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Case studies


Tianzifang is an example of culture-led, bottom-up change that has developed a workable solution for safeguarding architectural heritage in Shanghai. It has:

  • Produced a tangible manifestation of the city’s individual identity
  • United a diverse community to resist plans for residential towers on-site
  • Been officially designated Shanghai’s first creative cluster.

Today, Tianzifang is a network of low-rise buildings and lanes, spanning three arterial streets and their branches in central Shanghai’s desirable French Concession. On an average weekend Tianzifang attracts 30,000 tourists and Shanghainese, who gather in its pavement cafes, stroll the lanes and shop for gifts.

Tianzifang is special in a city whose physical form has changed in almost direct correlation with its rapid economic growth, deindustrialisation and the voracious development of its land assets. In the 30 years since China’s Reform and Opening Up policy began to build Shanghai into the commercial centre it is today, the city has climbed to tenth place for highest cost of living, and ninth for highest rental costs worldwide – beating the capital, Beijing, to the title of China’s most expensive city.

China’s rapid urbanisation has traditionally been led by a top-down, large-scale approach to urban planning, often favouring demolition to open large areas of land for infrastructural improvements and densification. In the process, preservation of traditional everyday structures, such as courtyards, terraces and street patterns, has been of lower priority, resulting in urban landscapes devoid of local architectural identity. State land ownership and insecure tenures further compound these pressures; inhabitants of older buildings have little reason to invest in improvement or repair, further strengthening the argument for demolition.

Shikumen (石库门), found across Tianzifang, are an architectural typology built in Shanghai between the 1850s and 1920s. They are characterised by stone gateways that lead to longtang (弄堂), narrow pedestrian lanes with two- to three-story terraced housing on both sides. The Tianzifang area is a mix of this traditional Shanghai tenement building, 1970s factory buildings and the western-style buildings that characterise Shanghai’s French Concession area. Through this aesthetic fusion, the Tianzifang area embodies Shanghai’s long-standing cosmopolitan identity and therefore captures the imagination of citizens for whom much tangible heritage has been lost.

In contrast to the majority of regeneration or development projects in China’s cities, Tianzifang is an exemplar of culture-led, bottom-up change. Conditions in the Shikumen of the 1980s and 1990s were characterised by cramped, poorly-serviced living quarters and factory buildings left empty after central Shanghai’s deindustrialisation. Shops selling craft products started to spring up on Tianzifang’s Taikang Road in the 1990s, and by the end of the decade these were joined by artists moving into the site’s vacant factories. This process was facilitated by Mr Wu Meisen, instrumental in planning Taikang Road as an Art Street. He signed long lease agreements with the factory landlords, financed infrastructural improvements and encouraged artists to move in.

By the early 2000s Tianzifang was growing in popularity. Local residents also began letting their properties to artists and creative enterprises through a collective Tianzifang Voluntary Property Letting Agency, which set out guidelines for tenants regarding preservation and renovation of the buildings. However the area’s conversion to mixed use had not yet been granted legal sanction. Its growth also attracted controversy among those who saw it as a shabby and inefficient use of central Shanghai land.

A proposed high-rise residential development in 2003-2004 and the accompanying threat of demolition united residents, artists, cultural entrepreneurs and some local officials in opposition. The discussions that followed resulted in the development being shelved, and in Tianzifang being designated Shanghai’s first Creative Industries Cluster. Together, three factors turned the tide against demolition: growing national policy emphasis on supporting creative industry growth; the Shanghai Municipal Government’s determination to preserve haipai 海派 culture (literally ‘Shanghai-style culture’); the theory of creative industry zones drafted by Professor Li Wuwei of Shanghai’s Economic Research Institute.

In 2008 the district-level government set up the Tianzifang Governance Committee to grant legal sanction to mixed uses, upgrade infrastructure and supervise renovation. By 2010 the Shanghai Municipal Government designated Tianzifang a state-level 3A destination for artistic creativity and leisure tourism. By 2011 429 enterprises were operating in the area; 70% of these were focused on cultural and creative industry. Increasing rents generated RMB 15 million in tax income. However, by 2012, increasing living costs, the commercial lettings potential and growing disruption from an ever-expanding number of food and beverage enterprises also led to 590 households leaving the area.

The process of culture-led, bottom-up change in Tianzifang shaped a solution for safeguarding architectural heritage. Gradual change has allowed a proportion of the existing community to remain in place while commercial use generates revenue for upkeep, and creative enterprises maintain a sufficiently high profile to stave off redevelopment. In other ways, however, Tianzifang is a victim of its own success; rising costs are displacing the area’s identity as a residential neighbourhood, and the prosperous leisure industry is squeezing out creative enterprises.

Nevertheless, Tianzifang remains an expressive physical symbol of Shanghai; it demonstrates both a strong connection between architectural heritage and local civic identity, and the desire to preserve and better use what tangible heritage remains.