Exploring the role of public space in Shanghai’s urban transformation: Visionary narratives and everydayness in the quest for global excellence

Shanghai is entering a new urban regeneration phase, stressing a more people-oriented development approach whilst continuing its quest for national and global prominence. Against this backdrop, the research seeks to understand the role of public space development in Shanghai’s transformation as part of its ‘excellent global city’ vision. In doing so, the research examines the socio-economic and cultural meanings underpinning public spaces in this context; explores the design practices and discourses around new public space projects; and untangles how public spaces bridge the ‘excellent global city’ vision and the city realities. Projects examined range from those of strategic importance to those addressing the everyday needs of local communities.

This research adopts a process-oriented approach and builds a heuristic ‘order-sociality’ model of publicness to aid analysis. Utilising qualitative data collection methods including document review, observation, and semi-structured interview, the empirical study is twofold. First, a typology of public space is formulated to pinpoint key meanings of public spaces in the specific urban context of Shanghai. Second, two in-depth case studies, the 45 km Huangpu River Waterfront Public Space Connection Project and the ‘Walking in Shanghai’ community public space micro-regeneration scheme are used to investigate the material and discursive processes of these key public space projects. The case study analysis is framed by the ‘social production and social construction of space’ framework (Low, 2000, 2017), which is expanded using the ‘place-shaping continuum’ (Carmona, 2014) and three heuristics of public space (materiality, inhabitation, atmosphere) (Koch and Latham, 2011).

Through empirical evidence, the research summaries three roles of public space development in the current urban transformation of Shanghai. In addition to i) serving its utilitarian everyday ends, public space ii) acts as a material test ground to confront spatial challenges associated with macro urban transformation processes, for example by promoting desirable practices through exemplary projects. Finally, iii) public space projects can help push key narratives associated with urban regeneration, notably the need for a people-oriented urban environment and civil engagement, although this does not mean that such ideals are always translated positively on the ground. Ultimately, public spaces in Shanghai – as elsewhere – are embedded in existing power relations, and their publicness is dominated by the needs, ambitions and associated narratives of powerful urban actors.