Pedestrian hiding from the sunlight before crossing a street in Pudong
With temperatures reaching 40 degrees and a relative humidity of 80%, walking the streets of Shanghai during the summer is an arduous venture. It can be a completely different experience if you are in Puxi or in Pudong, however.
Puxi’s streets are lined with plane trees, especially in the former French Concession (and particularly in the Luwan and Xuhui districts). There are a few different varieties of plane tree, but the one found in Shanghai, is the hybrid platane hispanica, thus named because it was first introduced in Spain around the Sixteen century. In China they are called French Plane trees (faguo wutong – 法国梧桐), for they were first planted along the Avenue Joffre (now Huai Hai lu – 淮海路) in 1902 by the French. Their life span is long, over a thousand years, and they may grow as high as 40 metres.
Plane trees are used for ornamental purposes in urban areas around the world, as they are particularly resistant to pollution and absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide. They are useful in disguising the urban attacks that every city suffers from now and then, but their most obvious asset in Shanghai is the shade they provide in the summer. Their branches are so long that they shade the whole road from one side to the other, forming a protective archway of leaves. Not a single ray of sunlight manages to get through this green barrier. This not only gives this part of the city a distinct character but also encourages people to walk rather than drive or travel by public transport.
In the modern eastern area of Pudong it is a completely different story. Although hundreds of high-rises have sprung up in the last twenty years, the trees do not rise as quickly as scaffolding. The French plane tree no longer dominates; streets are mostly lined up with the native camphor tree (xiang zhang shu – 香樟树), which, as it happens, grows slower. The result is disappointing: the long wide avenues are almost naked and resemble a barren plain, thus discouraging the most motivated pedestrians from venturing forth. As a result, the car is king of the streets and life moves underground, which is good for retailers, and follows the path towards a consumer society. It will take a few decades before the most apostate of the Taoists feels at ease walking the streets on this side of the city.