NYC –> Shanghai, 17 days: All that Glitters is not Gold

August 24, 2013. 17 days!

What’s the difference between these two pictures?

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Ok, so there are many differences – night vs. day (literally); east vs. west; pollution-induced haze vs. clear skies; I live in one, and have yet to live in the other, etc. But what else? New York and Shanghai certainly both have striking skylines, but the similarities end after descending down 100+ floors and stepping outside. Like most first-time tourists to Shanghai, when I saw the Pudong skyline from across the Huangpu river on the Bund, I couldn’t help but marvel at this remarkable feat of engineering and architecture – rapid urbanization incarnate. The lights of the buildings bouncing off the water were a sight to behold – and photograph.

But as soon as I crossed the river, I realized this land of skycrapers was more mirage than urban Shangri-la. Pudong was built to be seen from afar, not from within. And that’s the key difference between its skyline and that of New York’s. There was clearly no thought given to how the buildings in Pudong meet the street. They are each little (or rather huge) edifices, occupying their own “land,” ignoring their neighbors and rebuffing those who approach it on two feet instead of four wheels. They are what we call “objects in space” (Le Corbusier’s vision). They exist to be beheld and not inhabited. They embrace nothing and no one. There is no urban fabric, no streetscape. As a pedestrian trying to traverse this phallic nightmare, you are forced to walk at least a half mile between each building, on relatively narrow sidewalks, with cars zipping by along 10+ lane roads on one side and cars pulling up into majestic driveways on the other. There is nothing on the ground floor but hotel lobbies, set back 50+ feet from the sidewalk. To cross the street, you embark on a 15 minute journey on massive elevated pedestrian walkways that mimic iconic cloverleaf highway interchanges.

This bizarro world offers none of the welcoming aspects of street life – activated ground floor uses (restaurants, stores, etc.), human scaled buildings, street benches, outdoor dining, engaging facades – that you find when you walk New York’s Downtown. Its State of Place is pure misery; it’s not sustainable. Today, it offers visitors – from afar – an awe-inspiring skyline. But that will fade. It will get old and tired. And then you’re left with a slew of not-so new and glitzy buildings with one of the most inhumane public realms I’ve ever had the displeasure of setting foot in. I can only hope that Pudong remains a “unique marvel”…and that our research will help delineate the reasons that should be so and offer guidance that can be applied to create a more humane and sustainable alternative.

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