I walked clear through Shanghai’s Italian town without knowing it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the overtly institutional, strictly geometric, blank faced, turned on end rectangular block buildings wasn’t it. This place looked more like a medical research facility where they run experiments on lab rats and monkeys than anything resembling Italy.
It’s perhaps no wonder the place was deserted.
I doubled back after coming out the other side of the development and retraced my steps back to an intersection where there was a convenience store and a few real estate offices — pretty much the only businesses I saw in the entire place — and asked a realtor directions to the Italian district. After he recovered from the apparent shellshock of having someone actually walk into his office and ask him a question, he merrily proclaimed that I was already there.
“This is Pujiang Italy Town.”
Officially, this place is called Breeza Citta di Pujiang, it’s a 15km² development meant to house 80,000 inhabitants that was designed by the Italian architecture firm Gregotti Associati International. Different than many of Shanghai’s other suburban developments, Pujiang’s Italy town is only 16 kilometers from the city center, and can be easily reached in a reasonable amount of time by taking a ride down subway line 8.
The development is part of Shanghai’s One City, Nine Towns initiative, which is pretty much an ode to the city’s cosmopolitan, economically vibrant, colonial past, by building new districts themed off the architecture of the countries that played a pivotal role during this era. Only this time the foreign powers did not need to take chunks of the city by force to instill their architectural legacy — they were invited. So Shanghai now has British, Dutch, German, American, Spanish, Swedish, French, and Italian themed districts. This project was meant to provide housing for half a million urban dwellers looking to escape the crowded conditions of Shanghais’s core, as the population there continues rising at an incredible rate.
I was surprised to find out that, as of now, this is the main intersection in the entire district
Along the lines of Anting German Town — and unlike Thames Town and the Dutch quarter of Gaoqiao — the planners did not want to make a corny, romanticized replica of something resembling their country’s architectural traditions, so they flipped to the other extreme and built what they called a modern Italian city on the silty east bank of the Huangpu River.
Apparently, the Italian developers claimed that Rome and Shanghai shared many similar architectural characteristics 2,000 years ago, and they aspired to combine these two influences together in Pujiang.
Perhaps I’ve grown so used to the anachronistic, romanticized, storybook renditions of foreign cities as I traveled around the periphery of Shanghai visiting its infamous One City, Nine Towns developments that I was ready to see something that looked like a replica of old Venice or Rome — or at least buildings that had Italy-themed facades — in Pujiang. So I was taken a little off guard that the place turned out to be more of an overtly clinical replica of some institute of technology — or, much worse, a 1980s era Brooklyn housing project. As I walked through the wide, empty streets below the towering cubes posing as houses, the lack of character and life grew startling. Boxes sticking up out of the earth make unconvincing homes.
I’m sure the fact that I was the only living, breathing thing around added to this sense of disorientation.
Though apartments here were being advertised to the hilt. The streets were lined with real estate signs, showcasing photos of what life would be like if you lived in one of these cubes. All you need is $300,000+ to spare and the desire to live in an environment that had been sterilized of character and soul.
Many of these apartments actually have private owners. As is the case with many of China’s other so-called ghost cities, many of the properties are purchased as investments, as ways of storing money (the real estate market is still seen as safe in China), and as homes for future use. So many, if not all, of the properties sell, but they are not going to people who intent to actually live in them — at least not any time soon.
I then rounded a corner, and while things didn’t start to look necessarily life-like, they at least appeared slightly more fashionable. White, rectangular protrusions stuck out over canals, whose flowing water was artistically managed like that of a fountain in a park. Plants and trees covered the houses with greenery, and an attempt was made to make a tunnel of vines over the sidewalk to shield pedestrians from the sun as they strolled around. I sure bet this place looked beautiful in the architects’ and city planners’ sketches and models.
In the words of one of the architects, “The residents here will be away from the stifling urban problems and will lead a carefree life in a natural and harmonious atmosphere.”
Perhaps, if any actually showed up.
Official numbers on how many people actually live in Shanghai’s Italy town are not available, but it is clear that the vacancy rate is at least 90%. I could pretty much count the other pedestrians that I saw in the entire place on one hand. Everybody else were security guards at the gates of the housing complexes, street cleaners, and errant construction workers going to and from building sites on the other side of the development. Once in a great while a black Mercedes or another expensive luxury car would pull out of a compound and briskly roll past. I was only walking down the street through Pujiang, but I felt out of place, as though I was somewhere I didn’t belong. In China’s scarcely populated new developments, life is conspicuous.
This was yet another of China’s ghost city.
I walked along the truly massive superblocks, many of which were at least a half kilometer long, completely alone. Even if anyone did live inside these compounds I would be separated from them by high partitioning walls that were either topped with defensive spikes or foliage — which only made them rise even higher. The streets were essentially turned into tunnels by these palisades, and simply walking here felt like running a gauntlet. The entire development was partitioned into these massive sub-divided sectors, each one serving as its own self-contained mini-district, completely closed off from the world outside.
Metropolis Magazine explains the social phenomenon created by superblocks:
Most development in China takes the form of superblocks with towers in the park-style gated communities. At up to a quarter of a mile to an intersection and often eight lanes of automobile traffic across the street, walking and biking in these districts is difficult and dangerous. Driving then skyrockets worsening congestion, air pollution, carbon emissions, and household costs.
In addition to these growing economic and environmental issues, these developments—some containing more than 5,000 dwellings—hold the seeds of rapid social decay. As we experienced in the West, this urban pattern isolates people in huge impersonal landscapes that lack identity, safety (no “eyes on the street”), community, and a human scale. We demolished a generation of social housing built on this model, and I believe the Chinese eventually will too.
There were signs pointing to a Carrefour on street posts throughout the development, and I was a little hungry and thirsty. I followed the signs, but they didn’t seem to lead anywhere — at least not to a large supermarket. I asked a gate guard at a housing complex where it was, and he just shyly pointed down the street and brushed me off. As my hunt still didn’t produce results, I asked another gate guard a little farther down the road, and he gave it to me a little more straight with a big grin on his face:
“There is no Carrefour. They did not open yet.”
The signs were basically props to give the impression that this was a real and functioning place — perhaps to give potential residents the delusion that someday there may actually be a place to purchase groceries here.
There was a distinct lack of anything in this massive development — especially since it has been open for at least seven or eight years. The place had an extensive bicycle exchange system, but that was about it. There was just one convenience store on the far side of town, an Italian restaurant on the other, and not a single place to shop, eat, or hang out in between. Not only did Pujiang’s Italian town seem uninhabited, it was pretty much uninhabitable.
Housing and downtown areas in many new cities in China are built prior to infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, places to work, and, often, good public transportation networks. This is the Catch-22 of the ghost city phenomenon: few people are going to move into a place that lacks adequate the essentials of urban life, but what would be the point of providing these essentials until there are people? In point, China’s new cities and districts are long term endeavors.
Pujiang’s Italy town is a place that Shanghai’s middle class money’ed residents are being lured to move to — and eventually they probably will. Shanghai is rapidly expanding out into its suburbs, and while there is currently plenty of farmland between Pujiang and the city, this won’t be the case for long.
Watch the video from this visit to Pujiang Italy town
For more on this topic visit our China Ghost Cities and One City, Nine Towns series.
Editor’s note: There is a section in the south of Pujiang’s Italy district where dozens of rows of high-density apartment blocks are being built (reference photos below) to eventually accommodate more than 100,000 residents who were moved off their property for the 2010 World Fair, which is 4km from Pujiang. When they are relocated, this district will obvious take on more signs of life, but as relocation zone is more or less separated from the main parts of the Italian town and is an entirely different story in and of itself, I did not mention it in the article above.