Shanghai Surprise

SOM puts sustainable agriculture and preserved wetlands in its plan for an island section of the booming Chinese metropolis.

Patchy sunlight dapples the Yangtze River’s brown-green waters as the Farm Home Happiness slips out of Shanghai’s Baoyang Port. Loaded with passengers, cars, and trucks, the boxy 1,300-ton ferry churns past a vast gathering of container ships waiting to unload at one of China’s busiest ports. It’s a sign of the gaudy boom that has transformed Shanghai into one of the world’s fastest-growing metropolises.

Not all of Shanghai has profited from its explosive growth, however. The Farm Home Happiness is making an hour-long trip to Chongming, the 750-square-mile island district of Shanghai whose half million inhabitants are far more than a ferry ride from the city. During the 1990s central Shanghai was festooned with supercranes, and today it contains nearly 3,000 skyscrapers. Only seven miles away by boat, Chongming’s average per-capita income is one-fifth of Shanghai’s.

But that’s about to change. Thirty-one miles east of the ferry route, a cable-stayed bridge and the world’s widest underwater tunnel will link Chongming to mainland Shanghai and anchor a new superhighway along China’s east coast. Scheduled for completion in 2010, the bridge and tunnel will place Chongming directly in the path of Shanghai’s steamroller urbanization. Recognizing this, city planners began asking in 2003 if the future of the world’s largest alluvial island must necessarily mirror the massive high-rise development, industrialization, and sprawl of central Shanghai.

The answer is, not if Philip Enquist can help it. The 53-year-old planning principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office led the team that won a city master-planning competition for Chongming in 2004. “We were presented with a blank slate to create a long-range vision for an agricultural island that would suddenly be an intimate part of a rapidly growing city,” Enquist says.

Unlike other proposals, SOM’s winning design didn’t focus on high-rise growth, industrial parks, or Disney-style theme parks. Rather the plan imagined a future in which sustainable practices would enable compact urban development to coexist naturally alongside the island’s traditional agricultural base. These principles were applied by reserving 80 percent of the island for agriculture, parks, and conservation of its bird-rich wetlands; the remaining 20 percent is dedicated to eight dense pedestrian-centered, mixed-use waterfront districts, each accommodating about 75,000 people. Separated by farmlands and economically charged by high-tech research-and-development facilities, these districts will be tied together by new transit and road systems, and powered by renewable energy sources taking advantage of the Yangtze’s steady estuarial winds.

SOM’s sustainable plan for Chongming aligned smoothly with the thinking of a rising new generation of Chinese planners, including Zhou Jian, director of Tongji University’s prestigious School of Architecture and Urban Planning in Shanghai. “The reality is that China lacks land for farming and energy resources, and has a huge population on top of it all,” Zhou says. “It was inevitable that we would favor a sustainable-design plan like SOM’s.”

Tongji University is regarded as the “Chinese MIT” and since the mid-1950s has matriculated cadres of planners who now work in virtually every city in China, spreading the news about sustain-ability. In 2003, the government appointed one of Zhou’s university colleagues, Jun Hu, as Chong-ming’s governor. For the next six months an intense debate about the island reverberated at both national and regional levels of government. “At the time we had two different approaches,” Jun says, “turning Chongming into an industrial area like Shanghai’s Pudong district or establishing it as an example of a new green planning philosophy.”

In July 2004, “Green Chongming” received a giant boost when Chinese president Hu Jintao gave a speech to local farmers in the village of Farm Home Happiness—the ferry’s namesake—promoting the island as a national model for sustainability, energy efficiency, and environmental awareness. The president’s speech reflected an acknowledgment by officials at the highest levels that resource-starved China could only continue to prosper by forging a truly sustainable national economy and an environmentally aware lifestyle.

One aspect of the SOM plan that gave it added heft with sustainability-minded government planners was its adaptation of Chongming’s agrarian base for intensive, specialized agriculture that would both produce high-profit crops and increase land value. The idea of incorporating sustainable agriculture crystallized when the SOM team first visited the island in August 2003 and Enquist was struck by how profoundly Chongming’s infrastructure was already dedicated to farming. “The fields were green,” he observed, “and the land was clean, incredibly fertile, and nourished and renewed by hundreds of miles of irrigation canals and levee systems.” The result was a plan that emphasized what the Chinese call “refined farming,” the cultivation of quality fruit and produce designated for nearby urban areas. To kick-start the process, it envisioned a novel delivery system connecting local farmers with restaurants and upscale stores via new farmers’ markets planned for Shanghai.

Equally important for Chongming, and for China’s new planning syntax, was the influence of research by future-oriented American land-use groups. Utilizing their expertise, the team integrated strategies to overcome problems like the infiltration of seawater into underground aquifers under increasing stress from new development and intensive agriculture. These “New Ag” solutions were translated into a chain of lakes running down the island’s spine to provide an additional water supply and to help expel brackish water. The lakes would in turn be linked to Chongming’s periphery by canals transporting polluted water through thousands of acres of preserved wetlands, allowing them to act as gray-water biofilters for rural and urban settlements.

A year into the SOM plan, work has already started on one of these settlements, a new neighborhood on the eastern side of the biggest town on Chongming, and the local government has begun to initiate conservation of the island’s major wetlands. At the same time, the plan has been receiving international recognition, with Enquist being invited to present it to the United Nations Economic and Social Council in New York. Perhaps more important, Chongming is becoming a required stopover for planners visiting Shanghai from other parts of China and beyond. “Asians tend to associate farming with poverty,” Enquist says. “If we can raise the image of Chongming as a place to be cherished and nurtured rather than bulldozed and developed, planners will begin to recognize the role agriculture can play in sustainable development.”

Chongming’s green program has struck a chord with upwardly mobile Shanghainese, including the 50 or so attending a wine and hors d’oeuvres tasting at the trendy Shikumen bistro, in the city’s sizzling Luwan district. “There is a growing demand in Shanghai’s best restaurants for a steady supply of high-end produce that meets international standards,” says Steven Smith, a San Francisco restaurateur who now runs the Shikumen. The plan has also won heartfelt praise on the island. Selling oranges along a rural roadside in the southwestern corner, local peddler Ma Zhou shouts out, “The plan is great for Chongming; it will help us advance like Shanghai. I’m going to sell a lot more oranges.” His fellow vendors nod in vigorous—and hopeful—agreement.

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