The first modern metropolis: How Shanghai was born of a refugee crisis

Shanghai in 1930. Image: Getty.

When George Balfour, the first appointed British consul of Shanghai, envisaged the future of his British-only settlement at the end of 1843, he stood on a piece of marshland by the Huangpu River.

Balfour could not have imagined in his wildest dreams the prosperous modern metropolis to come. The settlement was to be built, first and foremost, to house an influx of refugees from the Chinese hinterland.

Balfour’s master plan was neither visionary nor inspirational; it was a rudimentary division of land blocks driven by sheer pragmatism. East-west roads were laid towards the Huangpu River bank, which has lasted to this day as the enduring urban feature of Shanghai – the Bund.

The early buildings in the British settlement – consulates, trade offices and houses, sitting oddly on the muddy ground to the Chinese eye – were not meant to last. The settlers slept rough. Hoping to make a quick fortune in Shanghai, they did not intend to stay put for long.

This piece of “wasteland”, of one-kilometre-long river frontage with easy waterways connecting to the vast interior, turned out to be the most convenient and indeed strategic location for the British. The French too quickly saw the advantage. In 1856 they secured the segment between the old Shanghai town and the British Bund as the French Bund, though not as grand.

A haven in times of conflict

A remarkable population boom and prosperity occurred in the second decade of foreign settlement, when droves of Chinese refugees sought sojourn in the safe haven of foreign concession lands.

During years of turmoil, which started with the threat of the Small Sword Society in the old Shanghai town and continued until the collapse of Taiping Tianguo in 1864, the British Shanghai was never taken. More than 30m people lost their lives during the 14 years of revolution and rebellion.

Three sisters take tea at the Shanghai Lawn Tennis Club in the 1920s. Image: author provided.

It was against this background that the Chinese refugees flocked to the foreign settlements. By 1865, the population in Shanghai’s foreign concession had reached 150,000. This was 21.5 per cent of the entire population in Shanghai, and included approximately 110,000 Chinese.

Although foreign merchants were predominantly involved in trading (opium, silk, cotton and tea), building houses and letting them to the Chinese refugees proved to be far more profitable than what they originally set out to do.

An English merchant declared his naked business ambition to Balfour’s successor as British consul, Rutherford Alcock. With a profit margin of 30-40 per cent in this property development business, he showed zero concern for Shanghai’s future:

In two or three years at farthest, I hope to realise a fortune and get away; what can it matter to me, if all Shanghai disappears afterwards, in fire or flood?

This was the first time in Chinese history that the notion of profit-driven property development was explicitly displayed before the Chinese. The segregation of Chinese and foreigners as determined by land regulations was broken. The consuls of Britain, America and France subsequently revised these without any consultation with the Qing Court.

Rise of a modern metropolis

The influx of people into the foreign settlements also enabled the inevitable transition of economic structure – that is, the shift from a primarily trade-driven one to that of production and industry.

In addition to the building industry, reeling mills, yarn and flour factories emerged on the banks of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek. These provided a vital force that pushed the unskilled farmers from the hinterland into various trades – a marker of the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of Shanghai.

The hybrid shiku men housing at one time dominated Shanghai. Image: kafka4prez/Flickr/creative commons.

The early houses were makeshift timber terraces built in shanty construction, which were known as li (the ancient name of neighbourhood). But the governments of foreign settlement abolished this sort of construction after 1870, mainly because it was prone to fire.

From then on, the mixed construction of timber and masonry called shiku men (stone gate building) had gradually replaced the early makeshift timber terraces as the dominant residential pattern and urban form of modern Shanghai.

Better built and more costly than the earlier timber houses, the parsimony of their land use meant dwellings were clustered together like the English terrace house, one next to the other within the parallel urban grids of the streets and laneways. Being low maintenance and high rent, the shiku men housing became very popular in Shanghai.

This form of housing quickly spread over the old Shanghai town and other places occupied only by the Chinese. The country gentry and land owners had their first taste of modern urban life when they stayed in these houses. They were small, confined, dark and poorly ventilated.

Only in Shanghai: fashion in the street in 1948. Image: author provided.

The Confucian world of paterfamilias, though tenuously held by the hall and symmetry of the old shiku men, begun to be shaken by the distraction and allure offered by the larger interior of the city.

The extension of confined shiku men to the laneways and streets led to the world of delicious and exotic food, intoxicating drinks, shops selling fine things, sleazy opium dens and brothels, splendid dancing halls holding elegant balls, racetracks and casinos. All were irresistible.

The porosity between the house and street became the precursor of a lively urban life. It exuded the glitter of the city as the replacement of the internalised Confucian world – the courtyard. “Shanghai petty urbanites”, coined by one of Shanghai’s favourite literary daughters, the exceedingly talented Eileen Chang, are symbiotic with this urban fabric that houses them.

The Bund in 1928, hardly recognisable as a Chinese city. Image: Author provided.

Shanghai could hardly be recognised as a Chinese city. But Chang laid bare her affection for the intoxicated city and its residents:

Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life; they are the product of a deformed mix of old and new culture. The result may not be healthy, but in it there is also a curious wisdom.

Rooted in its inception as an asylum haven, one aspect of this “curious wisdom” appears to be xenophilia. It is telling that, unlike xenophobia, this word is a modern coinage.

Modern Shanghai was soon more globalised than today’s European Union – no-one needed a passport, let alone a visa, to enter Shanghai. That some 20,000 Jewish refugees were embraced in Shanghai during the second world war was another example of the innate character of this modern metropolis.


Such magnanimous urbanity has arguably continued to this day. As the popular saying goes, Shanghai is the sea where all rivers run into it.The Conversation

Xing Ruan is director of architecture at UNSW Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.