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July 19, 2013

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Home » Opinion » Opinion Columns

Twinkling stars, how I wonder where you are

"WOW! So many stars!" My friends exclaimed as we sauntered on Sunday in the summer breeze in my suburban neighborhood.

My friends live on the Bund, where neon and other lights from cruise boats, high-rises and other urban structures usually block out the stars.

Despite the allure of twinkling stars in the suburbs, my friends do not visit us frequently. Their visit on Sunday was rare.

We are about 36 kilometers from the Bund. What should in theory be a 40-minute-or-less drive from the Bund to our neighborhood often degenerates into a one-and-a-half-hour road-rage ordeal due to traffic jams.

If they take public transport - subway plus bus - in an attempt to go greener, they must spend at least two hours on the road.

The reason is simple: despite rapid urbanization of the suburbs in Shanghai, as in many other Chinese cities, public transport linking the old urban area to the suburbs remains inadequate.

Take my Qingpu District neighborhood. It's the western most suburb and is being urbanized with a vengeance.

Villas and low-rise apartments have mushroomed in recent years to absorb people who cannot afford a decent home downtown.

But there is no subway or other fast public transport throughout the district yet.

For that matter, there are not enough schools and hospitals in suburban neighborhoods.

Building bubbles

To be sure, urbanization per se is not the problem. The problem is poor planning. As professor Stephane Garelli pointed out in an interview with Shanghai Daily last week, in some parts of Shanghai and of China as a whole, "The name of the game is just to build - build building bubbles" without scientific planning of public transport, water supply, sewage, electricity, security or balance between the city and the countryside.

Garelli is director of the World Competitiveness Center at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland. In his latest World Competitiveness Yearbook, he ranks China 21st among 60 countries and regions surveyed, up from 23rd from last year. But China scores very low on health and environment, among other factors in competitiveness.

Indeed, urbanization, a key contributor to China's economic growth - through investment and consumption - has frequently come at the expense of public health and the natural environment in the past year or two. When my friends got stuck in traffic jams on their way to my home, they actually "contributed" a lot of carbon footprints.

In January, Xinhua news agency quoted Shanghai's transportation authorities as predicting that traffic jams would only worsen this year. In peak hours, you won't be able to drive faster than 36 kilometers per hour even in the downtown areas' fast lanes.

The problem, as Xinhua explained, was the astronomical increase in the number of private cars versus the relatively lackluster development of public transport.

Shanghai now has 2.8 million private cars. If the number reaches 3 million, Xinhua reported, Shanghai's elevated bridges - designed as fast lanes - will become a mammoth parking lot.

In spite of the currently inadequate public transport at present, I am hopelessly optimistic. I believe Shanghai is running in the right direction. For example, Metro Line 17 will be completed around 2017, linking the entire Qingpu District to Shanghai's old downtown areas. When that day comes, it will take me less than an hour to go from my home to the Bund.

Real problem

The real problem for Shanghai, in my opinion, is not so much poor public transport - it can be solved over time - as the ever-ballooning population.

Laodong Daily reported on Tuesday that the population density of downtown Shanghai hit a historic high of about 24,000 people per square kilometer in 2012.

In an article published last August, Jiefang Daily said the population density of downtown Shanghai was about 2.4 times that of Tokyo, 3.5 times that of London and 4.8 times that of Paris.

Last year, urban areas accounted for 48 percent of Shanghai's total area, close to what Jiefang Daily called the upper limit of 50 percent. Which means Shanghai should devote at least half of its land area to the countryside, but the reality is worrisome.

In many ways, it's not a problem of Shanghai's own making, it's that many people, especially farmers from all over China, flock to Shanghai for jobs. According to Laodong Daily, of Shanghai's 23.8 million permanent residents, about 9.6 million, or 40.3 percent, are "immigrants" from outside Shanghai. And of these 9.6 million "new Shanghainese," more than 70 percent are farmers who have abandoned agriculture to eke out a living in Shanghai.

To a great extent, the exponential growth of Shanghai's population is a result of the massive inflow of myriad farmers leaving their withering villages across China.

Global miracle

To be frank, Shanghai's downtown areas are a global miracle for having accommodated 24,000 people per square kilometers with clusters of high-quality schools, hospitals and public transport. Convenience shops line the streets, so you don't have to drive a long way, as you often do in America, just for a watermelon.

The thing is that there's a limit to how many people a city can feed.

While developing the suburbs like Qingpu to divert newcomers to Shanghai, the city's urban planners should bear in mind that more subways and more roads do not necessarily make a better city. Don't flood the newly urbanized suburbs with people and high-rises that a beautiful city cannot support.

A beautiful city, as professor Garelli says, balances urban and rural areas, office space and living areas, factories and greenery.

It's a good sign that the central government has decided to focus on the development of clusters of smaller cities, to give mega cities like Shanghai a break.

But the devil is in details. Many so-called smaller cities are scrabbling to go bigger and bigger, building real estate bubbles at the expense of the natural environment.

People's Daily reported on Wednesday that a mountainous region in Shiyan, Hubei Province, had been leveled for the construction of row upon row of commercial apartments. "So many apartment buildings have been erected, but few people move in there," People's Daily quoted a witness as saying.

Dubbed "ghost cities," these uninhabited apartment buildings are everywhere to be seen in Shiyan and many other "smaller" cities, such as Wuxi and Changzhou in Jiangsu Province and Yingkou in Liaoning Province.

After these "ghost cities" drag down local economies over time, where do their workers and farmers go for a living?

Maybe Shanghai, once again.


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