The perimeter of the original walled city of Shanghai is still evident from aerial photography. The city wall was initially constructed in 1553 during the Ming Dynasty to protect the fishing village from Japanese pirates who were pillaging the coast. It is quite unusual for a village of such little importance to have an extensive city wall as the one that was constructed. This construction is testament to the strategic location of Shanghai on the Huangpu River just south of its convergence with the Yangtze River. The city wall was 8 meters high with a total length of 4.8 km.
After Shanghai became one of the treaty ports in the second half of the nineteenth century new urban development occurred to the north and west of the walled city. These European and American developments were referred to as the Concessions. Foreign residents in the Concessions lived and operated under their own governments and were exempt from Chinese law. The native Chinese population withdrew to within the city wall and the area became know as Old Town. The traditional Chinese character was preserved within the wall while the new architecture of the concessions was of a European style with traditional Chinese accents.
The city wall was eventually demolished and the moat was filled after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. The wall was replaced by two curving roads, Renmin Lu to the north and Zhonghua Lu to the south. Replacement of medieval city walls and moats with modern ring roads was a common occurrence in twentieth century Chinese cities. Nowhere is this as strongly recognizable as in Beijing, where the square city wall was replaced by the Second Ring Rd in the 1950’s.
Today much of the architecture in this portion of the city retains the traditional scale and density of Old Shanghai. Many of the buildings are well over 100 years old and are in deteriorating condition. Electricity has been brought to the structures as evidenced by all of the overhead power lines, but most of the structures lack plumbing. Public latrines and sinks are located along the lanes. This lack of infrastructure and the low rise/high density nature of the neighborhood have created a truly active street life. Shops and markets line the lanes and the distinction between private and public is blurred.
Currently there is much debate on how to handle these historic neighborhoods in quickly expanding Chinese cities. Activists are now speaking out against the widespread razing of the traditional urban fabric and are pushing for preservation. Preservation in the strictest sense is not a feasible option since much of the fabric is in such squalid condition and the needed infrastructure improvements are overwhelming. Turning the area into a “museum” is not a solution either since it would merely preserve the structures and not the active civic life.
With its transition from a production economy to a consumer economy, China is realizing its great potential as a tourism destination – both to domestic and foreign visitors. This opportunity has not been missed in Old Town with the development of Shanghai Old Street, a new shopping district created in the traditional architectural style complete with Starbucks and Pizza Hut.
The preservation/development situation in Shanghai is considerably different than in Beijing where the medieval urban fabric extends across the whole city and is quite expansive (although quickly disappearing). Since Shanghai was a village until fairly recently its area of old urban fabric is rather small and concentrated and is definitely of a manageable scale.
In any case it will be interesting to see how Shanghai responds. We will certainly have our answer within the year as the Shanghai World Expo 2010 site is a short walk to the south of Old Town.