urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Before Bay St Divided Yorkville

Goad Atlas fire insurance map showing the area between Yonge St and Queen's Park/Avenue Rd from near College St to Davenport Rd in 1913 - move over with mouse to see the same area in 1924 after Bay St was cut through

One of Toronto’s little historical secrets is the mystery of why Bay St does such a large jog at Queen St. History buffs may know the answer, but I only recently came upon it myself, and it answered many questions I’d long had about the strange disconnect in (of all places) Yorkville between Yonge St and the centre of what we now think of as Yorkville, the area west of Bay St.

The jog on Bay St creates one of Toronto’s most spectacular urban design moments, but it was far from deliberately planned that way – the placement of the tower of Old City Hall simply took advantage of a precondition in which Bay St ended at Queen St. What is today Bay St north of Queen St was originally a separate street running between Queen St and College St called Terauley St. Terauley St and the grid north of Queen St were originally laid out as part of a separate estate that did not line up with the grid south of Queen (even University Ave did not originally extend south of Queen St, whereas Yonge St was the exception as it was the original concession road).

North of College St there was a one block break, and then a series of streets with slightly different alignments (called St Vincent St, Chapel St and North St) continued the rough line of Terauley St north to Bloor St. North of Bloor St, no streets crossed through Yorkville along the Terauley St alignment. In the early 1920′s, the City decided to cut the Terauley alignment all the way through from Queen St to Davenport Rd and rename it as an extension of Bay St. The late date of Bay St’s creation north of Queen partly explains the lack of significant historical buildings along the street.

The effect in Yorkville has been more profound, as Bay St essentially split the old village in two. Originally, the centre of Yorkville was clearly along Yonge St (very few commercial buildings even existed at the time along Bloor St). Both the library and the fire hall were located close to Yonge St on Yorkville Ave. Since the 1920′s and the cutting through of Bay St, the fortunes of Yorkville west and east of Bay seem to have gone in different directions. While Yonge St has lost most of its connection to Yorkville and sense of it’s former individuality, Yorkville west of Bay was destined to become a centre for artists and alternative culture and finally a very unique boutique shopping district, maintaining a significant amount of its character and village feeling.

The Subway to Nowhere?

Vaughan north of highway 407 (source: google maps)

The Spadina subway extension to Vaughan is under construction and scheduled to be open for the end of 2015, but where exactly is this thing going? Sure it goes to York University (which I think most people would accept is a good idea), but there will be a full 2 more stations north of Steeles Ave into Vaughan, so what exactly is up there? See above… Oh dear… It looks like we’re extending a subway line that originally kind of went to nowhere, to another even more extreme nowhere, a vast sea of single-storey warehousing, manufacturing, big box stores and railway lands. But wait! Building a subway will result in massive development right? So this area is ripe for a total makeover, right? Oh wait a minute… here’s the famed subway-driven development along the Yonge St corridor north of highway 401 from Sheppard Ave to north of Finch at the same scale, the result of almost 40 years of development (see below).

Yonge St development corridor north of highway 401 at the same scale (source: google maps)

I guess the even more modest kind of development around the Sheppard Line wouldn’t have much of an effect either (see below).

Sheppard Ave development corridor north of highway 401 at the same scale (source: google maps)

So just how large is this sea of nothingness that we’ve sent a subway line to? Oh, that’s right, as large as the entire downtown core of Toronto (see below). Damn.

Downtown Toronto from the Union Station to Bloor at the same scale (source: google maps)

Lujiazui and the “Pudong Miracle” – 20 Years of Transformation

Lujiazui financial district in Pudong seen in 1990 and in 2010 from across the Huangpu River over the Bund in the historic International Settlement area of central Shanghai

The Pudong New Area (浦东新区) in Shanghai was first masterplanned in 1990, at a time when most of Pudong (浦东, named for being east (东) of the Huangpu River (浦), as opposed to Puxi (浦西) west (西) of the river) was factories, warehouses, villages and farmland with typical 1980′s Chinese residential development taking place. At that time Pudong had only 2 road tunnels under the Huangpu River connecting it to the rest of Shanghai and Shanghai’s first metro line had not even started construction. Shanghai’s metro line 2 linking Pudong to central Shanghai would not open until 1999, but by then Pudong was already well on it’s way to representing a model of the dream of highly planned and modern rapid development that China was reaching for.

The Lujiazui (陆家嘴) area in particular had already started to become an icon of the city as Shanghai’s new financial centre, its visibility and image guaranteed by its position directly opposite Shanghai’s historic Bund where the hoards of tourists who came to see Shanghai’s history could also see the city’s future in the forest of towers across the river.

Fast forward to 2010, and Pudong is connected to the rest of Shanghai by four huge bridges and five road tunnels, and serviced by 6 metro lines. The whole thing is a stunning representation of the development of Shanghai (and China) over the last 20 years, years that have changed Shanghai forever.

On the other hand, from an urban design perspective, Pudong can be seen as part of a much larger failure of suburban planning and design in China and around the world. Even in Lujiazui, surrounded by office towers, the enormous roads, distance between buildings and lack of pedestrian scale make a clear (and no doubt intentional) break with the historic city in Puxi, and there is a complete lack of character as a result of what can clearly be recognized as a suburban planning philosophy (with “Chinese characteristics”). This has even produced a cultural split between people who prefer Pudong and people who prefer Puxi, with, in some people’s minds, Puxi representing the past and a lesser quality of life, and Pudong representing the future and the modern lifestyle expected by upwardly mobile people in China these days.

The urban design success of Lujiazui is largely scenic – it is meant to be seen from across the river as a symbol of Shanghai’s rise onto the world stage, and act as a platform to look back at the old city from the heights of the city’s current success. Lujiazui’s intended function as Asia’s preeminent financial centre should have produced one of the great modern urban districts, but the result is still best experienced from across the river while walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s 150 year old international financial centre and one of the great streets of the world.

The view from the famous Bund along the Huangpu River, showing Lujiazui and its towers

Source: Before/After image via Reddit

Deconstructing the Shanghai Expo – Part III: The Size

Google Maps satellite imagery of Venice (move over with mouse to compare to outline of Shanghai's Expo at same scale, rotated to best fit and reducing distance across Huangpu River)

Just how big was Shanghai’s Expo? A constant refrain from anyone visiting was how tiring the whole thing was as a result of how much walking was required (of course the heat didn’t help). Officially the Expo was 528 hectares (or just over 5 square kilometres), but how big is that? A neat comparison is with another contained place around which you mostly have to walk, Venice. The main central islands of Venice (above) are about 540 hectares (not including the port facilities at left), almost the same size as the Expo site! The Expo outline used above (traced from Google Earth) turned out smaller than the official site size (c. 400 hectares instead) but the sizes still seem comparable.

Google Maps satellite imagery of the Shanghai Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to outline of Venice's main islands at same scale, rotated to best fit)

More shocking than the size itself, is the comparison of how much city fabric of Venice’s type can fit in the same area of the Expo site, revealing just how massive the Expo buildings were (are).

Detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion area - Google Maps satellite imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to Venice's urban fabric at the same scale)

More detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion area - Google Maps satellite imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to Venice's urban fabric at the same scale)

If you haven’t seen them, don’t forget to check out Part I of Deconstructing the Expo: By The Numbers , and Part II: The Effacement

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Deconstructing the Shanghai Expo – Part II: The Effacement

Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

Before anyone gets too teary-eyed about the impending disappearance of most of Shanghai’s Expo 2010, they should spare a thought for what was there before the enormous 528 hectare site was largely wiped clean in readying the tabula rasa for all that cloying architectural play-time.

Despite the amount of greenwash that got thrown around, it hardly seems like the most sustainable thing in the world to wipe clean over 5 square kilometers of city for a 6 month event, and then have to start wiping most of it clean again. And as for so-called Urban Best Practices, the minimal amount of industrial heritage that was preserved hardly measures up to even the standards set by many adaptively-reused creative districts in Shanghai itself, let alone in so many other cities around the world.

Of course, the result will be the perfectly-sized (ie. huge), empty lots ready for high-density redevelopment that modern Chinese urbanism revolves around – not much new there.

We also shouldn’t forget the 18,000 households that were moved off the site to new housing elsewhere, although domestic media worked hard to remind us how much better and more wonderful all those people’s lives are now, thanks to the Expo!

Continue below to zoom in at some more detailed areas of the Expo site – Google hasn’t perfectly lined up the two sets of satellite imagery but they’re close enough.

Detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

More detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

Detail of west end (Zone C) with European and African pavilions - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

Whoa there – that looks like a village, still thriving in the centre of Shanghai in 2004! Those even look like fields or market gardens! Isn’t that the kind of thing that designers are constantly proposing for the sustainable future, and here it was, sadly wiped away by the Expo. And what an interesting pattern it had… of course that had to be wiped away too, to be replaced by the giant big box of the Africa Joint Pavilion… oh well!

More detail of west end (Zone C) with European and African pavilions - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

Detail of the Corporate pavilion area in Zone D - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

Detail of the Urban Best Practices Area in Zone E - Google Earth imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to May, 2004)

In the Urban Best Practices Area you can see the most preserved buildings (albeit most of them heavily altered), but you can still see how fundamentally the pattern and texture of the fabric was altered for the purposes of the Expo.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t forget to check out Part I of Deconstructing the Expo: By The Numbers

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Demolition of Tianjin’s old city

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

Mass demolition of old districts is something of a “normal” thing in China, but to people who imagine that the large-scale destruction of historic city centres is a thing of the relatively distant past, the fate of Tianjin’s old chinese city serves as a sobering case. As Google Earth imagery shows, between November 2000 and January 2004 almost the entirety of the area within the old city walls (defined by the large roads forming a horizontal rectangle that replaced the walls), and a considerable part of historic districts outside the walls, was destroyed. Apart from a couple of important temples, hardly a building escaped the destruction. Between 2004 and 2009 the entire area was rebuilt primarily with high-rise residential buildings and a grid of large wide avenues (see 2009 airphoto below).

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in May 2009

Two streets were rebuilt (not preserved) as “historic” streets in faux Qing style architecture – in the airphoto you can clearly see that the size and roofs of these buildings are not those of the original old buildings, and this type of street is certainly not unique to Tianjin, nor is the concept of demolishing a historic district and replacing it with a sanitized disneyfied historical recreation. Below in the central detail area you can also see the incredibly fine grain of the original historic city fabric.

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and January 2004 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

East of the old city walls was an old commercial district along the Hai River, now home to something called “Ancient Culture Street”, but again you can clearly see from the 2000 airphoto (see rollover below) just how much of the historic fabric has been preserved (one temple and 6 courtyard warehouses along a lane). Even Beijing has been guilty of this attitude towards a “historic” street in the Qianmen St “renovation” which includes an “old tyme” streetcar route and restaurant staff dressed up in Qing dynasty costumes.

Google Earth imagery of the old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and May 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

It seems pretty odd (but fairly typical in China) to have a city concerned to display and exploit its historic pedigree, while at the same time indiscriminately demolishing its own genuine heritage. The reasons are certainly complex and numerous, but foremost among them seems to be a perception that the actual heritage is not nearly impressive or valuable enough to warrant saving, nor, if saved, would give the city’s history the requisite prestige, dignity and respect. Most chinese cities seem to have decided that as far as both tourists and city residents are concerned, it’s far more popular, profitable, and prestigious to create sanitized reproduction tourist traps.

Of course, the excuse of “face” may just be masking a deeper reason for demolition and development: money. Many current residents of the overcrowded, underserviced and dilapidated buildings in older districts tend to be eager to receive the government rehousing compensation that comes from the repossession of their homes, giving them the opportunity to move into more humanely spacious and serviced modern apartments. Meanwhile, the government is just as eager to earn the profits from selling (or should we say flipping?) the repossessed and cleared land to the highest bidding developer. Needless to say, the profits available from renovating buildings within the existing fabric would fall far short of those from even relatively low-density redevelopment, and given that there are no property taxes in China, cities are basically forced to make money from land sales. Meanwhile, the compensation for the original residents tends to allow them to buy cheap apartments far out at the edges of the city, while the property prices in the older districts inflate endlessly beyond the reach of even many of the middle class.

Further complicating the situation in Tianjin is the city’s history (or in this case, lack of ancient history). As history in China goes, Tianjin’s 600 years of establishment (at least as a walled, officially recognized city) pales in comparison to most chinese cities. Then, like Shanghai, Tianjin was opened up to foreign concessions in the 19th century and the history of the chinese city essentially was overshadowed from that point forward. As a result, the many western buildings of the former foreign concessions have been seen as far more valuable than the messy, dilapidated, overcrowded chinese city.

Regardless of the reasons, the end result is the same: widespread demolition of whole districts, destroying hundreds of years of history. The scale of the destruction can be so huge, it makes you wonder if the city has been bombed during a war or experienced some horrendous natural catastrophe. Alas, no, this is a wholly manmade and peacetime catastrophe of epic proportions.

Google Earth imagery of area north of the walled old city of Tianjin in November 2000 and May 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

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Requiem for Wujiang Lu food street

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 1 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

The remaining original portion of Wujiang Lu (吴江路) food street (east of Shimen Yi Lu 石门一路) is being demolished. The pedestrian food street has (or soon to be had) a very distinctive (dare I say delicious) curve to it which may be disappearing forever once demolition is completed. I previously reported on the contrast between the character of the food street and the earlier redevelopment of the portion west of Shimen Yi Lu and gave some history of the street itself. This post however is more about reflecting on yet another loss for Shanghai’s streetlife, so here are some before/after photo rollovers I’ve prepared (so we can kick it like it’s 1996) – first photos were taken around dinner time in October 2008 when it was absolutely crowded, rollover photos are from February 2010 in the midst of demolition.

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 2 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

And another from further east:

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 3 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

And another from nearer Shimen Yi Lu:

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 4 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

Below you can access my Flickr set slideshow “Requiem for Wujiang Rd” that I made as an act of remembrance – you can see full size versions of these before-afters as well as other photos of Wujiang Lu before demolition began, and some video compilations at end.

Below you can access my Flickr set slideshow of photos during demolition of Wujiang Rd and the small lane neighbourhoods to its north and south (the two videos below also appear at the end).

I made a couple of videos walking through Wujiang Lu and the small lane district on its south side on February 24th 2010, (Flickr only allows 90 second videos so it’s split it into two parts). See below (note, videos have music).

In google earth you can see what will become of Wujiang Lu by comparing the fate of the lane neighbourhood to the south that was demolished sometime after November 2006 – see before/after mapping below (Wujiang Rd is the curving lane through the top part of the neighbourhood):

Google Earth Imagery of Wujiang Lu area in 2006 and 2009

Google Earth Imagery of Wujiang Lu area in 2006 and 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

I won’t comment too much about this because it makes me too angry and sad to see something that was so popular and fascinating wiped away for more bland corporate anywhere urbanism.

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Wujiang Lu: Past, Present & Future

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Wujiang Lu food street, near Nanjing Xi Lu station

Wujiang Rd (吴江路) is a small street in Shanghai that has gone through several transformations in its history, from a den of vice, to a popular food street, to a high-end pedestrian “leisure” street. Situated in Jing’an district just off Nanjing Xi Lu near the subway station on Line 2, the street’s origins lie sometime before the 1860′s when its winding path following a creek made such a convenient shortcut that it became Shanghai’s first toll road and was known in chinese as Diamond Bridge Rd.

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Wujiang Lu was (rather ironically) called Love Lane when it was part of the International Settlement and was notorious from the 1920′s as a den of brothels and vice unparalleled even in the Shanghai of the time. “Despite its romantic name, everything was for sale on Love Lane.”

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At some point in later decades Wujiang Lu became a very popular food street with crowds of locals jostling for cheap treats from all over China. Unlicensed stalls lined the pedestrianized street competing with the small restaurants, some of them quite famous.

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"Wujiang Road Leisure Street" west of Shimen 1st Rd

Then along came the spectre of Expo 2010 and a very strong government desire to “clean up” places like Wujiang Lu. The section of the street west of Shimen 1st Rd was entirely demolished and replaced with “Wujiang Road Leisure Street”, a new pedestrian street of fashion boutiques and chain restaurants, a dull corporatized pedestrian mall. In events very typical of current chinese redevelopment, a place abounding in street life and food and shops affordable for most chinese locals has been replaced with expensive shops and restaurants targeted at the nouveau riche.

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The section of Wujiang Lu east of Shimen 1st Rd has survived so far, but it seems has been cleaned up a lot and the unlicensed vendors removed. It’s unclear whether or not the short remaining block still has demolition looming over its head.

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