Shanghai is the world’s most daring urban laboratory. Since the 1990s it has sprinted into the globalization age with faster economic growth than any other mega-city. Life has consequently undergone surreal transformations for most of Shanghai’s 19 million residents. The city’s stunning built landscapes and dramatically altered modes of living offer visual evidence for Shanghai’s emergent position as a global hub. As Shanghai-based urbanist Anna Greenspan put it to me, “globalization is not something that happens in the ether.” Globalization is evident in urban development, and China’s open-door policy makes Shanghai a lesson in innumerable contrasts. Urban planning is practically a religion here, and lies at the heart of China’s long-term strategy of global integration. China’s effort to attract foreign investment and cultivate globally competitive industries is deeply infused with Shanghai’s planning strategies. Global integration brought with it a changed urban aesthetic.
The Chinese state has forcefully sought to harness the benefits of economic globalization in ways that have not always been humanistic. Neighborhoods are routinely cleared to make way for more comfortable, connected housing and up-to-date commercial infrastructure. Much of the city’s development is infused with daunting modernist landscapes of monolithic towers separated by wide parks and broad boulevards. Some construction is spectacular, like Pudong’s souring pagoda style Jin Mao tower. There is also a proliferation of poorly built, knock-off architecture. Shanghai’s state of the art public transit system simultaneously grows alongside automobile purchases, a popular status symbol for a hitherto long-deprived consumer society. Meanwhile a laboring underclass wanders through the city’s glamorized renditions of Beverly Hills.
All photographs by Josh Leon.