Shanghai Offers Template for Sustainable Cities

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly            7-25-16

By George Frantz

Here in the U.S. it’s rare to see “China” and “sustainability” mentioned together in a positive context. Generally forgotten is the fact that on a per-capita basis, China’s carbon footprint is just one-fourth the size of America’s footprint. A key factor in their much lower carbon footprint is the design of their cities and in particular their residential neighborhoods.

Using urban planning principles dating back 3,000 years, Shanghai’s city planners have created an urban fabric that emphasizes livability and quality of life for its residents, while grappling with the huge problems of growth. In the 1940s Shanghai’s planners also embraced the Garden Cities concepts espoused by English social reformer Ebenezer Howard and progressive American planner Clarence Stein.
The result is that, despite mind-blowing population densities and enormous growth, Shanghai is a highly livable city with quiet, attractive and eminently walkable residential neighborhoods.

While retaining the narrow alleys and walkways of the historic lilong neighborhoods and the very large city block (superblock) pattern dating to the Zhou Dynasty (1,034 BCE), the urban planners dramatically increased the spacing between buildings and introduced trees, shrubs, flowers and lawns into the urban core. Community green space (50-60 percent of the site), recreation centers and elementary schools were incorporated into these new urban enclaves.

Retail services would be provided by neighborhood commercial centers just outside the neighborhoods. Density would be maintained by building up—four to five stories instead of the historic two- to three-story construction.

Heavy automobile and truck traffic are directed around the superblocks, leaving the interior streets free of through traffic and available to pedestrians and bicyclists.

Today, pioneer Garden City neighborhoods such as Tongji Xincun, Caoyang Xincun and Yongjia Xincun continue to provide a quality of life not found in the urban core of American cities. Streets are still dominated by bicycles and pedestrians, and community greenspace and private vegetable plots are not sacrificed to driveways and parking lots.

Within the 45-acre Tongji Xincun superblock an elementary school, a kindergarten, a senior center, social hall, barber shop, tailor shop, dry cleaners and three produce stands all operate within a five- to 10-minute walk of homes. Just beyond the entrances to the neighborhood are the larger shops, supermarkets, restaurants, banks and other services along Zhongwu Road. The Line 10 Metro Station entrance is just outside the neighborhood.

The concept of high-density, walkable neighborhoods is strongly reiterated in the 2040 Master Plan for Shanghai currently being written. Under the plan’s “15-Minute Community Life Circle” concept, residents will have available within a 15-minute walk adequate public park space, schools, social and health care services and facilities, shopping and multiple options for public transportation.

Look skyward in any neighborhood in Shanghai and you see other signs of sustainability. China’s late development has enabled it to leapfrog over natural gas and use thermal energy. Today around 85 million households in China (about one in every five) rely on solar energy for their hot water. Coal-fired central heating plants are being superseded throughout the country by highly efficient electric heat pumps that also enable China to invest in wind and other sources of renewable energy instead of natural gas infrastructure.

Clothes dryers are practically nonexistent, but there appears to be an entire industry in China dedicated to clothesline technology. From five-star hotel rooms to the upper floors of highrise apartment buildings, the technology ranges from retractable clotheslines in the bathroom to retractable metal frames extending out from the windows and balconies of apartments. In Shanghai alone the billions of BTUs not consumed by clothes dryers represent 2 million to 3 million tons of greenhouse gases not generated each year.

The residents of Shanghai still confront major environmental issues and sustainability challenges. But despite the headlines, all is not lost. In fact, in many areas the Shanghainese are well ahead of the United States in responding to the crisis presented by climate change. Their city and their lifestyles offer many positive lessons for us.

And one such lesson is not how our cities should grow, but rather how they should shrink toward a more sustainable future. Consider this: if the population density of the city and the town of Ithaca, Cayuga Heights and Lansing were just one-quarter that of Shanghai, we could all live on the flats between Six Mile Creek and Stewart Park, West Hill and East Hill, walking, biking or taking transit everywhere, and dispensing with our automobiles and other obstacles to a sustainable future.

George Frantz is a land use and environmental planner and visiting lecturer in City and Regional Planning at Cornell who has been studying urban design, open space and urban agriculture in Shanghai China since 2011.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles