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Shanghai's high anxiety
( 2003-09-25 15:00) (Shanghai Star)

After the vigorous urban renovation work of the past decade, Shanghai is facing ever more controversy over its crowds of skyscrapers.

Statistics show that by the end of 2002, Shanghai had a total of 4,916 tall buildings, of which 2,800 were over 18 storeys high.

By the end of June this year, another 2,000 buildings of more than 18 floors were either under construction or in the planning stage.

The rapid rise in the number of these tall buildings, which only a few years ago was still considered an achievement in terms of changing the city's dilapidated appearance, has increasingly taken on a troubling aspect.

"The excessive development of tall buildings in downtown Shanghai worsens the city's image and goes against its long-term goal of becoming a pleasant place to live and work," said Guan Zhuangmin, chairman of the Urban Construction and Environmental Protection Committee of the Shanghai People's Congress.

In the face of the many negative effects caused by densely packed skyscrapers, the Municipal Congress has decided to move to amend urban planning regulations and to limit the number of tall buildings in the downtown area.

However, in the eyes of many people, this sudden reversal comes a little late. As the Chinese saying goes - it seems to be tending to the flock after the sheep have already been stolen.

Excessive density

The congestion of tall buildings has already brought a large population into the downtown area.

Statistics show that the population in the urban area has reached 9.11 million. The density is around 40,000 people per square kilometre, three times that of Tokyo and 1.74 times that of Paris.

Yet some researches indicate that a population density exceeding 20,000 people per square kilometre can compromise an area's prosperity.

The large population has also begun to put severe pressures on the already fragile municipal establishment.

The limitations on electricity and water use during the summer season are a reflection of this stress.

The large population has also led to traffic congestion in the area.

On Nandan Lu in the Xuhui District, where a lot of tall buildings have been constructed, residents say they face traffic jams from Monday to Friday, and from morning to evening, with lunch time as the only exception.

This situation is not restricted to the Xuhui District alone. Statistics show that the number of vehicles in the downtown area poses a great threat to the city's transport budget.

The subsidence caused by the dense clusters of high-rise buildings has also become quite serious.

Research indicates that in the past decade urban construction, especially of tall buildings, has contributed to 30 per cent of the subsidence in the downtown area.

The rate of subsidence has reached 12 to 15mm per year in Lujiazui, the Central Business District in Pudong. And no slowing of the trend is predicted soon. At this rate, every 10 years the area will sink by the height of one stair.

That means more investment in flood protection works, more underlying danger to, and from, gas and water pipelines and higher risks to tunnels.

The 4,000-odd high-rise buildings densely dotted in the downtown area have also concentrated a lot of heat within the area. The number of "tropical islands" have increased from three 10 years ago to eight nowadays.

The city's original good intention was to improve local living standards by pulling down the city's old quarters and setting up new ones. This has been partly achieved.

Although the average living area of residents has increased from 7.3 square metres per head in the early 1990s to 13.1 square metres today, the fresh-air and sunlight they receive has been sharply reduced.

Statistics show complaints related to inadequate sunlight due to high-rise buildings now rank third among all petitions the municipal government receives from locals.

Urban planning

How come the urban planning sector, which is supposed to give the city a long-range blueprint, has tolerated the disorderly emergence of so many high-rise buildings in its plans?

"One important reason lies with the lack of due respect towards these plans," said Zhu Ronglin, a professor with the State Council's Development and Research Centre.

In contrast to foreign countries, where an urban plan is taken as law and carefully observed, in Shanghai a change of plans during the later stages of implementation is not a rare occurrence.

On the other hand, the urgent need for renovation of old urban areas also provides a great opportunity for the rise of these high buildings.

"The government is in need of developers to help renovate the old quarters and construct new buildings," Zhu said.

Although the new policy is a little late for the downtown area, which is already over-crowded with high buildings, there is still a lot the city can do to improve the situation. But the city is taking its time.

The Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau has recently divided the 663.5 square kilometres downtown area into 242 blocks. Inspections will be carried out on each of these blocks to ensure the observation of the proposed new standards.

Negotiations are also being undertaken by the government with real estate developers involved in the construction of high buildings in the downtown area.

By providing appropriate compensation for amending previous contracts, the city hopes developers will better understand the city's overdevelopment problems and lower their height to the new standard.

Yet since the contracts in question have already been written, a co-operative response from the developers is essential if the new approach is to succeed.

"That is quite a hard job," said Wu Jiang, vice-director of Shanghai Urban Planning Administrative Bureau, when discussing the progress of the negotiations.

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