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'Shantytowns' Completely Eliminated: THE NEWER, THE BETTER?

Shanghai's Jing'an District has taken the lead in achieving the "Five-year Plan" to redevelop all '"dilapidated" houses under "Level 2" standards', as the last neighbourhoods in Baoshan Road are completely expropriated amidst the pandemic.

By Peng Sun (Olivia) and Cheuk Yi Li (Joey)

Written for the Cities and Social Change module, where students are tasked to investigate a physical and social change in a street, neighbourhood or city of their choice.

Stepping into one of Shanghai's typical wealthy districts with the "highest residential quality and commercial prosperity" [1], Jing'an District come into view with high-rise landmark buildings, Plaza 66 mall and Shanghai Exihibition Center, on both sides of the bustling streets. Reaching up gloriously to the sky, these magnificent buildings speak for Jing'an's title as "China's No. 1 City District" [1].

Plaza 66 mall of Jing’an District [Source: Authors]

Walking along Baoshan Road, a rather contrasting scene of large construction sites sits ahead. Rendered photos on fencing walls illustrate new looks of the area, evoking much awe of the ever ongoing development of Jing’an. Fully engrossed by the envisioned future, renovation signs on clustered ‘Lilong’ (old-back-alley) houses stand out as one enters the unusually empty residential area. Staggering rows of old buildings have been sealed, leaving no trace of residential activity. Occasionally, passersby in shabby clothes gaze from a distance down the road. Through conversations with several stakeholders, the story behind this extraordinary scene was unveiled.

Located in the middle east of Jing’an District, Baoshan Road is a street lining several of these neighbourhoods. Mr Lou, writer of Today's Headline explained: “These houses resulted from poor maintenance after refugees occupied these houses post Cultural Revolution and are classified as ‘“dilapidated” and under “Level 2” housing standard’” [2]. Uncle Zhou, 73-years-old, lived in this neighbourhood since birth through retirement. His triangular-shaped room of about 10 square metres accommodated six people, with a portable toilet and shared kitchen [3]. It is difficult to miss the lack of ventilation and sanitation, poorly-installed facilities, particularly the shattering staircases and leaking roofs even in these dark rooms. The need to resettle these residents became more compelling to prevent infections especially during the pandemic.

Rendered photos on construction sites [Source: Authors]

It is shocking that such a distressed neighbourhood is part of Shanghai's most prosperous district. According to the government‘s “13th Five-Year Plan for Housing Development of Shanghai”, these ‘shantytowns’ are “the focus of demolition and redevelopment” [4]. The goal is to transform about 2.4 million square meters of ‘housing under “Level 2” standards’ in the central urban area. Jing’an has taken the lead in completing the expropriation of 326,400 square meters of these houses of over 25,000 households, achieving the “13th Five-Year Plan” eight months ahead. Neighbourhoods 31, 149, 150, and 152 on Baoshan Road is the last target [5].

Recognising the benefits of resettlement, residents like Uncle Zhou have “eagerly agreed” to sign the expropriation contract [3]. According to the Chairman of Baoshan Road Street Neighbourhood Committee, Mr Hu, residents were offered two options: 1) monetary compensation 2) alternative housing. Households with floor area less than 22 square meters per capita receive additional subsidies. Most chose monetary compensation and are dispersed everywhere, relocating to other districts or back to their hometown [6]. The first round of expropriation negotiations concluded with 99% of agreements signed in December 2019 [5]. Those who have not agreed were reluctant to leave their home of a lifetime. Resident A nursed a grievance against the “sugar-coated banishment of the unwanted poor”. “Challenged by peer pressure”, Resident A “gave in” and signed the contract [7]. By April 2020, full expropriation completed [5].

Considering the sudden coronavirus outbreak, Uncle Zhou expected the second round of negotiation to be delayed. “Unexpectedly, the government did not stop the redevelopment, and our site soon took effect.” [3]

Uncle Zhou in his home of 10 square metres [Source: Authors]

It is remarkable how efficiently Baoshan Road Street Neighbourhood Committee and Construction Management Committee of the District have “jointly continued the expropriation amidst the epidemic” by applying information technology for the first time. For instance, Wechat platforms, ‘e-collection’ software, and remote VR devices provided residents immediate access to public information such as their contracts and allowed them to see alternative housings virtually [5]. Mr Chen, living in Neighbourhood 150, was “too excited to fall asleep”. But every time he sees the new buildings, clean roads and beautiful greenery through VR, he feels relieved, “I didn't expect the video to have such calming effect.” [8]

This transformation could improve residents' living conditions, promoting district development and Shanghai's city status. But there have been disputes regarding whether the transformation is reasonable and if these ‘shantytowns’ should be demolished.

Shanghai Municipal People's Congress representative, Hongwei Gu [9], addressed negative impacts of these “dilapidated” houses on Shanghai's image as an international modern metropolis and the restricted development of central urban area. The barely livable, overly crowded houses also pose great fire hazards. He submitted a proposal which advocated eliminating these ‘shantytowns’ promptly and the need for appropriate resource allocations, regulatory and financial support to promote city transformations.

On the other hand, backed by Mr Lou, Jiang Wu, Deputy of the Municipal People's Congress and Vice President of Tongji University, believes in the importance of historical and cultural heritage over its incongruity in this flourishing city. “‘Lilong’ houses”, he emphasises, “is an distinctive culture of Shanghai’s history that’s gradually disappearing and will bring irreparable loss, damaging Shanghai's cultural and comprehensive competitiveness.”[9] He urges immediate implementation of protection mechanisms and measures for all these existing ‘Lilong-style’ houses.

Sealed “dilapidated” houses after expropriation [Source: Authors]

Besides, Baoshan Road was once the base camp of the workers’ movement after the War of Resistance against Japanese aggression in Shanghai [10]. Mr Lou articulated the classic scenes of the film “Flowers”, directed by Wang Jiawei. Filmed on Baoshan Road, it “resonates the rich culture of good old ‘shantytowns’, and embodies the spirit of Shanghai” [2]. Facing demolition, such a place will only remain in memory.

“Use of term ‘“dilapidated” housing under “Level 2”’ should be abolished in the development work,” Mr Wu accentuates [9]. As the so-called “standard” is measured by physical qualities where the inherent values of architecture are disregarded, he believes such label is disgraceful to these buildings embedded with high historical preservation value.

Regardless, many do agree planners and governments strive to improve the city. Highlighting the principle in the “Five-Year Plan” to “maintain, transform and demolish” with “maintain” as top priority, Mr Lou poses the question: “Be that as it may, why is the debate around demolition unabated?” [2]

“sugar-coated banishment of the unwanted poor” - Baoshan Road resident

The core issues revolve around fundamental challenges of planning due to conflicting objectives and socioeconomic impacts on particular stakeholders. “Expropriation could improve the built environment, propel economic activities and growth, making room for new buildings and commercial facilities”, the “Five-Year Plan” states [4]. Architect Jian Shi disagrees, instead proposing the way in which these ‘down-to-earth corners’ attract low-level employees, increasing city competitiveness, and thus are in turn the “driving force for city development” in his commentary [11]. The “banishment of low-income households out of the district or even the city” [2] - as Mr Lou describes it - could improve district-level economic indicators, thus, benefit the local government, developers, and the citizens enjoying the new amenities. Yet the citizens receiving these benefits are mostly the rich and wealthy upper-class who remain. “Such resettlement”, Mr Lou suggests, “intensifies the social segregation between the rich and the poor by the spatial divisions of districts.” [2] Ms Wang, a white-collar worker in Jing’an who was unaware of the issue as she “only ever visits the office buildings and malls” [12], typifies his argument.

Additionally, many opposing critiques concentrate on whether residents’ quality of life are actually improved. Theoretically, residents should settle into better accommodation and have higher quality lives. However, effects of this relocation may not be as ideal in reality. Mrs Pan who used to work near the neighbourhood is currently unemployed as higher commuting costs “forced [her] to search for new jobs around their new settlement”. She adds: “We are still required to purchase housing through savings and the amount of compensation offered does not relieve much financial burden with Shanghai's skyrocketing commodity prices.” [13] According to Mr Zhang from Baoshan Road Redevelopment Advisory Center, there have been complaints about the complexity of compensation plan documents, posing significant difficulties for households to make decision