Remaking the Chinese City: Expert Opinion on Shanghai's Development

Growth vs. sustainbility as twin engines driving Chinese cities

In New York on Jan. 5, architect Eugene Kohn and developer Vincent Lo cite positive recent trends in China's urban development. (3 min., 12 sec.)
In New York on Jan. 5, architect Eugene Kohn and developer Vincent Lo cite positive recent trends in China's urban development. (3 min., 12 sec.)

NEW YORK, January 5, 2011 - "China will add 350 million people to its urban population by 2025" is just one of many statistics used to illustrate the unimaginable pace and scale of China's past and future urbanization.

This phenomenon was the center of the inaugural program of Asia Society's multi-part series, Remaking the Chinese City. Vincent Lo, Chairman of Shui On Group and famed-developer of Xintiandi, was joined by A. Eugene Kohn, Chairman of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, and Alan Plattus, Professor of Architecture at Yale University, for a discussion moderated by Orville Schell, Director of Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations.

The program began with a look at the development of China's most modern city, Shanghai, a city that Kohn pointed out has added seven to eight million people and has built 645 million square meters in last 20 years. While impressed by this level of growth, the panelists agreed that such rapid development has come with some negative side effects. Lo summarized the often-heard major criticism of Pudong, Shanghai's Central Business District (CBD): "If I need to go from one building to another, it's too far to walk and it's too close to take a car." His belief is that CBDs "should be in the traditional city center, so that the fabric of the city will be preserved."

Despite critiquing Pudong's lack of connectivity, the panelists remained optimistic about Shanghai's future growth. Plattus likened its development to that of a gawky adolescent who is now finally starting to grow into his body. He stated, "I think we are starting to see all over Shanghai the first stages of a city that is starting to grow into this enormous scale that it has set for itself." To highlight his point, he referenced the recent development of several new key subway lines that allow people to use the city in previously unavailable ways.

All three panelists also remained positive when questioned on the larger question of whether China's development is sustainable. Kohn emphasized that he has seen an "improvement of the quality of the architecture that is being required and demanded by the clients." Moreover, he reminded the audience that Shanghai has built cultural facilities, symphony halls, and museums, illustrating "that there is a concern for the quality of city life now."

Lastly, throughout the discussion, Lo provided the audience with first-hand stories and insights from his long career as a developer in mainland China. Perhaps the comment that stuck with the audience the most was Lo's clear stance when asked about China's property bubble. He stated, "I don't believe there is a bubble .... I'm still selling flats which are 20 to 30 million renminbi. People still come and pay cash. There are not too many other alternatives for them to put their money into."

Lo further defended his view by noting that the Chinese market is not over-leveraged and that there is a shortage of land in China, especially in the city centers.

Reported by Philip Willner