhance the regional role, Pudong International Airport is planned to be connected by intercity lines, which is again a large-scale commitment. Designers of the new region are aware of the fact that creating unity on the long term can be maintained with strengthening the shared cultural identity, thus they place great emphasis to the protection of cultural heritage. A number of medieval “water towns” have survived in the area; their preservation and renovation are given priority now, and their recognition as world heritage sites would strengthen the shared identity. Finally, such a new regional public administration model is intended to be set up that would efficiently implement developments across administrative boundaries and adequately coordinate the cooperation of the 7 cities. The evolving region would serve as the place of living of about 60 million people by 2040, and would provide adequate background for enhancing Shanghai’s global role.


Apparently, tremendous energy is devoted to turn Shanghai into a green city. The Chinese garden culture, with a history of several hundreds of years, seems to flourish again, and the central government has to make all efforts to counterbalance the increasing dissatisfaction caused by the intolerable smog with mood-boosting measures. Therefore, in Shanghai, where the dimensions of the city allow the creation of large green spaces, there is hardly any street that is not flanked by lines of sycamores or gingkoes. Remarkably, before the construction of new residential quarters, the adjacent, beautifully tended, vast parks are ready, and before entering operation, the wider roads are flanked by 4 to 6 lines of sycamore saplings, and it is compulsory to build parks of considerable sizes in the enclosed inner parts of residential developments.

The current urban regulation in Shanghai stipulates 13 square meters of greenspace per capita. At the moment, each of the 25 million residents has 7 square meters, but Shanghai 2040 sets this rate at 15 square meters by 2040.

According to the chapter on green spaces, ecological land will cover 60 percent of the total land area in the province, and forest coverage will reach 25 percent.

16 green rings will be established in the city. It will not cause any problems in the Pudong area, built across the river after 1990, because it was originally designed to have an extremely high ratio of green spaces, but the perceived lack of green space on the west side of the Huangpu river, in Puxi, has to be addressed in a similar way.

By 2040, each district is required to build an urban park with an area of some 100 hectares, and Shanghai province will boast more than 30 natural protection areas. Due to its climate, the city is extremely wet, and its area includes several smaller rivers, cabals and undrained marshland, and these untouched green spaces have extremely rich fauna and flora. The city’s green concept wants to promote their conservation and re-introduction. In addition, probably the most important commitment is establishing an open green space larger than 3,000 square meters in every 500 meters. Parks play an important role in the life of Chinese people. It is their daily routine to spend time in the nearest park twice or three times a day: in the morning, in the evening, and even at lunchtime. Since community life is also very strong, millions flood the nearest green space every day to do some exercise or thai chi or dance in the morning or in the evening. In addition to the health aspect, establishing parks is badly needed for social needs as well – therefore the commitment to build a park in every 500 m is not an exaggeration. As the first step, the city, relatively green already, plans to construct a 22-km long green riverside corridor along the Hunagpu river by the end of 2017. Parallel to the regulations on ecological land, the local government regulates the upper limit of built-up areas (3226 square km of 6340 square km), and several practical steps are related: in the future, surface public transport hubs and planned shopping malls must be built together, sparing area for green spaces, and sport fields and stadiums.

The development concept also includes provisions on improving the quality of air and water. Although the country has taken monumental strides to migrate to renewable energy, China alone spends more on renewable energy on an annual basis than the Unites States and the European Union together. Still, citywide carbon emission is expected to reach its peak in 2025.  A reduction of 15 percent off the peak rate by 2040 is set as a goal in the master plan. Shanghai 2040, however, also has its shortcomings: it does not emphasise the importance of selective collection, which does not seem to be spread in the city even in traces in 2016, and the use of plastic is not controlled, either, although it would be extremely important in a city where all products are wrapped in two or three single-use plastic bags in all kind of shops, from the grocery store on the corner to biggest shops, and in age when – according to the report of the European Committee – garbage patches of the size of the United Kingdom  and France together are floating in the world’s oceans.


The local government of Xuhui district announced in spring this year to open 16 new theatres as part of the renewed riverside promenade by 2019. Within the Dream Centre, six large venues, including a 2,500-seat theatre and an 1,800-seat interactive concert hall will be built along with 10 small venues for chamber plays. As in previous years, the city is investing incredible amounts of money to strengthen the “cultural industry”. Its aim is to be referred to as a cultural capital on a par with New York, London, Paris or Tokyo within 20 years.  Chances are excellent: in addition to being one of the centres of the Far East, it has rich European traditions from colonial times and buildings constructed in French, English, Spanish and American style still constitute a major part of city’s architectural heritage, not to mention the wonderful art deco buildings of Hungarian László Hugyecz. Diversity is part of the city’s history and identity. According to Shanghai’s extremelyambitious plan, 10 percent of its employees will work in the cultural industry by 2040. This is based on the plan to have 10 art galleries, two museums and five libraries for every 100,000 residents. Cultural institutions have had a major role in urbanization, because they have always been meant to make the subcentres of new quarters more attractive, and the same path will be followed also in the future. However, it is inconceivable without a more intensive internationalization, therefore Shanghai wants to open up towards expats and attract as many outstanding talents as possible, and fill their new theatres and concert halls with high-quality, diverse programmes. The plan aims at placing more emphasis on heritage protection, “preserving the originality of Shanghai”. In this field so far, however, a hotchpotch of results has been produced. The city cannot genuinely identify with the European era, hence the historic buildings are not always taken care of, and easily fall into decay or are demolished; but the traditional Chinese residential quarters, the characteristic Shanghai shikumens are not preserved, either.

One of the worst, and more and more frequent example is that original quarters are demolished, and then the houses and streets are built to seem old, but often with significantly different proportions. Sometimes the original side of the street front is kept, thus the difference is even more apparent. Not only does it lack any sensible heritage protection aspect, but tourists find them nothing but repulsive, since every corner of the new quarters reveals they are replicas, very far from reality, reminding passers-by of destruction instead of preservation. Hopefully, the city will soon value its past and its own architectural heritage, and recognize the value the villas remaining here and the old Chinese quarters, rare sights nowadays, represent, because only cities that can preserve and come into terms with their past have the chance to become global cultural metropolises.


Shanghai’s rapid growth in the past decades has astonished the world. The city’s latest, development strategy, spanning to 2040, will not only focus on economic growth but innovation, health preservation and liveability will have the same importance. By 2040, Shanghai intends to join the club of cities called “global cities”, and aims to become an international economic, finance, trade and scientific innovation centre, as well as a cultural metropolis. The recently issued urban development strategy contains a series of measures the adoption of which is considered important by the city to achieve the above goals.

Authors: András Szűts, Tamás Dani

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