Shanghai’s European Suburbs

Chinese urban planners are building new towns with a foreign flair, each mimicking architecture from Europe’s storied cities

Dutchtown-shanghai.jpg
Rémi Ferrand

Gaoqiao "New Netherlands Town"

Dutchtown Shanghai
(Rémi Ferrand)

A decade ago, as Shanghai’s population approached 18 million and housing prices skyrocketed, the city decided to act. City planners developed an initiative called “One City, Nine Towns”—satellite suburbs would be built on farmland outside Shanghai to house one million people by 2020.

Each town would create an identity through its internationally inspired architecture and attractions, like this giant clog placed in Gaoqiao “New Netherlands Town.” Outside the themed areas, which make up perhaps 5 percent of the new developments, construction proceeds at a breakneck pace.

Developers thought European themes would be attractive to Shanghai’s new rich, but ten years after launching the project, some themed towns remain empty. Others have barely broken ground; yet others have stalled, half-finished, victims of poor planning or political graft. (Another planned city, Dongtan, which is frequently included with the Nine Towns as the unofficial tenth town, has been delayed indefinitely after Shanghai Communist Party chief Chen Liangyu, who was supporting the effort, was arrested on corruption charges.) All of the towns, says French architect Rémi Ferrand, who studied them as part of a book about the region’s development fit into Shanghai’s landscape in different ways; the city, with its period of British and French occupation has always been regarded as a somewhat foreign place. Building these international “New Towns” is, in a way, “like the continuation of a story.”

Pujiang's Italian town

Italian Town Picnarra
(Tong Lam)

Pujiang’s Italian town, or “Citta di Pujiang,” designed by Italian architecture firm Gregotti Associati, uses a stripped-down style with clean lines. The town was meant to house 150,000 people displaced from Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo, which is situated to the north of the “citta,” but only half of the town has been completed. Now that a recently constructed subway line extends to Pujiang, the city may begin to fill with people, though the luxury villas downtown may still be too expensive for most Shanghainese.

Luodian "Scandinavian Town"

Luodian Scandinavian Town
(Rémi Ferrand)

Luodian, or Scandinavian Town, is a near-replica of Sigtuna, Sweden, right down to the man-made lake mimicking Sigtuna’s Lake Mälaren—but the homage isn’t perfect: the designers added a building modeled on Iceland’s House of Parliament and a replica of the famous “Little Mermaid” statue in Copenhagen. The project reportedly took six years and $800 million to complete.

Luodian "Scandinavian Town"

Luodian Shanghai houses and apartments
(Rémi Ferrand)

With homes costing five million yuan (US $730,000) and apartments costing 580,000 yuan (USD $85,000), the cost to live in Luodian is prohibitive for most Shanghai residents, who live on average salaries of 40,000 yuan (USD $5,850) per year. Local media reported, as of last year, only 8 of the 48 villas and 120 apartments had been sold.

Yet the grand scheme of enticing people from downtown may eventually work, simply because Shanghai cannot hold its new residents anywhere else. Until 1998, housing for urban dwellers was provided by the state, though the government had limited resources for new construction. As a result, many of the existing homes in Shanghai were built cheaply and without modern conveniences. With another 300,000 people joining Shanghai’s population over the next five years, these new constructions—filled with Western amenities—will be sorely needed.

Thames Town

Thames Town Shanghai
(Tong Lam)

Thames Town’s Tudor houses sit mostly empty, partly because of housing prices (the least expensive home here is six million yuan or US $880,000), partly because the town is an hour from downtown Shanghai, and partly because the homes are not what the Chinese want, says Harry den Hartog, an urban planner. “In China, because of increasing differences between the poor and the rich, the rich do not want to live on the ground floor because they are afraid of burglaries,” he says. “The inhabited parts of Thames Town have transformed into gated enclaves, which is certainly not European.” Den Hartog edited a book about the rapid urbanization of the countryside around Shanghai, in which a chapter on the “one city, nine towns” project is included.

Thames Town

Thames Town Winston Churchill and panda statue
(Tong Lam)

A statue of a panda shares space in an empty public square with a statue of Winston Churchill. “You’d never guess that anyone expected it to be a livable community,” said Sara Farina, an expat living near Thames Town.

The town also boasts a fish and chip shop copied from one in Lyme Regis, Dorset, UK; the owner of the original told the Daily Telegraph that “We are the only fish and chip shop next to a pub on a river mouth in England. And they have given it the same front and back, in an identical position but on the mouth of the Yangtse.” The developers replied that there was no law in China forbidding imitating a building, and besides, a nearby suburb had just built a replica of the White House.

Thames Town, which despite being so far away from downtown Shanghai that the few residents here are all academics working at the nearby universities, is ranked third on a “hot places to hang out” list on dianping.com, a Chinese rating site similar to Yelp.

Thames Town

Thames Town Shanghai
(Tong Lam)

Ironically, the biggest business in Thames Town may be tourism. Despite the ghost-town feel of Thames Town, the area is a popular destination for brides seeking an exotic photo shoot, and an entire industry has sprung up: photographers, flower sellers, and makeup studios all hawk their wares in this slice of London, den Hartog, the urban planner, says.

Anting New Town "Automobile City"

Germantown Shanghai
(Tong Lam)

Anting New Town, also known as Automobile City, was designed around a Volkswagen factory and brings Germany to mind. Buick, Ford, an F1 racing track and a car design university also have set up shop here. The town will eventually house 50,000 people.

The town was designed by Albert Speer Jr., the son of Hitler’s favorite architect, a fact that Westerners seem to bring up more than the Chinese who will be living in the town. Speer told Deutsche Welle, an international news site based in Germany, that in China, no one ever asks him about his father.

Spanish Town

Spanish town Shanghai
(Rémi Ferrand)

An area near 600-year-old Fengcheng has been transformed into Spanish Town, modeled after modernist Barcelonan buildings and designed by architect Marcia Codinachs, though the town, originally a coastal fort, keeps its ancient stone wall and moat. The new residents, up to 72,000 of them, will be employees of local manufacturers.

Canadian Town

Spanish Town Shanghai
(Rémi Ferrand)

“Just like Europe in the 1950s, the construction is going very quickly, and they’re not afraid to put trash everywhere,” says Ferrand, the architect. Construction on the rest of the Nine Towns initiative seems to have stalled, for now: a Canadian-themed town and two traditional Chinese towns remain in various states of incompletion. “I think the cities that are not constructed yet are not going to be built at all,” Ferrand says. But den Hartog, the urban planner, is not so sure: “The infrastructure is there—parks, lakes, but no houses. Everything is ready [in the Canadian town] to become a city.”