I took these photographs on a recent travel excursion. Can you guess where I was?
If you guessed somewhere in the UK, you’re wrong. I was in Shanghai, China.
I was visiting a development called Thames Town, which is part of Shanghai’s One City, Nine Towns initiative. One City, Nine Towns is of a series of planned communities around the outskirts of Shanghai, each one designed after a different European architectural style: British, German, Italian, Spanish, Scandinavian. They were meant to echo the international flavor of Shanghai’s colonial past, but something happened in the execution.
The homes in these new developments reportedly can cost as much as $900,000, a hefty sum made even less attractive by the distance from the city centre. Many units were snatched up by speculators who have failed to find buyers. From what I have read, none of the Nine Towns have reached adequate occupancy levels, and in some cases construction was halted before completion.
The result, at least for Thames Town, is something that looks like Disney, or a movie set: buildings that don’t look fully real, few signs of everyday living, and storefronts with displays in the window but no actual businesses inside. It’s made all the more eery by scores of Chinese wedding couples using the development as the backdrop for their professional photographs. In addition to the red phone booths and the Winston Churchill statue, there’s a church and a church green:
And tons of mostly British architecture:
And a chip shop:
And even fake British people:
In the face of globalization, I believe each city should preserve and cultivate the cultural elements that make it different from any other city on the planet. We need authentic, unique places—now more than ever. Maybe I’m bringing in my own cultural biases, or maybe Shanghai’s identity in the 21st century is in fact something like Disney, but Thames Town feels all wrong to me (even if it was a fascinating way to spend an afternoon).
Much has been written about the One City, Nine Towns project. If you find it as fascinating as I do, you should check out this Smithsonian Magazine slide show, this piece from Time, and also this piece from the cultural journal Assembly. If you’re really serious you might want to read a new book by urban planner Harry den Hartog, Shanghai New Towns.
I was in Shanghai to present a paper at a conference for CAMOC, the city museums committee within the International Council of Museums. In the coming weeks I plan to post several entries chronicling both the conference and my overall experience in Shanghai, but Thames Town was my top posting priority. I hope my photos do it justice.