China final thoughts

Now that I am back home, I wanted to share a few final thoughts about my trip to China. One thing that became quite clear during my visit was how fully the nation’s leaders have discarded the wisdom of the Ming and Qing dynasties, which rejected outside knowledge. Each of the cities I spent time in exhibits how quickly a nation can come when it accepts best practices from around the globe (I wish we Americans were far better in this area). Although they are working within an authoritarian government, one of the great advantage of China’s ruling class is that they are far more educated compared with their counterparts in most ‘western’ nations. The Politburo Standing Committee’s training in engineering, science, and economics makes them very unusual, but also provides them with an understanding of the need to balance economic growth with enlightened environmental policies. I would say they have done a pretty remarkable job in achieving this balance, although this means they will likely continue to be the largest greenhouse gas emitting nation for decades to come.

One of the most amazing and heartening trends in the nation is rapid urbanization — as long as it is done correctly. More than two-thirds of the population will live in urban settings by 2035. There are already more than 100 cities with more than a million people, which far exceeds the United States. While many of these cities must make huge advances in infrastructure development so they can meet the full potential of urban areas to enhance both quality of life and climate security, they have good role models in the three cities I visited. China faces significant risks from climate change, which should provide it a continued incentive to move forward with better policy solutions. Maplecroft’s Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas ranks five Chinese cities as ‘high risk:’ Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, and Shanghai. They make this list because of vulnerability to potential sea level rises and ongoing water insecurity (this latter concern applies to the whole nation, which might have a high level of food insecurity in the near future if urban sprawl and desertification aren’t checked).

Some environmentalists make the dubious claim that urbanization has been bad for China. The question I often ask my students, however, is whether we want a future with a large number of rural poor who don’t emit large amounts of greenhouse gases or a large number of wealthier urbanites that emit more? From my perspective, the former answer is hugely hypocritical given that we know how much greater the quality of life is for the latter group. The better point to make is that if the Chinese population is going to be increasingly urban, how do we ensure high density while still promoting community and quality of life? Once again, I believe China’s ‘global cities’ are engaged in useful experiments that can be used for other growing areas.

China doesn’t have a particularly good history of urban planning outside their key cities. In their more than fifty official ‘metropolitan areas,’ which account for more than half of the national economy, density benefits have lagged behind advanced nations largely because of a historical lack of smart planning. There has been a pattern of growth that has encouraged dead zones between population centers, which makes planning for modern infrastructure networks (particularly transportation) very difficult. The good news is that the national government has projected that they will need to build between twenty and fifty thousand new skyscrapers and 170 mass transit systems in the next dozen years. To make the latter work economically, they will almost certainly need to plan for more density in the construction of the former.

In the end, I was favorably impressed with what I saw in China’s leading cities. There are still advances to be made, but they are each actively engaged in the project. The big question in the future will be how effectively the central government can transfer best practices from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong to the rapidly growing urban centers in other parts of the country. Combined with a more energy efficient manufacturing sector, this is likely to be the most important policy direction for China in the next two decades — with the need for a mass transfer of power production from coal to renewables likely coming toward the end of this period. As long as they can maintain social stability without political reform (a big if), it seems like the current generation of leaders have signalled that they understand the problem and agree that these are the key solutions. Let’s hope they are able to make it happen.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Urban Density | 276 Comments

Return of the Senate???

When I was growing up, you could always count on the Senate to be the grownups in Washington, DC. Members of both parties were willing to work together on practical solutions to our national problems. As Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas reported yesterday, there is new proof that after years of total dysfunction, the body is beginning to move toward partial dysfunction — which is, you know, a bit better. This is happening because there is a growing regional split within the Republican Party, with eastern and some mountain western senators increasingly showing their disdain for working within an organization mired in gridlock (they are often joined by the consistently reform-minded Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and there is some evidence that Marco Rubio might join their ranks on certain issues). Thus, Republican Senators are challenging their party on immigration reform and whether to approve moving the Senate Democrats’ budget to conference committee. It will take far more than this to really make the Senate the institution of moderation it was during the eighties, but these moves are certainly a good sign.

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Hong Kong, one giant mall

If you like shopping malls, you would like Hong Kong. I will admit that I have only visited three parts of the city: Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, and Sheung Wan. Things might be quite different in other parts of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, and they are almost certainly different in the Outer Territories. Yet in these densely populated parts of the city where I have walked around there are a very large number of malls.

Is this good or bad? The answer is somewhat complicated – probably both. Most streets in Tsim Sha Tsui have the feeling of a chaotic mall even if most of the shopping is street level, while many of the taller buildings in the area seem to have multilevel malls occupying the first three to ten floors. Central is less chaotic and has fewer street-level shops, but still has a large number of multilevel malls. Sheung Wan has fewer multilevel malls but innumerable street-level shops. It is hard to think of any shopping arrangement that is more soul-crushingly bad as American strip malls (with large suburban malls only slightly better). What I have seen in Hong Kong is mostly superior to anything we have at home, with notable exceptions in both directions.

Hong Kong Mall

One thing I particularly like here is that the multilevel malls have easy connections with the street life, without doors providing a barrier between the two spheres. This lends itself to the chaotic energy and appeal of these neighborhoods, particularly in Tsim Sha Tsui. I have been impressed with the fact that some of these shopping centers actually have the ability to create a sense of glamour (as opposed to the feeling of mild desperation in all but the most successful American malls), with gleaming marble floors and stylish shops representing all of the big names in global fashion. I also love that in some cases there has been a real effort to create spaces where people want to hang out, sitting at a coffee shop or eating at a café. Similar to my experiences in Europe, these shopping malls also have far superior food options compared with America. The food courts often have a terrific selection and there are nice restaurants sprinkled throughout the upper floors. The final positive aspect is that many of the larger facilities also have other services like theaters and gyms and supermarkets, which dramatically increases the foot traffic throughout — they don’t have the isolated feeling of the American strip mall with its big box stores. I would imagine that city planners have promoted the development of these multilevel malls as a way to provide services to this large and densely packed population. Given that this provides some sense of community while providing the environmental benefits of density, this is great.

Still, a sense of artifice remains. Most of these spaces still feel relatively sterile, with their air-conditioning and artificial lighting. They might not crush the soul, but they certainly don’t feed it either. I have been struck by the mélange of peoples in this city. Shanghai seemed to be populated mostly by Chinese, Europeans, and Americans. Hong Kong has much greater variety. I have seen or met Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Britons, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Koreans, and even some Africans (which weren’t in evidence in mainland China at all). Yet my first impression is that the mall culture seems to reduce the benefits of this ethnic diversity. It might be an equalizer, but it also drains essential cultural vibrancy. So, while the multilevel indoor mall approach might be one solution to providing a sense of community and sustainability within the urban context, I’m not convinced it is the right one. These aren’t places worth caring about. They aren’t places to love.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Uncategorized, Urban Density | 270 Comments

Hong Kong, most vertical city in the world

There is no doubt that the Hong Kong skyline wows. I first saw it from the airplane as I was arriving from Shanghai and was bowled over. The city more than earns its moniker as the most vertical city in the world. Hong Kong has more than twelve hundred skyscrapers and more buildings above 500-feet than any other city, including the International Commerce Center which is the third tallest in the world. More than one-third of the hundred tallest residential buildings in the world are located here, which is one of the things that really set the city apart. I have made a study of big cities, but there is nothing like this anywhere.

The primary reason the city is so tall is that there is a finite amount of buildable land. Because the area is so mountainous, there is simply very limited space to sprawl. Because of this, there don’t seem to be any buildings still standing from more than about fifty or sixty years ago. Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula are extremely vertical, apparently with most buildings stretching at least fifteen stories. While the city overall has many modern glass and steel structures, I have been surprised by the large number of incredibly ugly concrete apartment buildings built during the mid-twentieth century. The government recognizes the problem of a decaying building stock. About a decade ago it created the Urban Renewal Authority to begin the process of redevelopment. The authority has faced resistance from concerned citizens but is moving forward with the substitution or overhaul of archaic buildings, particularly in a few neighborhoods ripe for gentrification. Regardless of these very real concerns, the skyline as seen from either side of beautiful Victoria Harbor remains absolutely stunning.

Hong Kong Skyline From Victoria Peak

Perhaps because it is so vertical, Hong Kong also has the most used public transit system in the world – as measured by the percentage of daily trips that use it (more than ninety percent). This is true despite the fact that it is relatively expensive. The reality is that despite its cost, it is far better than owning a car given space restrictions and the high cost of parking. Like Manhattan, this is a geographically enforced reality that should be a model for cities that don’t face the same constraints.

One huge advantage of the overall public transit network is the terrific mix of modes. The subway network is actually relatively limited with only a handful of significant lines, although given the concentrated population there isn’t really a need for more. It is a very nice system and you can make any trip within the core in less than about fifteen minutes. Five private companies have bus service franchises that run an astounding 700 different routes, many of these also serving the Outer Territories. Given its past as part of the British Empire, the vast majority of the buses are double deckers. One thing I had never seen before are double decker trams, which is totally bizarre looking but also completely awesome! Given its position on the Pearl River Delta and surrounded by the South China Sea, the city not surprisingly has extensive ferry services. One the greatest things about the train/bus/tram/ferry network is that the Octopus transit card works for all of them.

Hong Kong Central Mid-Levels Escalator

Given the fact that Hong Kong Island is so mountainous, biking and even walking can be physically draining. As a result, the government has developed one of the most innovative approaches that I have seen to efficiently transport the population either uphill or downhill. Outdoor escalators! In the Central and Western districts there is an extensive system of covered escalators that people can use free-of-charge to descend or ascend the hills. I rode one in Central yesterday, which happens to be the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world. During the morning rush hour period the system speeds commuters downhill, but during most the day it provides a much needed uphill assist. As I was heading up I kept thinking I had reached the top, but the moving staircases just kept going and going. I loved that in the midlevel SoHo area the escalators were flanked by trendy bars and restaurants, providing a unique ‘street’ life. Overall, this is just awesome.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Public Transit, Urban Density | 1 Comment

Shanghai Maglev

I saved a post regarding the public transit system in Shanghai because it wouldn’t be complete until I left, which I will explain in a second. The city has a world-class subway system, with more than ten lines connecting most of Central Shanghai (covering 660 kilometers). The network is fast, clean, and packed during peak hours – although it is nowhere near as crammed as the Tokyo subway. My sense was that far fewer people were riding bikes in Shanghai compared with Beijing, although some of the slack was taken up by the motorized scooters that were much more prevalent. From my perspective, the main reason there were fewer cyclists was because there are far more cars. From what I saw in Beijing there are no expressways snaking through the city center, but in Shanghai they form a web emanating from the core. With that said my few taxi rides weren’t terrible. There was certainly some traffic, but overall we made it from one place to another quickly.

One big takeaway from Shanghai regarding transportation is that it is much more expensive than Beijing. The subway has a sliding scale approach similar to systems in Washington and San Francisco. Short trips were only fifty percent more expensive, but longer trips can be more than three times the cost (although it is still pretty cheap by American standards). What I don’t like about this method is that it provides a disincentive for people to travel further distances. Taxis were also at least twice the price, which didn’t bother me at all. The goal of policy should be to make all use of motor vehicles more expensive, so people will choose more sustainable modes. The problem in Shanghai is that there are so many wealthy people that the increased cost likely doesn’t dissuade many from using taxis. Once again, however, I found myself thinking that I would trade this transportation mix for just about any American city.

On my last morning, I took the Maglev train to the airport – which is why I saved this post until the end. So, what is a maglev train? It uses magnetic levitation to propel the train with magnets, meaning it has no wheels, axles, or bearings. The train literally hovers over the ‘track’ as it speeds to its destination – we averaged 300kph! These systems achieve such velocities with less energy expenditure compared with traditional wheeled trains because they are frictionless, with fighting air drag being the primary power requirement. There have been test systems that have achieved regular speeds exceeding 500kph (300mph), which would make them even more competitive with airliners then regular high-speed trains. The most significant problem that these trains face is that they have much larger initial construction costs. The upside is that they require less maintenance because there is less wear and tear on the network even when consistently operating at peak speeds. Therefore the long-term operations costs are less than other high-speed trains.

Shanghai Maglev Station

The British, Germans, Japanese, and Americans have all been formally engaged in conducting research into this technology. A low-speed commercial system operated for about a dozen years in Birmingham, England. It discontinued service in the mid-1990s due to reliability problems. The Shanghai system is one of two commercial systems in operation today (the other is a low-speed system in Aichi, Japan). It was built in cooperation with the German Transrapid Consortium, at a cost of $1.2 billion for thirty kilometers of track. Even with this high level of expenditure and considering its relatively low ridership, the system already covers its operations costs. What is amazing is that the single line conducts more than one hundred trips daily, with a en route time of just seven minutes. There were plans to extend the line from Pudong Airport in the east to Hongqiao Airport in the west, traversing the downtown – but those plans have been put on hold.

The experience of riding the train was awesome. It is a sleek train with a modern station. Despite the fact that it is a very smooth ride, you really get the sense that you are moving quickly as you thunder past car traffic on a parallel highway. One of the most enjoyable parts of the transit was banking as the train took a turn, which reminded me of being on the Autobahn – without the concern about impending sudden death. For a train enthusiast, this was just tremendous. In the near-term it seems that this is an approach that will work well for localized systems. There is currently a handful of lines being considered or already in development around the globe. For long-distance travel it seems likely this could be the technology for Train 3.0 (with Train 1.0 being conventional trains and Train 2.0 being the current high-speed revolution). This is particularly when one considers that if this type of train operated in an airless tube it could theoretically operate at much higher speeds. A RAND study found that such a system, which would understandably be very costly to build, could transport a person from New York to Los Angeles in a bit over twenty minutes. Considering how much more sustainable this type of transportation would be compared with cars and planes and even current high-speed trains, this is a future worth dreaming about.

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WH scandals, a false dichotomy

A quick detour from my China trip coverage to comment on the recent ‘scandals’ facing the Obama administration. I am an avid reader of First Read, Chuck Todd’s blog with Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Brooke Brower at MSNBC. The coverage is generally great and I particularly like how they are willing to beat up on other members of the media for fueling our current political dysfunction. That being said, however, in their First Thoughts post yesterday morning they wrote something that is infuriating. They suggested that the Bengazi, IRS, and DOJ ‘scandals’ were either the result of White House manipulation or bureaucratic incompetence. This is a ridiculous false dichotomy, which is just another example of how the Republican Party has succeeded in changing the entire political dynamic in this nation since the 1980s.

The Republicans have been arguing that government is bad. It is incompetent, it is not as effective as unregulated markets, it is the enemy of freedom. If you buy this narrative, it is easy to buy the argument that these scandals might have been the cause of bureaucratic ineptitude. The problem is that we actually have no idea how effective government might be, because we have reduced the budgets for key agencies so much they don’t have the funding or staffing necessary to carry out their legislatively defined missions. Let me repeat that. In the past, Congress (controlled by both the Democratic and Republican parties) passed legislation that defined specific missions for agencies. Then over the years Republicans have cut much of the funding that is needed to actually do the job set out in that legislation. They call is starving the beast. The idea is that if the agencies don’t have the necessary funding, they won’t be effective and Republican talking heads can then get on television and rail against ineffective government. Pretty simple really. What is more troubling is that it has worked for decades. Even smart and honest journalists like Chuck Todd and his team have fallen into the trap. If they hadn’t they would have written that Republican scandalmongering on this issue is completely ludicrous because the only reason we have these scandals is because those very same Republicans have been stacking the deck against good government ever since President Reagan took the oath of office.

Here’s an idea. Why don’t we do three things. First, figure out what problems we as a nation think our government should try to fix. Second, provide adequate funding to see if we can find solutions to those problems. Third, eliminate funding for interventions that don’t work and maintain funding for interventions that do work. Also pretty simple. And, way beyond the capability of our dysfunctional legislative branch.

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Rivers and second impressions

Upon arriving in the Bund (which means embankment) one feels like they have been transported to London on a very steamy day. Much of the former British Concession has been designated a preservation site, so at least the waterfront buildings are still intact. One interesting thing that Song told me yesterday is that many of these building have significant empty space because the rents are too high for apartments, and those that can afford them want to be in modern towers. I had a lovely continental lunch at M on the Bund, with a terrific view of the river and Pudong. After I was done I walked along the river promenade, which is a revelation. This area was redeveloped five years ago to demolish a section of an elevated highway and partially locate an eight-lane roadway underground (think Boston’s Big Dig, but not quite that involved). The result is a far more accessible waterfront, with a wide promenade fronting the river and below the stately buildings of the Bund. Now this a place where people want to spend time, and it also stops erosion of the riverbank. There are public squares arrayed along the promenade for concerts and fairs, with benches for two thousand people providing relatively comfortable seating. This is a great example of green space reconstruction. During my short stay, I was so impressed with how well the Shanghainese government has done to make the riverfront a place worth loving. While it doesn’t match the Seine or Thames, it isn’t far behind and is better than most cities in America.


The other big takeaway from yesterday came during a second visit to the former French Concession for some shopping and dinner. What I realized while walking versus biking, which allowed me more time to take in my surroundings, was that there is actually a bit more vertical development in the area than I first thought. The apartment buildings seem to be mostly in the 12-15 story, not the 25-30 story, variety — but still, this presumably allows far more people to live in the neighborhood. I had a terrific time poking my head int0 little shops in Tianzifang, and I really don’t enjoy shopping normally. I had a drink at a hip place called Kommune, which had a hilarious painting on the wall showing some Maoist-era soldiers hunched around a MacBook!

Interestingly my impression of Xintiandi was much more positive at night. It is actually mostly surrounded with relatively tall apartment buildings, but is a carved out section of two-story shikumen houses that have been converted into shops and restaurants. What I liked most is that the place was humming with activity. While there were many international folks, there seemed to be far more Shanghainese than I expected. For me, this is actually the perfect example of how you can place people in large apartment buildings while carving out public spaces full of life. This strikes such a nice balance between a desire for more efficient and economical housing and a soulful community. Plus, I had a really good Thai dinner!

One of the most disturbing trends that came into sharper focus during my stay here is how huge the consumer economy is becoming in China. Now, there is every reason to believe that Shanghai is exceptional because it is so much wealthier than much of the rest of the nation. From the people I have met, however, it seems safe to suggest that most people want to emulate this lifestyle and hope to obtain jobs that allow them to live out this Chinese Dream. It would be the height of hypocrisy for an American to suggest they shouldn’t have this opportunity, yet as an environmentalist it is still disturbing. Yesterday Song took me to a multi-level clothing market. On a Sunday is was packed with shoppers. She showed me a stall where they were selling jeans, three pairs for about five dollars (and they looked relatively nice). She sheepishly admitted to me that she has sixty pairs of jeans in her apartment, saying that with these prices it is hard to resist. Walking along Nanjing Street today (kind of like a pedestrian-only Times Square) I was bombarded by block after block of malls and department stores and neon signs hawking various goods. This thought kept popping into my head — ‘will our experiment with modernity be able to survive this growing consumer economy?’ Stay tuned.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Urban Density | 7 Comments

Shanghai love

If you like big cities, it would be hard not to love Shanghai. If you can get past the smog (more on this later) then it is a fantastic place. I spent yesterday cycling around the city, on a bike much to small for a six-footer! Still, it was a great deal of fun. I enjoy bike tours because you can see so much within a relatively short period. In a bit over six hours we peeked into sections throughout much of the core.

We spent most of the morning in the former French Concession. What a pretty place to bike, passing under a canopy of plane trees on the quiet streets. My guide Song and I walked around Fuxing Park for a while, which is a great example of a vibrant urban space. The park is relatively small, but it was packed with activity. There were hundreds of retirees dancing for exercise. People were playing cards and mahjong. Other groups were engaged in Tai Chi. As Jane Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great Cities, too few American parks have this type of energy. There is something more important than green space, planners must create a sense of community and safety to adequately populate these areas.

Dancing in Fuxing Park

Song and I then rode to Tianzfang, a section of old residences that were taken over by the government and turned into a ‘creative industrial park.’ What a great name for an area of alleyways packed with galleries and cafes and shops, most with some type of artistic theme. The thing I liked most was that this wasn’t a place solely for tourists. At least half of the people crowding the tight spaces were Shanghainese (I am going back tonight to explore more!). We then rode to Xintiandi, a similar area with shikumen (stone gate) houses that were similarly purchased by the government — this time most people were either Chinese or foreign tourists. This was also a lovely place, although not as fully vibrant as Tianzfang. The best part for me was the opportunity to visit the room where the first congress of the communist party met — so cool!


Before leaving the French Concession we visited an indoor market, with vegetables and seafood and fresh noodles and meat visible in every direction. Song explained that most Shanghainese shop every day to ensure that they get the freshest ingredients. She has spent a good amount of time traveling in America and she suggested that the quality of our cooking isn’t as good (at least from her perspective) because we don’t get our produce fresh daily. Wouldn’t it be nice if most Americans actually cooked (as opposed to heating prepared foods) every day!

We then pedaled into Old Town, which used to be the original walled town (although there is only one tiny section of the original wall surviving). What was most amazing about this part of the city was that it was made up of mostly two-story structures that were surrounded by towers. I asked Song whether the fairly dilapidated neighborhood we were transiting would be here in ten years, and she pointed to the sign above a door that signalled that the area has already been slated for redevelopment. What this means is that shortly there won’t be any reason to visit ‘old town.’ While we were in this area we stopped at a small local chain to have our first dumplings of the day — so good!

After riding around Old Town for awhile we boarded a ferry for the quick trip across the Huangpu River (there are many tunnels that traverse the river, but they aren’t appropriate for bikes). Here I admired the view of Pudong, with its incredible skyscrapers. The Jin Mao Tower is a local favorite (designed to bring to mind a VERY tall pagoda), while the Shanghai World Financial Center is known locally as the can opener (isn’t it a disturbing sign of the times that this building has ‘financial’ rather than ‘trade’ in its title). I was dumbstruck, however, by the spectacle of the construction of the Shanghai Tower — which will be the second tallest building in the world when it is completed next year (it will be over 600 meters, 2,000 feet, tall). What is most amazing about Pudong is that twenty years ago there wasn’t anything there except little-developed agricultural land. Now there are residential and office towers everywhere.

Artist Depiction of Pudong Towers
(Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and Shanghai Tower)

However, the area feels very isolated and sterile. This is because there is almost no street life. There aren’t even bike lanes (standard everywhere else in the city) because planners believed that all of the wealthy people living and working here would simply drive there cars. This gives one a sense of the reason for the perpetual smog cloud hanging over the city, and makes one concerned about officials who believe the future will be about motor vehicles. I had been planning on returning to the area today to walk around, but as Song said, there is really nothing worth seeing to make such a trip worthwhile. This might be a lovely place to have an apartment with dramatic views, but it isn’t filled with life — it simply isn’t human-scale.

We took another ferry across the river to the former American Concession, which is an interesting combination of residential towers and older sections with smaller buildings. The best part of this portion of the tour was that Song took me to a street food market that tourists rarely find (I only saw one other white face while I was there). This was in a part of the core that many Americans would consider ‘third world,’ but it was the opposite of Pudong — full of life and energy. It was human. And the food? I had some simply mind-blowing dumplings. I choked down a couple pieces of stinky tofu, while people around me were wolfing it down happily. I mildly enjoyed a Taiwanese dish with eggs and oysters. We washed it all down with a glass of sugar cane juice (surprisingly light). And the entire thing cost less than fifteen dollars for two people. A great experience.

We finished with a short transit of the former British Concession (the Bund), which I will write more about tomorrow. So, what was my big takeaway for the day? One of the reasons I came to Shanghai was because I wanted to see a city that has so fully embraced vertical development. And, the city’s skyline is breathtaking. As I have written in earlier posts from this trip, I firmly believe that from an environmental and economic perspective this is such a smart way to prepare for the future. However, nearly my entire tour of the city took place in areas where the buildings were much shorter (between two and six stories). Why? The reason seems to be that these are the areas most full of life. These are the areas built on a human-scale. They are largely places that were designed before the car and the population explosion. They feel pleasant. They are dynamic. They are places worth loving. We didn’t spend much time in the areas surrounded by towers because they are the opposite – isolated and sterile. Now, I don’t think that vertical development has to follow this pattern. I believe that you can also design these towers to have a vibrant street life and enjoyable public spaces. This simply hasn’t been the approach in Shanghai. There is an important lesson here. It is one thing to imagine futuristic cities with huge buildings and much more energy efficiency, but if these places choose vertical development they must also be cognizant of the need to build community and feed the soul at the same time.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Urban Density | 276 Comments

Shanghai verticality

Prosperity. Style. Energy. Internationalism. VERTICALITY. These have been my primary impressions since arriving in Shanghai yesterday. I have the great advantage of staying in a hotel where my room is on the twenty-first floor looking east toward the Bund and Pudong, while the breakfast room on thirty-eighth floor has views to the south and west. Although yesterday was rainy and today started off smoggy, the views are still amazing. There are so many tall skyscrapers that buildings that would be amongst the biggest in most American cities escape notice. And unlike a Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, the buildings are not concentrated in only one or two locations. Granted that most of the extraordinarily tall buildings are in Pudong, but there are collections of towers throughout the core.

Yesterday afternoon I visited an incredibly cool site, the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition. I had a great couple hours learning more about the history of the city and really delving into the urban revolution of the past thirty years. Despite its privileged position at the mouth of the Yangtze River and in the middle of the Chinese east coast, it wasn’t until the beginning of the seventeenth century Qing Dynasty that Shanghai became a truly important sea port. But perhaps the most important change for the city came after the Opium Wars, when the British forced the Chinese to open certain ports to trade in the Treaty of Nanking. As a result, the British, French, and Americans ultimately established concessions outside Shanghai’s city walls. By the 1930s, Shanghai had grown to be the fifth biggest city in the world and was a major trading power. The Japanese brought the first factories to the region (after the first Sino-Japanese War), with both the Europeans and Americans ultimately following suit. The city managed to flourish during Mao’s reign, but really emerged again after Deng’s reforms. This city has the largest population in the world (although there are metropolitan areas that are bigger) and more importantly it is an important financial center and has the globe’s busiest port. This has, not surprisingly, lead to a boom in population. This in turn has led to a construction explosion.

One of the exhibits at the expo showed side-by-side photographs of key areas in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-2000s. Areas that had previously been crumbling now have blocks after blocks of residential and office towers. Shanghai has clearly decided that the key to the city’s future is vertical growth. Within the core region (which is about 110 square kilometers) there has been a clear focus on transitioning most neighborhoods from horizontal development to vertical development. At the same time the city has identified twelve neighborhoods with outstanding old architecture as preservation areas, although this has at times meant the government takeover of the property. The vertical orientation is smart in many ways, most importantly because it provides good and relatively inexpensive housing for millions of people — while also allowing for efficient electric, communications, and sewer systems. One potential downside is the isolation of peoples living in these somewhat more sterile environments. From an environmental perspective, these living arrangements are all upside because this level of population density is so energy efficient. For me, Shanghai is yet more proof that emerging economies can quickly develop vibrant urban centers that eliminate many of the problems associated with large cities in poor parts of the world (e.g. disease, poverty). With that said the smoggy haze provides evidence that there is still a dramatic need to increase air quality by reducing industrial and transportation emissions. Yet Shanghai has amongst the highest life expectancies in the world, has decreasing infant mortality rates, and has an excellent education system – it has a Very High HDI score.

Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibit Model

The best part of the exhibition was the HUGE model of the entire urban core – probably the most impressive model of its kind I have ever seen (click for video, Shanghai Urban Expo). I spent more than a half hour just walking around the model and taking in the different features of the city. One thing that was striking is that there are really no small buildings (in the entire core these was only one very small section of what looked like single-family homes), with even the smallest buildings from the Maoist era being at least 6-8 stories tall. There are vast areas that now have 20+ story buildings, which are seemingly mostly residential. Then there are the business centers with their tall buildings stretching into the sky, each with its share of architecturally stunning towers. At least from on-high, it is a pretty astounding place. Now I am going to head out on a biking tour to see what it is like at street level!

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Urban Density | 227 Comments

Chinese high-speed trains

My trip south on the high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai was quite interesting. To begin, Beijing South Train Station was impressive. Huge and full of energy as people boarded trains for destinations around the country. The only parallel in America would be an airport, as we have no train stations that even come close to this level of splendor. The security lines were quick, particularly when compared with the continued odyssey of traveling under the thumb of America’s Transportation Safety Administration. There was a bit of a mad scramble to get through the actual gate area when me train was called, but this was kind of fun.

The CRH380A train itself compared favorably with the Shinkansen or Eurostar or TGV. Bullet-shaped on the outside and suitably luxurious in the first class cabin (the equivalent of a business class seat when flying). This 08:00 train was packed, with families and business travelers and a few foreign tourists.  Similar to plane service in America, free drinks and small snacks were served. I was surprised that the dining car had really limited options, with no hot food. About half way through the trip the attendants walked through selling a hot lunch, but I decided to wait until I arrived in Shanghai. One of the best things about high-speed trains is what a comfortable way they are to travel. A few months ago I took a five-hour flight to California in an economy seat. Not only did it seem excruciatingly long, but also by the time I arrived it felt like I needed both a masseuse and a chiropractor. On the train the seats have a good deal of room, even in second class, and you can get up and walk around when you need to stretch your legs. I was surprised when I looked at my watch to see that nearly four hours had already passed on my journey. Fantastic!

One thing that struck me as strange was that when we were departing train stations the tracks were not all concrete hardened. This is a key aspect of high-speed train networks, which is probably more important than the technologically advanced locomotives. These tracks are designed to eliminate the vertical and lateral movement that limits the safe speed for American trains, even the medium-speed Acela. In Japan, where I traveled by high-speed train extensively a few years ago, express trains scream through stations on concrete hardened tracks set between the tracks abutting the platforms. This allows these trains to make even faster transits because they don’t need to stop or slow down at any time during their passage. In China, however, there are only two tracks and they are not concrete hardened through all stations – particularly in several big cities we passed through. What this means is that trains need to slow down considerably whether they are making a station stop or not. Within a couple miles of the stations the trains transition to the concrete hardened tracks that allow the trains to quickly pick up speed to three hundred kilometers per hour. Even once we got up to speed it seemed to me that there was a bit more lateral movement then I remember from Japan, where one would barely have a sense of movement unless they looked out the window.

I departed on a very smoggy day, which made it difficult to initially get a sense of how fast we were really going. But this changed as we got further south, passing mile after mile of farmland. Our first stop was an hour and a half into the trip in Jinan. The city looked like one giant construction site, with huge towers being built everywhere. After this stop we passed through an area of low hills, before returning to rich-looking agricultural lands. Not surprisingly Nanjing had a much more established feel, although it was blanketed in smog and there were still plenty of construction sites to be seen through the haze.

Arrival was a little disappointing because Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station is not near the city center. It seems to me that one of the great advantages train networks should have over air travel is that the stations can be centrally located. This has been my general experience in Europe and Japan, and even most major American train stations are near the heart of the city. The Chinese government made a decision to locate the Shanghai station further from the downtown in an effort to create a transportation hub with both a railway and airport (both named Hongqiao). While this probably made siting the train station easier, it also meant that it would take another thirty minutes to reach downtown. The station itself isn’t as impressive architecturally as its counterpart in Beijing, yet it is attractive and very easy to navigate.

In the end, I was favorably impressed with the Chinese high-speed train network. In the future they will likely choose to make changes that will make their system more competitive with relation to the Japanese and Europeans. They are so far ahead of us Americans that I feel a bit silly even making a comparison. And one must remember that they already have a network that is nearly ten thousand kilometers, which is by far the largest in the world. Truly remarkable.

Posted in China, Climate Policy, Public Transit | 16 Comments