The high price of progress


First image

The Shanghai World Financial Centre, Shanghai Tower and the Jin Mao Tower rise into the clouds. Photo: Laura Meachim

From the hundredth floor it is easy to forget the manic jungle that is Shanghai, the steamy streets below filled with beeping cars and the masses engrossed in mobile devices steadily moving through their daily routine, surrounded by China’s tallest structures, spears of steel and glass standing strong against the wind.

Striking symbols of modernity, these iconic towers stand to symbolise power –  the power of a city, the power of a nation.

With more than 24 million people in one city, a booming financial trade centre and a lure for international business, Shanghai had no choice but to build up and to build where it could fit more buildings, regardless of the quality of land.

In the last two decades the area of Pudong, originally filled with swamplands and shipping ports, has been transformed into Pudong new area, its iconic skyline seen from the historic Bund in central Shanghai.

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According to Dan Safarik, the director of the Asian Headquarter for the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Planning based at Tongji University in Shanghai, Shanghai has lead the world in tall building construction for the last eight years.

Mr Safarik says Shanghai is a global competitor when it comes to mega structures, competing with the likes of Tokyo, Singapore and even Dubai.

The development has not been smooth sailing and the price for progress is high.  A city built so quickly has meant some of Shanghai’s rich history has been lost. What’s more, Shanghai has a sinking issue.

Located on the Yangtze River Delta, Shanghai is a low lying area which was named after its coastal location using the two Chinese characters shàng and hǎi, which combined means upon-the-sea.

This location is causing some problems. According to the Shanghai Geological Research Institute, Shanghai has sunk 2.6 metres since 1921.

Excessive groundwater extraction is a big issue in populated Shanghai as it causes subsidence, or more literally, causes the ground to sink.

Will Featherstone, who is the director of the Western Australian Geodesy Group based at Curtin University, says subsidence is essentially the ground sinking due to factors such as earthquakes or water, gas and oil extraction.

To put it more simply, imagine underneath the surface is a balloon filled with water. Each time you take a bit of water out, the balloon deflates causing the surface above it to deflate too.

A lot of water is required to fulfil the needs of 24 million people and a booming industrial trade, so much, that the aquifers beneath the city are being overused.

Combine groundwater extraction with soil that is inherently soft due to the location of the city and you have the perfect recipe for a sinking city.

Sinking cities are actually quite common, in fact as many as 50 cities around the world are sinking due to ground subsidence and rising sea levels.

Cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Venice, Ho Chi Minh City and Dhaka are among those at risk; even Perth is sinking.

Fortunately, Professor Featherstone says Perth is not at too much risk, as the city is only sinking around two millimetres per year.

But for a city like Shanghai the potential consequences could be severe.

Across China, there have been reported issues of sinkholes and cracks in building foundations because of ground subsidence.

In the long run, the effects could be dire should Shanghai sink below sea level.

Professor Featherstone says the only way to prevent subsidence is to stop extracting water or to pump water back into the aquifers.

“If it’s solely caused by groundwater extraction, if you want to stop it you stop extracting groundwater,” he says.

The Water Corporation in Perth is experimenting by pumping treated wastewater back into the aquifer, essentially refilling the balloon and pumping the surface back to the original level.

“In terms of logistics finding hundreds of gigalitres of water, especially fresh water, is just not realistic,” Professor Featherstone says.

The problem in Shanghai is made even worse by the physical weight of the buildings, which according to the Shanghai Geological Research Institute accounts for 30 per cent of the problem.

On the 43rd floor of the Shanghai United Media Group offices, the 360 degree view really shows you just how manic the city really is.


Pudong New Area. Photo Laura Meachim

As far as the eye can see, buildings rising out of the smog and the hundreds of streets below. Buildings that would be considered tall in Australia are mere dwarves in Shanghai and it’s easy to see how a city can sink because there are just so many big, heavy buildings.

In comparison, Perth has just 25 buildings at over 100 metres in height, the tallest, Central Park Tower stands at just 249 metres tall.


The recently opened Shanghai Tower stands at 632 metres tall and is the second tallest building in the world.

One would imagine a building of this size would be fairly heavy, but Mr Safarik explains how the building uses unique strategies to reduce its impact on the surface.

These structures are not only sinking, they also face the sheer forces of mother nature. Mr Safarik says a lot of effort goes into designing these buildings to combat the challenges of nature.

Shanghai Tower could possibly be the world’s most beautiful building, twisting into the clouds its sleek silhouette is strong and striking. Mr Safarik says the curved design serves more aesthetics as it also acts to withstand the typhoons Shanghai often experiences.

“The twist of the building actually confuses the wind, that is it drives it in a spiral and away from the building so it doesn’t cause a problem with down drafts at the base,” he says.

“Or problems with suction forces that can pull at the corners of buildings and pop the windows out.

“So it’s an engineering thing but it’s also very beautiful.”

Mr Safarik says it is called a mega suspended double curtain wall which essentially means the outer walls are held away from the core of the building.

“The glass walls you see from the outside are literally draped from these projecting concrete outriggers,” he said.

“It’s certainly the biggest application of that technology.”

The downside of such progress has meant much of Shanghai’s rich history has been lost.

Shanghai’s history extends back thousands of years, but it was established as one of China’s main shipping ports in the Qing Dynasty era, around 1644. In the 18th Century, Great Britain saw the potential for Shanghai as a trading port, forcing British opium imports by waging the first Opium war in 1839.

While Shanghai is constantly building new structures, architecture firms such as Kokai Studios are looking at more sustainable ways to introduce modern design into a historically rich city.

Based in the heart of Shanghai’s Former French Concession area, where the quaint buildings resemble the little old streets of France, it’s a little bit quieter than central Shanghai. A perfect spot for creativity, the Venetian architecture firm established its office here in 2002, driven by the goal of sustainable design that adds positively to the existing environment.

By restoring and renovating buildings with rich history, Kokai Studios not only give these structures a new life they also prove sustainable, modern design is achievable.

Pietro Paylan

Kokai Studios chief Architecture Pietro Paylan. Photo: Laura Meachim

Kokai Studios chief architect Pietro Paylan says restoring these buildings is much more sustainable than knocking down and building up again.

“You get these developers who flatten buildings and build up again, it’s not sustainable and so much history is lost,” Mr Paylan says.

He emphasises how important Shanghai’s history is to the people and how the city needs to take a step back from the corporate industry and focus on designs for the Shanghainese.

“The price paid for building the big city was that any connection with the past was erased,” he says.

“I think it’s fundamental there’s more attention to keep these buildings as a memory of what Shanghai was,

“For the Chinese themselves to keep a link, a hint of what their memory, what their historical identity is, it’s just fundamental.”

Mr Paylan says now that the big development era has slowed down, the focus lies on fixing the city and highlighting the diverse culture of Shanghai.

So take a minute to stop in the crowd, look up at and feel daunted and small, admire the engineering and design that has allowed these buildings to stand against the elements. Look down and count the cracks in the pavement and remember even a city so powerful has its issues.

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Categories: Business, General, Shanghai