Lessons from Shanghai

AS one of the participants in the recent conference on Peri Urbanisation at Tongji University in the Yangpu District of Shanghai, it was not easy to ignore the modern cum traditional city and the helpful and enthusiastic students of the university, especially those from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

The conference was jointly organised by Tongji University and the East-West Centre based in Hawaii. The centre's research programme conducts collaborative studies and policy analyses on critical issues of common concern in Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. Established by the US Congress in 1960, it was set up to promote better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the region.

Tongji University is renowned for its engineering, business and architecture programmes. Its civil and transport engineering programmes are ranked No. 1 in China. It is the first university that introduced urban planning into China, whose key programme is designated by the relevant authorities of both the national government and Shanghai Local Government. Besides, the university is active in promoting co-operation and exchanges with other countries. In 2006, there were 1,829 international students.

Shanghai, which literally means "above the sea", is on the eastern coast of China where the Yangtze River flows into the East China Sea and ultimately the Pacific Ocean. It is a very large city, both in terms of geographical size and population. The city is spread over 6,341 sq km and its population in 2016 stood at 24,150,000.

Only two other cities are bigger – Tokyo with 37,833,000 residents and Delhi with 24,953,000 residents in 2014.

The heart of Shanghai is the Bund, in the Huangpu District, which is well-known for its waterfront promenade lined with colonial-era buildings. The Bank of China Building and the Peace Hotel stand out among the rest because of its lavender lighting in the night. The famous shopping street, Nanjing Road and the sprawling Yu Garden are in the vicinity.

Across the Huangpu River is the breath-taking futuristic Lujiazui skyline of the Pudong financial district. Even to casual observers, there are many skyscrapers around. In fact, the 2,037 ft high Shanghai Tower is the second tallest building in the world. Only the 2,717 ft Burj Khalifa in Dubai is taller. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the 101-storey World Financial Center are also clearly visible.

Among the interesting features of Shanghai are the wide pavements in front of shops and department stores. They are easily double the width of the pavements of George Town or Kuala Lumpur. More importantly, the pavements are relatively clean, at least those I saw.

Although the public transport system is efficient, many people still use bicycles. As the pavements are very wide, pedestrians have to share them with cyclists. In fact, many motorcyclists also use the pavements.

China bike-sharing startups, such as Ofo and Mobike, were launched last year. Since then, many Chinese have taken up bike-sharing to replace taking the subway or even walking. Bikes of specific colour and design can be seen on almost every street corner.

Anyone looking for a bicycle to rent and ride can open his down-loaded app in his Smart Phone, unlock a bicycle parked nearby and pay a fee which is one reminbi for every half hour, when the cyclist arrives at the destination. Students are encouraged to use the bicycles and they get special discounts.

It is common to see people queuing on the pavements waiting for their food from traders who prepare the food in front of their shophouses. They are similar to the hawker stalls in Penang.

Despite the large population and physical size, Shanghai is relatively clean compared to other Asian towns and cities.

Shanghai has grown tremendously in the past two decades in terms of economic and physical changes at the expense of environmental and social costs. In 2010, the urbanisation rate was 89%. With global integration, the peri-urban area is being exploited and become a favourite destination for foreign direct investment.

As a result, young migrant workers from the rural areas flock to the city to look for jobs, leaving empty homes and farming to their parents. Their sole aim is to make as much money as possible to send home.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com