Satellite cities, a good planning tool?

December 13, 2012
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“Better City, Better Life”: This was the theme of the Shanghai World Expo 2010. The main issue raised was how to create better urban living environment and a better society. With this in mind, one wonders how Shanghai has handled its own urban development, cantered on the “One City, Nine Towns” plan.

In order to alleviate the city centre from the pressures of enormous growth, the new Shanghai Master Plan (1999-2020) has introduced the “1-9-6-6 Model”. A new concept of urban structure was put into place which redefined the hierarchy of the Shanghai area in terms of a three-layered model. The three-layered structure is represented by one city centre oriented towards the service sector, nine decentralized “key cities” that serve as administrative centres (300,000 to 1 000 000 residents) and sixty small towns (50 000 to 150 000 residents)1. Six hundred villages (2000 residents) are also included, completing the “1-9-6-6 Model”. The idea of this plan is to re-house one million people from the city centre in the outlying areas2. Construction in Fengjing (枫泾) new town, Jinshan District, Shanghai, Behar ClaireThis master plan also aims to control the urban sprawl.

Although most of the new towns are now more or less completed, there are plans to build hundreds of thousands of homes and facilities in addition to the present ones. Never before was an urban plan realized on such a huge scale and in such a short time3. Looking at the first results, can we conclude that satellites cities are a good planning tool? One of the first observations that can be made is that there is a striking lack of residents in the new towns. For instance, according to the new Shanghai Master Plan, the  projected population of Chengqiao New Town is 120 000 in 2020  However, there were only a few thousand residents in 20104. There are many reasons for this “ghost town” phenomenon.

First, speculation on new town housing means that low-income Chinese people are unable to afford a flat. The exotic character of the new town architecture, inspired by Western culture, gives the impression that it is a safe investment5. Fearing constant price increases, foreign investors and wealthy Chinese are buying up large amounts of housing.  Additionally, private developers, rather than the local government, are buying land-use rights in new towns. Developers prefer to build luxury apartments instead of proposing a mixed-income housing complex. As a result, there are up to five times as many unoccupied properties as in metropolises of a comparable size in other countries6.

Secondly, new towns, on their own, are not attractive enough when compared to the city centre. Private developers allow the architects a lot of freedom: the director of Atkins Design Studio, Paul Rice, who designed Thames Town, declared: “We had some fun doing this. We broke the rules for south orientation and created a pedestrian-centred town, with a human and intimate scale”(( Ibid,p.120)).

Western conceptions do not really correspond to Chinese standards. In fact, Feng Shui, the Chinese philosophy based on the interaction between man and his living space, is a key component in Chinese construction. According to Feng Shui, the idea is to achieve a harmonization of the flows in a living space and this has to be taken into account during the urban planning phases. It is also important that the building be south-facing. This is not the case in new towns. Moreover, according to the Chinese tradition, buildings enclose the space: this logic of the “self-contained” is in opposition with Western logic, where buildings do not enclose an inner space. New towns are based on Western models, so there is no buffer space to create a gradual transition towards privacy from the outside to the inside.

Finally, there is a striking lack of urban infrastructures, especially public transports. Easy access to the city centre would encourage Chinese people to live in the new towns. Although the construction of an extensive metro system is planned for 2020, the original idea was that new residents would work in the new towns. So many of the metro connections are going to be completed so late that commuters are reluctant to settle in new towns, as living there often means that it is necessary to have a car for the daily commute from home to work.

In Problems of megacities and construction of satellite cities - policy suggestions to the  construction of our satellite cities, the author JunYang, compares satellite-cities in Western countries and in China. He also makes some policy suggestions concerning satellite-cities in China, especially for Beijing and Shanghai. The main idea is to provide satellite-cities with every possible means to fulfil their role in reducing the pressure on city centres, including the pressure of population, traffic and housing.  Jun Yang recommends that every satellites city have an industry in order to maintain sustainable economic development. Even though some new towns are specialized in an industry, such as Anting New Town with its automobile manufacturing, it is not the case for all.

The author also maintains that a high-speed transport system should be implemented, to provide a good connection to the city centre. A high-speed railway system seems to be the best solution, as it can handle a high volume of freight, runs at high speed, and is low cost, comfortable and safe, with low pollution7.

Initial findings show that a lot can be done to improve this situation, even if speculation seems hard to control. Another neglected problem concerns the “floating population” (migrant workers without an urban hukou), are not allowed to buy a house in the new towns, and so are either poorly housed by their employer or share a rented accommodation8. This “floating population” cannot take advantage of the new towns and are deprived of the opportunity to improve their standard of living.

The new towns “together form an exciting new laboratory where very different influences are melted”(( Harry Den Hartog (2009) , 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism , Amsterdam/Delft)) and the coming years will give us the true results of this paradigm shift that is shaking up urban development in Shanghai.

  1. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns - searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.28, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []
  2. Ibid []
  3. Harry Den Hartog (2009) , 4th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism , Amsterdam/Delft []
  4. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns - searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.128, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []
  5. Ibid,p.74 []
  6. Ibid,p.70 []
  7. YANG Jun, Problems of megacities and construction of satellite cities - policy suggestions to the construction of our satellite cities []
  8. Harry Den Hartog (2010), Shanghai new towns - searching for community and identity in a sprawling metropolis, p.74, Rotterdam, The authors and 010 Publishers []

Claire Behar

Research assistant on the project URBACHINA Diploma in Urban Engineering at the University of Technologie of Compiègne (U.T.C.,France) expected in 2013

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Posted in: Guest authors, Behar, Claire, Guest authors, Themes, Real estate, Cities, Shanghai, Themes, Urban policies

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