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Infrastructure, foundations of the Shanghai powerhouse

04/10/2010 00:00

In 2010, Shanghai counts a population of some 16.5 million inhabitants according to the United Nations Population Division[1]. It is China’s largest city and the economic capital of a country that has experienced a growth rate of over 10 percent per year for more than 20 years.


Located in the Yangtze Delta, Shanghai is on the way to becoming the largest port in the world. For centuries Shanghai was merely a large village on the west bank of the Huangpu River. It was fortified in the 16th century so as to hold back Japanese pirates. This location explains the name Shanghai: shang (上)meaning rising towards, and hai(海) meaning the sea, hence Shanghai being the place where the river reaches the sea, or before the sea.  


Ancient Shanghai


Shanghai grew in importance in the 19th Century in the aftermath of the Opium Wars (waged by the European powers against China so as to force the Chinese to consume opium exported from India), when it became the siege of the western concessions. In fact although Shanghai, a fishing town, was born under the Song Dynasty in the 11th century and became an administrative centre in 1291, the city was only founded in 1843 as the first Opium War came to a close. At the time, Shanghai had dozens of wooden and stone bridges, such as the Xin Zha bridge which straddled the Suzhou River[2].


The British were attracted by Shanghai’s ideal location for import and export trade. They attacked the city in June 1842 and through the inequitable Treaty of Nanjing, they obtained the opening of Shanghai (and of four other ports) to their products.


Over the second half of the 19th Century, the first modern bridges appeared as industries and businesses rapidly developed around the Suzhou creek (this river links Shanghai to Suzhou, which is twinned with Venice). The first bridge was built in 1856 by the English engineer L.S. Willis. It was a toll bridge that sparked strong discontent among Chinese pedestrians, and the toll was therefore soon abolished.


In 1863 Shanghai was divided into three parts: the so-called international (British-American) , the French concession, and the Chinese city. This division lasted until the Second World War. In 1900 the city numbered one million inhabitants, 350,000 of which lived in the concessions (7,000 of these were foreigners). The Garden Bridge (Waibaidu Qiao), a modern metallic bridge, was inaugurated in January 1908 at the mouth of the Suzhou creek.  With this bridge Shanghai entered the 20th century.


In the 1920s Shanghai became Asia’s financial hotspot, the capital of businessmen and gangsters. Shanghai’s popular habitat was made up of adjoining houses, usually with two floors, which overlooked narrow streets. These streets, which housed several dozen families, were called Li Long. For over a century (1880-1980) they formed the vast majority of Shanghai’s housing, a high-density habitat (1,500 inhabitants per hectare) mostly made up of rental units. The buildings (called Shi Ku Men) combined brick, stone and timber. They provided different levels of comfort depending on the districts and rents. The Li Long always fostered a vibrant social life and close neigbourhood relationships that disappeared with the emergence of the vertical social housing of the 1970s. Most of the Li Long have since been demolished and replaced by the myriad sky-scrapers that characterize Shanghai today.


New Shanghai


The city grew[3] from 6 million inhabitants in 1950 to 7 million in 1970, 8.2 million in 1990, 13.2 million in 2000, and 16.5 million in 2010. Since the end of the 1980s, Shanghai has experienced an unprecedented economic explosion, as demonstrated by its tremendous population increase (doubling in the last twenty years, following 40 years of slow growth).  As the city spread beyond its borders, the authorities decided to urbanize the completely rural East bank of the Huangpu river.


The lack of a bridge linking Shanghai to Pudong (Pudong, , meaning East Bank) was a significant obstacle to the city’s growth. As had been the case with the Neva in Saint Petersburg and the East River in New York a century earlier, it became urgent to bridge the Huangpu. Over the 1980s decisions were therefore taken to construct several large bridges over the busy river, with the help of cutting-edge technology. The first of these masterpieces was the Nanpu Bridge, inaugurated by Premier Li Peng in December 1991, a year in advance of the planned opening date. The bridge was designed and built in three years. The new Pudong Area was born and grew at breakneck speed. In the space of two decades, hundreds of sky-scrapers, wide avenues, and a giant television tower (the 468-meter Pearl of the Orient) were built.


The second bridge was the Yangpu Qiao, inaugurated in 1993, also a composite cable-stayed bridge (steel and concrete). The first two bridges were built by the Infrastructure Company of Shanghai Municipality. The Nanpu Bridge has a central span of 423m and a total length of 765m. It boasts seven lanes (four West-East and three East-West). Its two H-shaped pylons, built on the riverbanks, rise to 150m. To some extent this bridge is a more elegant version of the Alexander Fraser Bridge in Vancouver. The now-retired lead engineer of the Shanghai Municipal Engineering Design Institute (SMEDI) who piloted the project, Lin Yuan Pei, is highly respected by his peers. At a meeting in November 2006, his collaborator Yue Gui Ping told us that although the Yangpu held the world record for its 602m central span, the Nanpu Da Qiao was incontestably the most symbolic of Shanghai’s four great urban bridges. Since 1997, the Nanpu Bridge displays magnificent lighting at night.


The third bridge, Xupu Qiao, inaugurated in 1997, is also a cable-stayed bridge (590m span, again with pylons on the riverbanks). The fourth and last bridge, the Lupu Qiao, was inaugurated in 2003. It stands in the very centre of EXPO 2010. As the arch technique of this 550m steel bridge had become obsolete because of its cost, the Lupu Qiao broke a world record held since 1932 by the Sydney Harbour Bridge and New York’s Bayonne Bridge. This engineering feat was intended to prove that by the 21st Century China’s engineers could master every technology. Nevertheless, the dominant technique in China remains the cable-stayed bridge (as is evidenced for instance by the Runyang Bridge, inaugurated in 2005, which straddles the Yangtze near Yangzhou).


Infrastructure, foundation of economic growth


The Asian Development Bank contributed a total of USD 155 million to help finance the first two bridges. The Nanpu Bridge cost USD 227 million, including a 70 million-dollar ADB loan. Of this sum, USD 91 million was allocated for the relocation of economic activities and thousands of residents.  Traffic on the Nanpu Bridge quickly reached an average of 120,000 vehicles per day, far outstripping all forecasts. Maintenance costs amount to USD 500,000 a year, and 24 cameras (linked to an ultra-modern control room operated by a young female engineer) enable the permanent surveillance of the bridge and of its traffic.


The toll initially established on the bridge was abolished in May 2000 and replaced by a vehicle tax. By 2002, Pudong’s GNP had risen to 20 times its 1990 levels, from USD 740 million to USD 14 billion! The population on the east (or right) bank of the Huangpu exceeds 3 million inhabitants and may soon reach 5 million.


Due to its importance in the financial, commercial and industrial arenas, the Pudong district now plays a key role in the Shanghai agglomeration. As housing, infrastructure and services are made available, many residents of Puxi (the opposite bank, Puxi, 西 meaning West Bank on which Shanghai was born) are now settling in Pudong. This led Shanghai to build 430 km of subway lines between 1995 and 2010, setting a world record.


Better linkages, better life


The western access to the Nanpu Bridge boasts a very elegant spiral shape, which elevates the automobile traffic to 46m above the river within a minimum amount of space. The surrounding area has been the target of an enormous urban renovation project, in order to host the 2010 World Expo. Shanghai thus counts four great urban bridges on the Huangpu going downstream, these are the Xupu, the Lupu, the Nanpu and the Yangpu. The bridge names always refer to the two locations linked by each bridge: the first character of the west district (such as Nan, , or Yang ), and the first character of the east district (the Pu of Pudong, as Pu initially meant river and Dong means east).


Although tunnels rather than bridges are increasingly being built in high-density urban centres (as they require less demolition), the double-deck Mingpu Qiao is currently under construction upstream. The Hangpu’s bridges testify to the essential role of infrastructure in urban development.


Last but not least, we must mention the ancient Zigzag Bridge in the heart of Shanghai. This footbridge, made up of nine orthogonal sections, was built in 1559-77 in the exquisite Yu Yuan garden. This is the lunch-time and evening meeting place for all tourists, both Chinese and foreigners. The Zigzag bridge is just some 3 km away from the Nanpu Bridge.


China is a country of water, of rivers, and of deltas, and is therefore home to thousands of bridges. It is also a rapidly urbanizing country, with an urban population of 640 million people (47 % of the total) in 2010 and 133 cities of over 750.000 inhabitants. As a sponsor of the first “State of China’s Cities Report” (2010-2011), UN-HABITAT fully recognizes the positive role of cities in the economic and social development of this immense country.


Words of wisdom


Shanghai is often compared to Beijing, the political capital of China. Shanghai is a much younger city and does not boast the splendid historical monuments which rightly make Beijing’s renown. However a crucial difference is that Beijing has no significant river, only beautiful artificial lakes surrounded by manicured gardens. By contrast, Shanghai lives in symbiosis with the Huangpu River. Ms. Ling Bai, a Beijing-native married to my Shanghai-born colleague Jianguo Shen, succinctly summarizes this difference: “Beijing is beautiful and orderly, while Shanghai is progressive, aggressive and always on the lookout for new challenges”. The municipal fiscal revenue of Shanghai reached 254 billion Yuan (close to USD 40 billion) in 2009. Imports and exports through Shanghai customs reached USD 515 billion, accounting for one quarter of China’s total. This wealth may explain and justify Shanghai’s aggressiveness, a city which builds around 100.000 housing units per year.


Confucius once stated that “time flows like the waters of a river”. Another Chinese philosopher, Xun Kuang (250 B.C.) compared rulers to ships and warned: “a river’s water is like a country’s people, it can carry a ship but can also overturn it”.  Rivers, large and small, have been at the heart of Chinese civilization for 3.000 years.


An old Shandong proverb is known throughout China: “if you want to be rich, you must first build roads”. This is similar to the French saying, “when the building sector is fine, everything is fine”. Many countries share the same wisdom. In the 21st century this Shandong proverb rings truer than ever. If you want to promote better cities, begin by granting them good infrastructure and related services in terms of transport, energy, water and sanitation. This will prevent Xun Kuang’ ship from capsizing …


This article was published in "Urban World", September 2010, on the occasion of Shanghai EXPO 2010



[1]  “World Urbanization Prospects: the 2009 Revision”. This figure of 16.5 million is based on the data provided by the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics, it includes both permanent and “temporary” registered residents. In addition Shanghai has a floating population estimated at more than three million people.

[2]  Denison, E. and Guang Yu Ren, 2006, Building Shanghai, the story of China’s gateway, London, Wiley

[3]  “World Urbanization Prospects: the 2009 Revision”, ibid.