In the late 19th century, as the Chinese empire waned, foreigners carved up Shanghai, turning the swampy land into valuable concessions controlled by the French, British, Americans and others. China was humiliated, but the foreigners did leave a picturesque legacy of leafy streets and stuccoed houses that sets Shanghai apart from other Chinese cities. Today, in order to accommodate Shanghai's swelling population and enhance its image as an international gateway, China's largest metropolis is again bringing the West to the East—this time on its own terms. Shanghai's seven satellite cities will draw so much inspiration from Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Holland and Canada that one urban planning official announced in a 2002 press circular that "foreign visitors will not be able to tell where Europe ends and China begins."
But critics are sniping that building Western-themed towns on Shanghai's outskirts is impractical and insensitive in a country that once served as a stomping ground for foreign imperialists. Granted, some of the towns have taken pains to modify their foreign themes with Chinese characteristics. In Pujiang, for instance, Italian architectural firm Gregotti Associati International has adopted everything from feng shui philosophy for window placement to extra bedrooms for the parents who often live with newlywed couples. But a Disneyland syndrome affects other suburbs. At Thames Town, one of the English-style developments that make up Songjiang New Town, an ad campaign advises that anyone fond of steeplechasing, Premier League soccer and the Beatles should consider joining the 8,000 fortunate folks who will ultimately live in this housing complex. Naturally, Thames Town will have a British exhibition hall where planners envision screening a James Bond film festival, and a church where, says one promotional poster, "you can adopt exotic marriage customs in which you exchange vows in front of a pastor."
With a minimum price of $490,000 for a villa in Thames Town—more spacious digs go for $669,000—Songjiang New Town will be out of reach for many of the lower- and middle-class Shanghai residents whose housing woes these satellite towns were originally intended to address. More than 3 million migrant workers have flooded into Shanghai, and as the city center is torn up for office high-rises, 226,000 people were forced to relocate to suburbia in 2003. But a property bubble has prevented many citizens from finding affordable housing near Shanghai. "Of course, the developers of these satellite towns want to build luxury homes that they can make a lot of money on," says Mao Qizhi, deputy director of the Institute of Architectural and Urban Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "So you need decision makers in the Shanghai government to say, 'No, we have to take care of the interests of the majority of the people, who aren't rich.' So far, that hasn't really happened."
Near Italian-themed Pujiang, a group of farmers eyeing the airy granite-and-glass concoction that will serve as the new town hall, exhibition center and restaurant arcade grumbles that there's no way they will be able to afford to live in their own hometown. But inside the building, Yue Xing, president of Shanghai Highpower-Oct Investment Ltd., one of the developers of Pujiang New Town, defends his urban vision: "We are not judging [future residents] by how much money they have but by their commitment to enjoying a better quality of life. We have to think about how to make Shanghai a green, livable place." Yue notes that his plan integrates commercial and housing areas to avoid creating residential ghettos—a common criticism of satellite towns—and that high-tech parks nearby will send a stream of scientists and engineers to live in Pujiang, thereby spawning a self-sustaining environment independent of Shanghai. The development also offers multi-income housing, in which the cheapest apartment will cost only $84,000—not bad, though hardly affordable for most people in a city where the average annual income is about $2,700.
Other planned communities, like the Spanish and Canadian ones, are stranded in the countryside with little industry to support them as organic communities. The world is littered with failed cities, where urban planners overlooked residents' needs and incomes. In the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, for instance, the sprawling urban center was designed for easy car transport but now teems with slum dwellers too poor to afford even bicycles. As Shanghai tries to address the needs of its own multiplying population, some are worried that the same mistakes could be replicated in the city's planned satellite towns. "Each of these [foreign-themed] towns wants to follow the model of quick development," says Zheng Shilong, a professor at Shanghai's Tongji University, who helped advise the municipal government on the formation of these new suburbs. "But just building an expensive residential development won't make an entire community come together." What's more, because Shanghai is a trendsetter for China, other mainland cities might blindly follow, littering the Chinese interior with gargantuan Paris Towns. "If other cities copy Shanghai on this, we could have a disaster on our hands," says Tsinghua University's Mao. "This is not the path that China's urbanization should be taking."
Even in Shanghai, most urban planners were against the foreign-themed project when it surfaced five years ago. "None of us supported the idea," says one municipal advisory-committee member. "But we weren't called in to criticize. We were called in to make the proposal work." The idea, after all, was a pet project of Huang Ju, Shanghai's former Communist Party secretary. But since dreaming up his satellite scheme back in 2000, Huang has moved on to Beijing, where he is now a member of China's Cabinet.
Today, in Shanghai, few in government seem eager to acknowledge this massive suburban undertaking. Over the past two months, three municipal departments declined to comment on the project, a curious silence in a city that is usually keen to burnish its international reputation with its latest, hippest urban scheme. Local papers, which tend to give property developments breathless coverage, have also been remarkably muted in recent months. Ironically, the developers of those foreign-styled suburbs that are already finished report high sales rates for what are, after all, some of Shanghai's most comfortable neighborhoods, even if some of them feel as charmless and inauthentic as an oversize miniature-golf course. But as the upper echelons move into their plush digs, the rest of the city is left to wonder why there aren't enough satellite towns suited for them. In the end, Shanghai's concession to an international future may prove as politically unpopular as its foreign concessions of the past.