Shanghai's 2010 World Expo Exposes Challenges for China's Cities
The China Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo: What does it say about the future of Chinese cities? Photo by lee_blake_somerset.

The China Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo: What does it say about the future of Chinese cities? Photo by lee_blake_somerset.

Cities in China are “becoming ever less habitable,” and their future will depend on an “urban awakening” that includes the Chinese government’s support of public participation in urban planning and decision-making, says Zhang Song, a professor at Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, in a two-part interview on chinadialogue.

China is a country of superlatives. It has the world’s fastest train. It uses the most energy. It even has the world’s highest cocktail bar. It’s no wonder, then, that Chinese cities are now feeling the burden of having to deal with astronomical rates of sprawl, motorization and population growth.


The “Better City, Better Life” theme of the 2010 World Expo (another superlative: the biggest world’s fair) seems to signal an urban sustainability future for China. Indeed, many of the pavilions on display (here are some pictures of the coolest ones) use modern and environmentally conscious design elements, like energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, recycled building materials, and a “green wall” (another world’s largest.)

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released a report last August to assess Shanghai’s efforts in nine key areas: air quality, transport, energy, solid waste, water, green coverage, protected areas, climate neutrality and the overall situation of the Expo Site. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said: “The Shanghai Expo…is offering us a glimpse of a greener future.”

But only a glimpse. The UNEP report applauds many of the city’s efforts, but also outlines several key areas for improvement. This includes developing renewable energy sectors to move away from coal-powered electricity, promoting public transportation, reducing waste, cleaning up rivers, and encouraging public participation from NGOs and “green citizenship.”

Some critics have flat-out accused the Expo for being “insultingly hypocritical,” for being organized more like a utopian theme park than a true testament to sustainability. There are 192 countries and 50 organizations involved in the massive construction of pavilions, many of which won’t have any lasting benefit to the city.

Richard Brubaker, an expert on environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility, was quoted by NPR as saying, “the Expo, by its nature, is the very opposite of sustainable development,” and in a separate email to TheCityFix, he adds an important caveat: “If you are ONLY focused on the buildings.  There are a number of very sustainable elements that exist, and this Expo will be the only site where up to 600,000 people will be sustained for 6 months in a sustainably designed site.” (Read more about why Brubaker thinks “this Expo should be given some green credits” on his blog, Cleaner Greener China.)

Nonetheless, the Expo does reveal China’s market-led mentality of rebuilding, rather than restoring or preserving, for the sake of maximum profit, as Zhang points out in his chinadialogue interview. “The Expo has many showy buildings,” he says, “but it doesn’t seem like any of them will become classics.”

Part of problem, Zhang says, is that many of the old factory spaces that used to be on the Expo site was demolished. “If that had been made full use of, perhaps things would have been simpler, or have better embodied environmental principles.”


To fight its “urban disease,” China needs to focus more on human society, Zhang says. He outlines several recommendations, paraphrased below:

Preserve, don’t destroy: “Protecting and changing the use of old buildings is better for the environment and saves resources and energy – and also touches on hidden issues such as social structure.”

Be narrow-minded, at least when it comes to roads: The marker of liveability for a city is its human scale…In Shanghai’s [major financial district], the roads are too big, the huge buildings leave people feeling alienated, the space is badly organised and living and travelling are extremely inconvenient.”

Think green: “You need to remember that greenery and landscaping aren’t just to look nice, they actually improve the ecological environment.”

Don’t be a copycat: “There is a misconception that bigger cities are better cities. But it isn’t a question of size, it’s a question of comfort, efficiency, environmental quality, liveability and, in particular, suitability for different types of people to flourish. The government needs to recognise the nature of cities, rather than treat them as a source of prestige or as a copy of other urban centres like New York.”

Involve the public: “Urban planning is a social activity that citizens can get involved in….The future of the Chinese city depends on the citizens waking up, not just a few officials.

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