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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2006 Issue

Working in Shanghai
Risks and opportunities abound in China’s southern megalopolis.

By Marilyn Clemens, ASLA

Working in Shanghai Courtesy Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui

From the beginning, Vincent Asselin’s experience in Shanghai was typical of working in China—like nothing he had ever known. Interviewed recently in his Shanghai office, Asselin says that it was a good thing his design team, Montreal-based Williams, Asselin, Ackaoui (WAA), had not visited the site for a new multi-block park in central Shanghai. They would have been overwhelmed not only by the scale of the project but also by the idea that nearly 5,000 families were going to be relocated and 49 acres of structures cleared. Yet this major urban-renewal effort had already been decreed and spelled out in planning documents. Residents were compensated, exchanging rundown housing for modern accommodations, albeit not in the center of town. Shanghai’s 2001 Comprehensive Plan required the 49-acre park as mitigation for the construction of an elevated freeway in the heart of the city.

Responding to a one-page program of requirements, WAA entered the competition in August 1999. It made the short list along with seven other teams and was told it might be invited to continue. On two days’ notice, the team members were called to Shanghai from Montreal, asked to look over the other competing schemes, and told on the spot that they had won. After negotiating a contract, they returned to Shanghai for the month of November, were set up in a studio in the Shanghai Arboretum, and designed a third of the park. They were also given two Chinese landscape architects to help with the work and told to provide them with training and to start preparing for construction.

Plunged into an entirely new work environment, Asselin found his counterparts were not used to a design development phase (his competition drawings had been at 1:1,000 scale), to the reuse of historic structures as park features, or to planting for the long term. To complicate matters further, the project spanned three municipal districts, each with its own mayor and parks department.

The main thing to understand about Shanghai is that 17 million people live there. Providing a healthy environment for a population of this size is a challenge no American or European city faces, but city leaders have realized that the environment is key to attracting business and international talent. To that end, Shanghai has made great progress in implementing a “greenery system” mapped out in its comprehensive plan that defines the location and size of greenbelts, forests, and parks. The mayor of Shanghai, the city’s individual districts, and other public agencies have the power and the funds to implement the system and have launched many international competitions over the past several years. Canadian and American landscape architects have been among the winning designers, and their experiences are mainly positive. Most of them feel the Comprehensive Plan has given Shanghai’s leaders great leverage in improving the city’s quality of life.

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