Mixing modern and historical: A student’s reflection on visiting Shanghai

In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions.

In this guest post, student Nellie Jerome shares her impressions of the first stop on the course’s itinerary: Shanghai. Students visited locations such as the Bund, the Oriental Pearl, and Tongji University.


By Nellie Jerome

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Looking out over the Bund from the east

Arriving in China was a whirlwind. The long flight, the excitement about a foreign culture, and intimidation of trying to get by using a completely different language were overwhelming. It wasn’t until the morning of our first full day in the city that the culture and the urban setting of Shanghai started to sink in.

Walking a few blocks away from the hotel, down a neighborhood street lined with trees and sidewalks that were filled with people going to work, parents walking their kids to school, and many open shop fronts made me realize how human-scaled the Pudong district is. The initial shock of seeing bikes and scooters in the street in equal numbers as cars was both refreshing and antique. It reminded me initially of some generic underdeveloped south Asian city from the 1980s. But, after those first ideas wore off, it was clear that the bikes and scooters were probably an aspect of Shanghai (and of many Chinese cities) that helped keep the street level more oriented toward people and accessibility.

Other areas of Shanghai were equally fascinating. Observing both the colonial architecture and the more recent Chinese architecture gave me a sense of place within the city. There were big shops, designer stores, tech stores, and grand buildings, but there were also ancient parts of the city. There was a very well preserved section of Shanghai, XinTianDi, near the French Concession that housed fashionable restaurants as well as cobblestone streets and narrow alleys. This echoed many western European areas that often capitalize on the history and age of the buildings while modernizing the interiors.

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This area was also historically relevant due to its ties with the birth of communism in China. It was interesting to learn that the ideology of a more equitable society was studied in such a beautiful neighborhood. And it seems that not too much has changed—this neighborhood was upscale in the last century, and it’s upscale now.

Shanghai’s modern urban areas, on the other hand, were much more dense and impressive in a capitalist sense. Visiting the Bund, an excellent use of public space with very affordable ferries that let pedestrians cross the river in style, was a great way to see the old colonial city and the new modern city. Shanghai was built on international trade, and framing the visit to the Bund with the Peace Hotel beforehand and the mall near the Oriental Pearl afterwards further cemented the history of such an international, colonial city.

It was very interesting that the more modern side of the river had more luxurious shops, even in public spaces along the river. Suddenly, all of the working class people that had come on the ferry with us were nowhere to be seen. It seems that Shanghai, like many global cities, suffers from the same inequalities and the same colonial history that many cities do. Although there are big, fancy new malls and skyscrapers, it will be interesting to see how this city—and the rest of China—is able to make space for all workers and families.

Posted in Education, Planning, Urban transportation

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