Course:GEOG352/2019/Access to Public Spaces in Shanghai

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Broadly, public spaces refers to “an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level” .(UNESCO) However, as discussed in Week 6, “Public space and access in the global south,” public space is defined based on local context, generally forcing people together and characterised as a site of difference and collectivity. In a rapidly urbanising global south, inclusive and well-designed public spaces can maintain health of a city and its residents. (UNESCO) Public spaces can be used for civic participation, recreation, economic exchange, and social interaction/mixing.

Around the world, and specifically in cities in the geographical south and east, access to public spaces is increasingly difficult due to increased privatisation of spaces and increased economic disparity, eroding public spaces, increasing spatial segregation, and allowing affluent individuals to gate themselves away from the general public. This leaves marginalised communities with little or no stake in public space production and participation. These groups have do not have a right to the city, due to their intersectional identities and socioeconomic status. (Week 6)

Skyline of Shanghai

Shanghai, the most populous city in China and most populous proper city in the world, has experienced inordinate change in the past half century. The country quickly transitioned from an inward-looking state with communist values to a socialist market economy: the second largest economy based on GDP, and a global powerhouse rivalling the United States. As a socialist market economy, most aspects of civilian life and urban planning are regulated and overseen by the government, the economy is dominated by state-owned enterprises, and social programs are decreasing. Shanghai is historically and presently a major trading port, experiencing an increasing ageing population and low birth rate. With the Shanghai Master Plan 2016-2035, Shanghai aims to become a global city of “innovation, humanity, and sustainability.”

Urban Issue

Public space is an ambiguous term and one that has differing definitions. This discussion is defining public spaces as open air spaces within the city of Shanghai that are seen to be places of movement, creativity, sport or socializing. These may technically be owned privately, (eg. gated communities are private property) but within them are spaces for the above uses, which can be perceived and used as a public space. This ambiguous understanding is crucial to assessing the topic fully because public spaces are often sold by councils and governing public bodies for profits. Public spaces included in this discussion will be green spaces (parks, green corridors , public gardens), sidewalks (including mall type areas and alleyways), and social and creative spaces. (such as town squares, outdoor seating areas, outdoor public art exhibitions) The concept of public-private spaces is included in all these subcategories.

Public space is an invaluable component of any city, and the organization of such space is integral to how people interact with the space and make use of it; whether this is for sports, exercise, arts, culture or simply just passing through. However, spatial inequality often manifests when it comes to access to public spaces within a city. Given the growing disparity in urban areas in the geographical south and east, the spatial distribution of public spaces may reflect and accentuate such disparity. Public space, when at its most valuable, should intrinsically be a democratic space of urban politics, social interactions and community. However, when it is as its most damaging, public spaces are inclusive, damaging to social relationships, while encouraging the spread of regressive politics. Unfortunately, the latter is often more prominent, especially in rapidly expanding urban centres, where populations are diversifying and expanding at rates, unseen before. Orum et al goes as far as to state that public space is reproduction of wider issues in society, “Public space is a basic and authentic reflection of circumstances in the larger social order”.(Orum et al, 2009) This understanding can be instrumental in making it crucial for planners and local governments to fully understand such space and address the challenges that these spaces face, but also produce for local populations. The power of space and the part that it plays in the institutional, social and economic forces needs to be recognised. (Ouyang et al, 2017)

Urbanisation and the spread of mega-cities especially, has meant that urban space is becoming increasingly necessary as a wider public provision.  As cities densify and build up, instead of out, the amount of people with access to green and outdoor space especially, which is private, is reducing. Tower blocks and slums are replacing a sprawling suburbia which emerged post-war and thus outdoor, public, green spaces are increasingly important to the fabric of the city, and should be understood as necessary and not just a luxury of bourgeoisies neighbourhoods.

Within Shanghai, access to public space is largely determined by socioeconomic status and can be understood through the two-class system which has emerged in the city - dividing space by those who are wealthy and those who are not. Ultimately, as Shanghai shifts towards a more neoliberal society, economically and socially marginalised may feel the repercussions in terms of social exclusion and access, or in-access to public space. This can most predominantly be seen and analysed for migrants, lower socioeconomic members of society, the elderly and lower-class sexual minorities. Up to 90% accessibility to open public space (park and squares over 400 square meters within 5 minutes’ walking distance.

Case Study: Shanghai

This case-study can be viewed as a critical study of the binary of exclusionary formal and urban politics which has emerged in Shanghai, and has resulted in public spaces being zones of contestation and ‘othering’ of various groups. These groups include (but are not limited to) low income residents, the elderly, migrants and the LGBTQ+ community.

Types of Public Spaces

Arts & Culture

One of the biggest modern issues facing the arts and culture scene in Shanghai is the access to these social spaces. Within the city, there has been a strong focus on creating entertainment-based public spaces that are conducive in attracting people who form one of the most growing lucrative groups, the creative class. Defined by urban studies theorist, Richard Florida, as a group that’s focused on creativity as a core functions of getting its economic returns, a good example of occupations in these field would be those that are in the tech industry, from software development to interface design. (Florida, 2002)

Shanghai Museums that opened at the end of 2017. Pictured (Left-Right) are Peart Art Museum, HOW Art Museum, and The Silo of 80,000 Tons

As of 2019, A number of amenities to attract this class ranging from theatres to art galleries have been constructed to serve as a conducive social space. According to the Shanghai Master Plan 2017-2035, the city plans to construct more than 2.5 theatres, 6 galleries, 1.5 museums and 4 libraries for every hundred citizens. (Shanghai Master Plan) One of the major drawbacks of this is that, in doing so, they have isolated vulnerable communities such as those of the lowest socioeconomic level and with the construction of amenities catered towards those on the higher end of the socioeconomic level, these vulnerable communities are slowly being pushed out of places they’ve lived in for generations. (He, 2017) This shouldn’t seem too surprising considering for a city that is rapidly evolving, going as far as to turn previous bomb shelters into millennial-oriented drinking places. (Megistad, 2012)

Green Public Spaces

Research on access to public spaces in Shanghai is often focused on access to public green spaces. Across Shanghai, access to outdoor public spaces is determined by socioeconomic status: high income family households areas often have higher access to public green spaces versus districts with aged or unemployed populations (Shen et al 59). Further, research has found that outskirt communities of Shanghai often have lower public green space access (Chen and Wang, 2015). The local versus migrant dichotomy is extremely evident in green public spaces: researchers have observed that social dynamics cause high xenophobia among locals towards migrants. Even in public spaces, migrants and locals rarely interact, and migrant-catered public spaces are often poorer in quality compared to local-catered. (Bata et al, 2009)

2035 Plan for Green Public Spaces in Shanghai


On the streets, migrant vendors often sell a variety of goods. However, due to the the strict city laws, migrants are often illegally using the sidewalk for commercial sales. Given this, in practice, researchers have found that authorities are often more relaxed in control, observing “the daily dance of migrant paddlers and the urban traffic patrols”. (Bata et al, 2009) While authorities may make a show of chiding migrant paddlers using the sidewalk and paddlers often retreat temporarily when patrols arrive, both parties generally let each other do their work (Bata et al 372). While this “daily dance” practice does not seem to have extremely unequal spatial injustice effects for migrants, formalising and legalising migrant paddlers right to the sidewalk may provide greater autonomy over migrants’ means of survival.

Communities Excluded from Public Spaces

Locals & Migrants

Shanghai has become a two-class city divided between locals and migrants. This binary exists on all scales, from local to city-wide and seeps into almost all aspects of urban living in Shanghai, from which schools you can attend, to what neighbourhood you should live in. This distinction is the result of the Hukou system. The Hukou System is a household registration system in China, that serves to officially identify an individual to a certain region. This system originates in ancient China, but has survived through numerous adaptations and changes. This Hukou system can be blamed on an institutional level for these divisions in modern day China. (Ouyang et al, 2017) Shanghai is a city with one foot in the hyper-modern and rapidly globalised world, and one foot in its pre-reform past. Since the 1970s China has seen a huge transition, with one of the most testing changes being the rie of rural-urban migration. (Lui et al, 2014) This urbanisation has meant that incoming migrants to the city from rural areas have found themselves on the fringes of society. This places limitations on employment, bureaucracy matters, finding housing, school attendance and healthcare. (Cheng and Wang, 2015)

Most importantly to public space, this system ties migrants to poor neighbourhoods without full political and economic rights. This leads to vicious cycles of poverty, with generation after generation being stuck in sub-par neighbourhoods, without the proper rights and opportunities to engage in both formal politics and urban politics. The neighbourhoods that are predominantly inhabited by migrants have poor quality public space, that are not maintained by council or local government. In addition to this, the public spaces which do exist seem to be exclusionary to the migrant populations. With one account noting that the migrants only occupy the space at night, when the locals have left, with them even being described as ‘creatures of the night’. (Orum et al, 2009) Thus there is an obvious division in access and quality of public spaces.

By dissecting this system, we can see how this division has caused unfair social, economic and political deprivation for migrants leading to poor living conditions and lack of access to public spaces and services. These exclusionary urban politics also shed a light on a saddening truth about urban centres, and that is that it is not just the authorities that police public spaces, but also pre-existing prejudices and social and cultural ‘otherings’ of groups within the city. (Orum et al, 2009)

LGBTQ Community

Another evident "othering" that exists in Shanghai exists within the LGBTQ community. Within Shanghai, the development of “us” and “them” is segregated by socio-economic status due China's neoliberal, socialist market economy. (Bao, 2012) For this community, class plays an extensive role in the access and exclusion of queer spaces (Bao, 2012). Unlike other areas of the world, post socialist China produces individualities through practices of consumption. (Bao, 2012) The relationship between consumption and socioeconomic status is deeply intertwined, leaving impoverished individuals with access and participation in queer communities. Therefore, it seems status and acceptance within the LGBTQ community is ultimately developed from the ability to consume. This idea of consumption and class has shaped the meaning of gay spaces within Shanghai and the status of those who participate.

A performer on Saturday at Shanghai Pride week

This move towards consumption as a defining feature of an individual or community has changed the way that queer spaces are used, developed and understood.This shift has happened not simply on a local level, but also on a global level, and can viewed on the same timeline as the rise of global market capitalism. Traditionally, the most common gay spaces were public parks that were “accessible” for all and served as “hang-outs” and cruising areas for many young gay men at night. These public spaces have served as an equal access point for marginalized groups. More recently through socio-economic class division many members of the LGBTQ community avoid these areas due to the negative social status correlated with these parks. Now, there is more LGBTQ members congregating within shopping centres, restaurants and cafes - in part for the safety provided within densely populated areas but primarily for the social prestige. (Bao, 2012, pp. 102-103) This has thus seen a shift of queer spaces from being traditionally public, to now being public-private, but also private.

Class Exclusions

During the rise of neoliberalism both globally, and within Shanghai society, there has been an increased number of public spaces turned private like that in the case of gated communities. From 1995-2003, there has been roughly 13x more private villas and apartment communities developed, creating an image of who is “in” and who is “out”. (Pow, 2007) In a city that was originally divided between the rural countryside and cultured city individuals, gated communities have sought to develop an image of the elite, civilised middle class, highlighting those excluded - migrant workers and lower class individuals. (Pow, 2007)

The problem does not lie within the exclusionary purpose of gated communities but the land these walls of surveillance are built on. Within China, recent housing reforms have led to the retraction of state in public housing provisions and an increase in privatised housing markets. Beginning in 1978, the Chinese government has implemented different housing reform policies to privatise urban housing. (Pow, 2007) These privately developed housing enclaves have primarily located themselves within city centre and suburban areas of Shanghai and have been built on publicly leased land that has been demarcated by the city government. (Pow, 2007) Land that could have once been used for public parks and other public services has been allocated to fit within a neoliberal, elite society. These exclusive plots of land have become entire secluded communities with all amenities provided behind their walls, including private parks and other ‘public-like’ spaces that cannot be accessed from outsiders. (Pow, 2007)

To maintain a pandering to the elites of society and maintain social separation, migrant workers have been cast as culturally inferior individuals that should be excluded from these prestigious communities. This image has developed into an “othering” of the more deprived sectors of society, that is not limited to the migrants. (Pow, 2007) An example of this acceptance of such social divisions is the very existence of the Civilised Residential Quarter title. This has been granted to most gated communities in Shanghai. This title allows for ‘Civilised” signs to be posted outside of gated buildings and means these communities have maintained a civilised modern living environment (Pow, 2007) which is important for Shanghai culture and prestige. This is problematic as these private spaces have been labelled civilised, leaving the spaces and individuals outside of it to be considered the opposite. This is distinctly reminiscent of colonial othering, following the racist discourse that the Europeans were civilised and clean, whereas those that were not European were barbaric, and dirty. (Gregory et al, 2009)

Lessons Learned

For marginalised communities, particularly migrants, increased access to public spaces the Hukou system needs to be drastically reformed. This would mean that the migrants would at the very least be legally protected from prejudices and unequal treatment. This is a step in the right direction , however this problem is much more deeply ingrained than and more would need to be done to fully address this problem of exclusion.

An important aspect of this discourse is understanding that despite the fact that the institutional system of Hukou can be blamed on the surface for the exclusionary urban politics in Shanghai, it should also be acknowledged that these exclusionary politics are embedded within the culture and society of Shanghai, and thus adapting or getting rid of the Hukou system may just be a quick policy fix, which does not adequately address the decades of ‘othering’ of the migrants.

The weakening of the socialist system in China is significantly contributing to the rise of the private sector within Shanghai, which in turn has caused the disparity between the rich and the poor to widen. It’s important to monitor this pattern as access to public spaces is highly correlated to economic reforms.

Due to centralised urban planning in China, lessons of spatial inequality may apply to other Chinese megacities. Further, rampant economic disparity due to neoliberalization in the geographical south may also spatialise similarly to Shanghai, making this study relevant to other contexts.


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This urbanization resource was created by Will Engle. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.