Design for a Crowded Nation

China’s Urban Future Looks Bright, If Architects and Planners Build It Right

January 14, 2014

Architect, NBBJ

The world currently faces an unprecedented challenge, as societies around the globe struggle to move from historically rural roots toward a concentration of their populations into cities. Accordingly, architects, urbanists, engineers, politicians and policymakers must expand and drastically improve the debate of how we will design urban environments that enable a better physical, social and economic life for the 21st-century urban dweller.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in China. In December 2012, China broke the 700 million urban-resident threshold. For the first time in China’s very long history, the urban population exceeded the rural population, with city-dwellers accounting for over 51% of the total population. Compounding the urban expansion challenges, 260 million migrant workers — more than 85% of the total US population — ebb and flow between rural and city lives, yet lack basic city services due to the country’s extremely restrictive “hukou” household registration system.


On December 13, 2013, at arguably the highest-level meeting Chinese leadership has ever convened on the topic of urbanization, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged proactive moves by the Central Committee to push forward what he termed as “human-centered” urbanization. Premier Li stressed a focus on the quality of urban living standards for all residents, as a way to unleash the huge potential in domestic economic demands, lift productivity and, maybe most importantly, break up the dualistic city-country economic structures that hinder the country’s social integration.

Considering Premier Li’s goal of “human-centered” urban development, I’d like to explore a series of ideas and provocations on how the design community can amplify the vital links between physical form and the communal characteristics of cities — beginning with density.


Density & Scale

Arguably China’s most international and dynamic city, Shanghai, the city I proudly call home, is an accumulation of extreme contradictions. Representing the best and potentially some of the worst examples of what a 21st-century city can be, Shanghai has for many years been looked to as one of the world’s best urban laboratories. A visitor’s first encounter with Shanghai can come as a shock: the extreme density and overall scale of the urban environment overwhelm the senses.

If we analyze the density per square kilometer, a complicated picture emerges. Shanghai, although twice the population, is only ¼ the density of New York City and approximately ½ the density of London. These numbers, however, are extremely deceiving, due to the expanded metropolitan land area that constitutes the overall Shanghai urban region — much of which is low-density, inner-ring suburbs and farmland at the outer edges.

In contrast to these low-density edges, the urban environment that people associate with Shanghai is dominated by extreme density, where more than half of the city’s population lives on approximately 5% of the total land area. Thus, the actual living condition of the majority of Shanghai residents is two to four times denser than that of New York City and London, respectively.


As we look to Shanghai’s future and, in turn, the future of urban China, we must embrace extreme density, preserving the  natural landscape beyond the city center while also nurturing the urban vitality of the world’s greatest cities. We must balance the need for high-density community living with the creation of active public spaces and city-wide sustainable strategies that, when implemented together, enable long-term healthy city regions.

Yet density must also ensure diversity and affordability, without segregating populations into areas solely inhabited by the poor and underserved. We know that when done correctly, urban density intertwines economic, social, cultural and demographic diversity, creating conditions where boundaries are broken down and the lives of many are influenced by interaction of others.


To see a great example of this type of social interaction one need only walk the streets of traditional neighborhoods in Shanghai where the alley, the street and the plaza intertwine to redefine the boundary between public and private life. Density is not seen as an inherent problem or challenge to life’s daily practices. Rather, density is a driver for alternative methods of leveraging what has traditionally not been seen as space for living.

Stay tuned for future installments in this series on China’s urban future.

All images courtesy of Eric Phillips.

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