The Unfinished City

A city never gets finished.  It keeps getting built and rebuilt, piece by piece, changing to reflect the people who live in it.  For me, it’s a really exciting (not to mention humbling) thought.

As you’d expect (given my residency in China as well as my field of work), I get to see loads of construction sites.  To seems that almost every street in Shanghai has a massive construction effort going on, and if it doesn’t, it’ll have in the next month or so.  Buildings are knocked down and constructed at an amazing pace.

Here’s a good example – a hotel that got built last year in Changsha – 15 storeys shot up in 6 days.  An amazing video (click on the image above for the link).

Mostly though, it seems that things are getting knocked down quickly.  Just on the end of our street, most of a block has been demolished but as yet, there is no sign that anything will be built there.

Interestingly, a number of the small apartment buildings across the site have been retained and appear to be inhabited still.  I am hoping that the plan is to keep these older buildings and integrate them into the new development, but I am probably being naive.   They are in pretty bad shape and I can’t see developers seeing much potential in keeping them, especially when they can easily be replaced with a few high-rise apartments, an income-generating Starbucks and a windswept plaza or two.

It is a shame though, as in this area at least, historic buildings are valued by many.  That is, ex-pats looking to live in “authentic” Shanghainese digs for a while …

It’s pretty common to see people living in the midst of construction sites.   As the government commonly moves people out of their homes to make way for redevelopment, I guess many residents aren’t quite ready to relocate.  Rather than be dislocated from their established social networks or favourite wet market or place of work, they stay living amongst the stacks of reinforcement rods and demolition refuse for as long as possible.  A fervent disregard for common-sense safety is not uncommon here either.  I like to call it NoH+S.

Sometimes, you get quick a good peek into sites, like this one in Hangzhou.  I am wondering what was going on with the structural engineer.  That is some crayzy beamwork, my friend.

The good news is that some of the historic facade is being retained, reinforced so it doesn’t collapse (by accident or otherwise) during construction and will be integrated into the finished product.  Even though this is pretty rare, there is very little waste generally, with all materials carefully divided into type, reused on site or picked up by recyclers.  At least the third R is being embraced!

Not so for this building … Seeing it carefully shrouded in (bamboo) scaffolding, I wondered whether the plan was to keep and refurbish it.  It was quite tall (8-10 storeys) and in good condition, and by my use of past tense, it obviously was demolished soon after I took this photo.  Proof, at least, that I can be a little naive at times.

Oh yeah, in case anyone is in doubt, they do use steel scaffolding here too.

A few times I have been fortunate (?) enough to got onto some construction sites.  They are pretty captivating places … swarming with hundreds of workers (except the exact moment that I took this photo…) and speeding vehicles and huge piles of construction materials and demolition waste.  I visited this site by accident, looking for my client’s office which was on the other side of the site – a short 15 minute walk away.   I would have loved to hang around and take lots of photos, but we were running late for our presentation at that point and there was a family of angry-looking dogs blocking our path.

The same client took us to another one of their sites.  Set on the edge of town as well as the edge of a mountain, it was tagged for residential development.  All the existing buildings (farmers’ cottages) had been torn down, except for the home of a family who remained on site as pseudo-caretakers/security guards.  Along with another angry-dog family.

They were actually very welcoming to the clipboard-carrying foreigners, even though we were part of the redevelopment process that was taking them from their land.  They had just finished their annual peach harvest, and after picking and offloading 300 tonnes of stone fruit, were happy for us to grab whatever we wanted from their orchard.

I asked our client whether they planned to keep the little house in the photo above.  His slight smile made me realise that once again, my naivety was getting the better of me.

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