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Development and Displacement in Shanghai’s Xintiandi Dis...

Development and Displacement in Shanghai’s Xintiandi District

Xintiandi was once a quiet residential neighbourhood located in a rapidly developing inner city district in Shanghai, China. Between 1999 and 2001, however, the area underwent a massive redevelopment project. It involved the displacement of 25,000 households and 800 work units, including 3,800 households and 156 workplaces in just 43 days. This was done in

Xintiandi was once a quiet residential neighbourhood located in a rapidly developing inner city district in Shanghai, China. Between 1999 and 2001, however, the area underwent a massive redevelopment project. It involved the displacement of 25,000 households and 800 work units, including 3,800 households and 156 workplaces in just 43 days. This was done in order to make way for a modern design of luxury condos, hotels, trendy cafes, and international businesses. Unlike gentrification or urban renewal elsewhere, this project was envisioned, designed, and constructed in close collaboration with government officials in order to satisfy the state’s specific economic development objectives.

Shanghai Xintiandi District Pedestrian Walkway

The Xintiandi development project, designed by Hong Kong based company Shui On Land and Shanghai architect Ben Wood, sought to transform the traditional shikumen style housing into a dense, commercialized district while preserving the feel of “Old Shanghai.” Shikumen is a traditional Shanghainese style of architecture that combines both Chinese and Western features and are two or three story brick buildings somewhat resembling terrace or town homes that were originally built by French developers who came to Shanghai in the early 20th century.

The area is now a car-free shopping and entertainment district catering to international businesses, tourists and expatriates who flock to the modern urban lifestyle of consumption, while enjoying the reminders of the culture of old Shanghai. This former residential area is home to a vibrant nightlife, a successful business district, luxury shopping, and high-end restaurants. Architects and urban planners around China have been inspired “to Xintiandi” areas fit for renewal in an attempt to replicate the neighbourhood’s success.

Redesigned Shikumen Style Laneway

Despite the area’s economic successes, there remain many unanswered social impacts of such rapid and drastic development. While the buildings’ exteriors have been elaborately preserved, their insides have been completely retrofitted and the original residents have been displaced by construction or by the rising costs of living in the area. Many have been relocated to peri-urban neighbourhoods where infrastructure and facilities are largely underdeveloped. As the Chinese state strives to redevelop central city areas, the priorities of the lower-income residents are systematically neglected in the city's attempts to modernize.

Where have other massive urban renewal or gentrification projects taken place? What was the state’s involvement and who was impacted?

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

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Sophie Plottel, a former GSP blogger, is a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and a minor concentration in Global Development Studies. A native of Vancouver, Canada, she is interested in the co...

  • Michael Jenkins

    This is really spot on. Truly enjoyed it. After visiting Shanghai my friends and I were blown away by the rapid expansion of certain areas, especially in Ningbo. However, were we aware of the displacement of the lower income citizens.

    Today one gentrification project that is being worked on is in Atlanta, Georgia. For years the city has been creating ways to clean up an extension of the downtown area where the city’s prized baseball team plays. The stadium, Turner Stadium, is a $300 million arena nestled in a low income area but two minutes away from the state’s capital.

    In an effort to revitalize the area, the city is planning to move residents out of the area by either raising taxes or by providing vouchers to move outside of the city(similar strategy done in the Bay Area with many Black and Latino residents).

    I think the most interesting part of this is that as these minorities are moved to lesser known undeveloped areas with very little resources (Chicago) which in a way is out of site of mind to most people living in these cities.

  • Alison

    Thank you very much for sharing this article. This past summer I had the opportunity to participate in a 6 week urban design studio in Shanghai and Nanjing and this was the very issue that we struggled with both on our project site and in the study of cities in China.

    Our design project was in a ‘run-down’ area of Nanjing and with the help of our Chinese student counterparts we were given the opportunity to walk around the site a talk to the residents about what kind of change they would like to see. This process was highly unusual for the students and residents alike. Displacement is not uncommon in developing Chinese cities, and furthermore, relocated housing is often better than the current living conditions. The primary concern expressed by residents was being relocated far away from family and jobs, but they universally agreed the environment needed to change and were trusting that decisions made by the government were in the best interest of the people of China.

    This leads me to think developing culturally sensitive communities, not just homes, will become an important part of future Chinese developments. The wants and needs of place are drastically different than the American perspective of a cafe on every corner. Xintandi is unique to typical new development in China of large multi-story housing with hundreds of space between (for solar orientation). Xintandi features appropriately scaled and historically relevant housing, with a active street life typical of the Chinese City, and in the proximity of local jobs and transportation. Xintandi was intended to be luxury living, but it is an excellent model for future growth in low and middle income communities in China as well.

  • Incredible analysis. And yes you’re right, displacement is is not uncommon in those Chinese developing cities. Considering the the impact it has on residents is crucial to the future of China. I know that a lot of the migrant workers are impacted the most by these developing cities…either by being displaced or relocating there forgoing rights and and opportunities just to be able to support their families.

    This all reminds me of a documentary done by Vanguard called Outsourcing Unemployment In China. It really hit home when you realised the conditions in which these people are living.

    I think what you have covered is excellent and sheds light on a positive more sustainable future for China.

  • Nicholas Richter

    I was in Shanghai working with similar issues back in 2010 and also met with some local officials that were interested in urban retrofits. As part of our project parameters, we were specifically told NOT to look at Xintiandi as an example of project they were seeking. While the area is nice by some standards, it feels much more Las Vegas than anything else. There is, simply put, a void that is palpable if you understand how these developments usually happen.

    The officials we met with seemed to understand this, although there still is a stronger acceptance of relocation. One of the areas that we visited which I found to be inspiring and interesting was Tianzifang, which is an area that has taken a different approach to renewal. The old buildings are of the same type as Xintiandi and have been largely preserved, except that the bottom level is now small commercial spaces (with an edge towards unique artists, small shops, and cafes). Many of the original residents still live there, which for them is both a blessing and a curse: They escaped being compelled to relocate, but they must now share their space with a bustle of shoppers and tourists who often treat them as part of the attraction. On the whole, it creates a lively place with a genuine feel. The narrow lanes, which are common to all of these types of old housing blocks, create an irregular, twisting network that is interesting to explore. If you get a chance to visit, this is a really good example of an urban retrofit that worked. It is similar to Hackesche Höfe in Berlin, but much more intimate and more to explore.

  • Randolph

    Hello Sophie,

    Welcome to Shanghai!

    To reach a valid conclusion on things such as “social justice” as suggested by Michael one has to better understand the socioeconomic context, and to put what he/she has observed in perspective. As someone who was born and grew up in Shanghai and witnessed the planning and development in the 1990s here is some contextual information to share.

    The Xintiandi area prior to the redevelopment was by no means an area of “the poor” in Shanghai. The residents were average local residents (not migrant workers). In fact, the neighbourhoods, located in the older part of the former French concession, which was dismantled after the Japanese invasion in 1941, was considered an “upper corner” (“上只角”) in the words of us locals relative to the rest of the City. So, to be clear, the Xintiandi project was not meant to, and did not in effect, displace “the poor”.

    The living conditions in this “upper corner” prior to the redevelopment, similar to the rest of the City, however, were quite desperate primarily due to overpopulation. These old Shikumen neighbourhoods were built for the fortunate few at the colonial time with a configuration similar to the row houses. Overtime, due to wars and revolutions they became over populated and were converted from “single family homes” to multi-family dwellings. For example, between 1949 and late 1980s, while the City of Shanghai doubled its population there had been limited provisions of additional housing. The existing housing stock, primarily built prior to WW2 had to provide accommodation to this additional population. I do not have the statistics before me for the Xindiandi area. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the residents of Shanghai on average had a living space of merely 3 to 4 square meters. The figure should be much more staggering for residents in the Xintiandi area due to its location (inner city areas tended to be denser). There was a housing crisis in the 1980s and 1990s and Shanghai was known amongst us Chinese in terms of substandard living conditions.

    As such, in addition to pursuing economic development, one of the primary objectives of the redevelopment of Xintiandi area as well as other similar inner city areas as well, was to provide better living conditions for the average citizens of Shanghai and offering more spaces was the first priority. To cope with housing shortage was a “government agenda”. However, it was an agenda that reflected the concerns of the average citizens at the time (So, contrary to the popular believes held by many westerners, the Communist government was responsive to concerns of the citizens, at least in regard to Shanghai’s housing crisis of the 1980s and 1990s).

    At that time, neither the government nor the residents had the necessary resources to provide the much needed improvements. Housing reform had just begun and the government was still the main, if not the only, provider of housing to all urban population. Having an apartment with private bathroom and kitchen was many people’s dream.

    The realization of this dream for many residents would not become possible until the reintroduction of the real estate market and the discovery of land value differentials between the core area and the suburbs. The idea the government came up with was to invite developers from places such as Hong Kong (keep in mind the government did not have much cash in hand at that time) to invest in redevelopment projects orchestrated by the government in the core areas by building offices, commercial spaces, and high-end apartments that could afford a higher land price, while using part of the money generated from leasing higher value lands within the core areas to build new residential neighbourhoods in the suburbs. It was a business transaction to achieve a number of objectives indicated above: providing housing, upgrading infrastructures such as roads, parks, and transit (where do you think the government gets the money from to build Shanghai’s impressive subway system?), fostering economic growth, and also addressing some of the environmental issues (such as pollutions from manufacturing sectors within the core areas).

    Keep in mind in China, land ownership is very different from in Canada and the US. The state is the land owner and prior to the re-development, residents in the urban core, such as those living in the Xintiandi area, were tenants of state-own properties. One of the key things the housing reform did was the introduction of property ownership (but not land onwership). So, the original residents of the Xintiandi area, who were displaced and offered “free housing” (so to speak) at the locations eventually became the owners of their new suburban apartments. This could explain why earlier redevelopment projects were supported by the majority of the displaced residents, while there have been no shortage of controversies, including those incidents reported by the western media, in recent years – as the property value increases, residents in the core areas have become increasingly aware of, and savvy about, how much they should actually receive as compensation for relocation. As indicated above, in the early days, neither the government nor the residents had the resources to improve housing conditions and residents who were subject to displacement or relocation generally felt they were the lucky few and were grateful about opportunity.

    Again, understanding the context is the key. It is also important to have a good handle about scale and time. While a few thousands people may seem “a lot” in Vancouver, it is of a very different proportion for a city whose population is almost equivalent to 70% of the entire country of Canada. In the relatively “sustainable” Vancouver, 10 years probably does not mean too much in terms of change of urban landscape. In Shanghai, the changes over the past 20 years would be equivalent to the changes in Vancouver over a period of probably over 50 years. In short, the Shanghai you see today is very different from the Shanghai 20 or 10 years ago, socially, economically, environmentally, culturally, and of course, physically.

    Plus, do you really think Vancouver is more “sustainable” than Shanghai? I suppose nobody would argue that Vancouver is more livable than Shanghai. But “sustainable”? In what sense? As environmental experts have told us, if residents of Shanghai consume as much energy and resources as their Vancouver counterparts do, we probably will need 3 more planets.

    Note, the Xintiandi master plan was prepared by SOM. Mr. Wood, as I understand, was the designer of some architectural projects and he did a wonderful job on landscape design.

    Have a good time in Shanghai and I hope you enjoy the cosmopolitan culture there.

  • Randolph

    Forgot to answer your questions:

    1. Where have other massive urban renewal or gentrification projects taken place?

    Well, Xintiandi is not “massive” by Chinese standards.

    The Lujiazui area, the area where numerous futuristic towers sit, was also an urban renewal site. There were factories, docks, and residential neighbourhoods there in the early 1990s.

    Pretty much the entire Puxi area of the Huangpu District (the old Hunagpu District, bounded by the Huangpu River to the east, Suzhou River to the North, Renmin Road to the South, and Chengdu Road to the west) was subject to massive urban renewal schemes.

    Simmilar masssive projects were carried out all over the places in Shanghai and many other Chinese cities.

    To understand this, as indicated above, you really have to think of a scale and speed in Chinese terms, certainly not in Canadian terms, not in Vancouver terms.

    2. What was the state’s involvement?

    First of, as indicated above, the state was, and still is, the only land owner of all urban lands (rural lands are under collective ownership of farmers. Note, the keyword here is collective ownership). The process of the urbanization in China is also the process of transferring land ownership from the collectives to the states. This in itself, represents an incredible social and political challenge.

    So, of course, the state plays a huge role in the process.

    In the early days (I am really speaking of 10 or 15 years ago) it made plans, and implemented the plans.

    For example, in the case of Xintiandi, the district government initiated the process to prepare a redevelopment plan, reviewed and executed the RFP to attract investors, and organized the relocation process, including building housing in the suburb.

    To understand this, you have to understand the role of the state both in economic and political terms.

    3. Who was impacted?

    What’s your observation so far? or what’s your hypothesis in terms of the impacted?

    What I may offer is to investigate with an open mind and a verifiable process, certainly without prejustice or preoccupation.

    And investigage both in terms of the direct and indirect impacts.

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