My China Dream: Breathable air in a walkable city

We are choking.

For the last few days, Shanghai has been engulfed in smog so thick, you can feel the dust particles percolate in your nose down through to your lungs with every breath you take. Shanghai’s Pollution Standard Index (PSI) stands at over 460 (updated: and we’ve breached 500 600, the worst in recent history), which reads hazardous but I’m luckier than the young and elderly as I only have a headache and a sinus pinching my nasal cavity. Today is as bad as I’ve ever seen in the years that I’ve been living here.

Readers, I don’t have a photo for you because all I see outside is a grey wall. It’s simply too depressing, I’ve even shut the blinds of my office.

What now?

That was the topic of discussion as I stepped into my office this morning. Colleagues complained that air purifiers have been sold out online and in stores. Masks were merely psychological, they dismissed, because you can even taste the smog in your own home. The helplessness is palpable and so citizens resort to rants and ironic jokes that trickle through the social media channels in an attempt to ameliorate the frustration. Or as a sassy secretary quipped, “At this juncture, what are the government and the people really supposed to do to mitigate the situation?”

Originally, I had wanted to discuss an important urban issue of walkability in Shanghai, sparked by an academic Mariela Alfonzo whom I had a long discussion with about urban planning in Shanghai. She is a Fulbright scholar examining walkability in this city, on the basis that walkability is positively linked with economic performance. The Atlantic Cities blog had a good write-up on a State of Place index created by Mariela,

“Alfonzo’s State of Place tool is much more fine-grained than Walk Score, which has become a standard for people seeking to evaluate real estate choices such as home-buying or renting on the basis of walkability. It uses the IMI to measure things like outdoor dining, benches, street trees, sidewalks, number of vehicle lanes, and the like. Then State of Place takes it to the next step, generating 10 “sub-scores” that rate connectivity, density, safety from crime, safety from traffic, public space/parks, proximity to commercial destinations, physical activity facilities, aesthetics, pedestrian amenities, and form.”

Mariela has been leading walks around Shanghai on the weekend, discussing urban design elements during the exploration. You can read more or sign up here.

Walkability was on my mind the day after I met Mariela. Two weeks ago, I was in Putuo district, a rare occasion since I’ve always felt the area had little aesthetic draw, few heritage landmarks to speak of and embodied the cookie cutter Tier 2 city layout I found unappealing.

Why the unforgiving description, you ask?

During Shanghai’s foreign concession days, when the French, British and Americans carved out territories across the city, Putuo and Zhabei districts were placed under Chinese administration. For much of the 1920s, due to civil unrest that took place from the end of the Qing dynasty to the warlord era, peasants had fled from the north to Shanghai for safety and often came in via the Shanghai Railway Station in Zhabei. With little money or government support, squatters proliferated along the Suzhou river and in neighborhoods all over Zhabei and Putuo districts with deteriorating standards of hygiene and rampant diseases. Subsequently, Japan’s invasion of Shanghai in the 1930s resulted in the bombing of Zhabei district, which placed even greater resource and housing pressure in Putuo, which heaved under the desperation of refugees.

And so, in the decades after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it made sense to rebuild the two districts as blank slates. Squatter housing were demolished and replaced by boxy communal apartments which sprouted up to house assigned families. Now, Putuo district is an amalgam of 1960s and 70s housing mingled tightly with 1990s, 200s private housing and now even more littered in large parcels of land.

I sat in a cab that drove along Jiaotong Lu (交通路), which ran along the railway lines that led to the Shanghai Railway Station and also bordered Putuo and Zhabei districts. Beyond pockets of green and quite lovely neighborhoods, the roads were newly widened to accommodate vehicles. Residents walked gingerly along thin sidewalks shielding their mouths from road dust from passing cars, trucks and scooters caught in traffic. Huge billboards touting new gated communities and utopian green living ran alongside the roads for miles.

As you move away from the core of Shanghai’s metropolitan area, the city is growingly built for cars and less for pedestrians. Instead, urban planners centre communities around metro stops and shopping malls but unconsciously created an overwhelming and crippling sprawl. Driving through Putuo, I struggled with dusty roads and worse, the imprint of indistinguishable housing, variable only by height. Yet I knew of young Chinese couples seeking new homes in these very blocs, a shot at raising a family in an affordable home with cordoned-off greenery. But really, it is at the cost of walkability because new sub-districts in such gated communities are far from public transportation and sewn in concentric circles by a giant shopping centre. You could argue that these estates would have artificial parks built into them, and they are truly walkable. Or are they?

“After we move to the new apartment, we’d get a car of course,” my colleague excitedly shared as she showed me showroom pictures of her new apartment that was being built.  “A four-wheel drive so we have room for the baby stroller and my parents.” They’d dangle a bright red Chinese ornament under the rearview mirror which would often say “Peace” meaning, to drive safely. Maybe add a few Hello Kitty pillows in the back.

That is the China dream then, I asked a Chinese friend once. She shrugged. I have to focus on my kid, she replied. I suppose we just want the best for them. Clean air, green parks, good schools. She peered into her lunch tray as if to suggest that was the best list she could come up with, or at least reasonable expectations in her lifetime.

And so, here we are.

I’ve just peeked past the blinds. The smog has accumulated even more and I can barely make out the skyscraper across from me. I wonder if there is another office worker drinking his or her coffee on the 29th floor, trying to make out my silhouette through the haze. I bet we’re both wondering when we’ll get breathable air again so we can talk a nice stroll around the city.

Putuo district 02

Putuo district 04

Putuo district 03



  • Reply December 9, 2013


    Do you want me to send you some 3M 9001V’s? Maybe stock up for the next time.

  • Reply April 15, 2014


    I miss the old Shanghai – clean, humid, sunny. But now it is full of dust. Hope it will be good in future.

    • Reply April 15, 2014

      Sue Anne

      We have good days, spring and the turn of autumn brings out the best in the city. But the pace of building will not stop, alas, I think it’s something we have to live with. But people here are demanding better conditions – food, water, air – I think they will get there albeit slowly.

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