By Jen Lin-Liu
Twenty-five miles northwest of skyscraper-congested downtown, Shanghai's suburban district of Qingpu is like the often-ignored older cousin of the metropolis's more glamorous and wealthier districts.
Though Qingpu was settled hundreds of years earlier than Shanghai, the city's more central districts since the early 1990s have raced ahead in building high-rises and setting up special development zones to attract high-tech companies. Qingpu is more famous for its natural waterways, which have been used as a mode of transportation for centuries.
But city planners and architects are moving beyond developing China's population-heavy metropolises and looking outward as development enters a new phase, driven by the country's economic boom. Qingpu, which has recently gotten a burst of foreign investment with multinational companies like Dupont, Honeywell, and Hitachi setting up light manufacturing plants here, is now poised to receive an injection of architectural modernism.
Qingpu differs from the run-of-the-mill Chinese suburb, which usually consists of shoddy buildings with white-tile exteriors and utilitarian cement homes, thanks to its natural beauty, its proximity to the heart of China's wealthiest city, and its vice district chief, Jiwei Sun. [Chinese names in this article follow the Western convention of family name at the end.]
It began in 2002, when Sun, who was the chair of the construction committee for Shanghai's central Luwan District, was promoted to work in Qingpu District. His position is not unlike that of a vice mayor of a large town in America, given Qingpu's population of 250,000. A big challenge was attached to Sun's new job: to develop Qingpu in a sustainable way as its projected population grows to half a million people by 2020. "Qingpu used to be considered an outer suburb," says Sun. "But now it's an important satellite city."
Besides being known for its canals, Qingpu, a 7,298-square-mile district that is shaped like a butterfly, was until recently home to many state-owned factories manufacturing everything from soy sauce to cement. But China's transition to a more market-oriented economy meant that many factories were forced to close. Meanwhile, other parts of Shanghai that relied less on state-owned industries experienced much growth.
Because it has lagged behind other districts in development, Qingpu can learn from the mistakes of past city planning, says Sun: In central Shanghai, "development happened too quickly. They threw away a lot of things by tearing down old buildings with historical value." He adds that planners in the past have not attached much aesthetic value to architecture.
Since the district's population is expected to double, in essence Sun has to create a new city, which the government has named Qingpu Xincheng, or Qingpu New City. About 22 square miles of land has been set aside for factories of multinational companies. Nearly 10.8 million square feet of new residences will be built. Sun also wants to spruce up historic Qingpu's tourist attractions, like Zhujiajiao, an area riddled with waterways and knick-knack shops, by having architects design new hotels and shops.
An important goal amid all the building and revitalization is that the "natural shape of the land is being preserved," says Sun. "We want to keep all the canals intact." The district plans to create a system of water buses on the waterways, like Venice, for locals and tourists alike. Another way that Qingpu's plan differs from that of other towns is that it has managed to attract a number of foreign architects to build schools, government buildings, a church, and other public places. The architects that Sun has hired include Jacques Ferrier of France, Spanish architect Sancho-Madridejos, and Kunyan Deng from Taiwan.
What makes the activities in Qingpu even more remarkable is that the district does not have any special funds for attracting architects to do public works. (Sun estimates that the district spends $610 million per year on overall development.) Rather, Sun has managed to attract a number of international architects to Qingpu through cultivating relationships and by giving architects free artistic range. Foreign architects are often eager to build in China and can provide alternative approaches to design and planning.
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Jen Lin-Liu is an American journalist living in Beijing who has written for Newsweek, The Associated Press, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.