Shanghai: Growing Oasis for Urban Studies

With a population of 24 million, Shanghai is one of the biggest cities in the world--and is still growing. A further four million people are projected to live in the city by 2025, according to the China's State Council, making it also one of the world’s fastest growing cities.

Shanghai’s rapid modernization continues to transform how its millions of residents interact, travel, work and live in the changing urban landscape. Its evolving history, society, environment and technologies are also characteristics that make Shanghai a dynamic and exciting place for scholarly research in the cross-disciplinary field of Urban Studies.

This month, NYU Shanghai introduced a series of monthly lectures exploring urbanism and the issues facing cities of the future. Here, we ask NYU Shanghai professors, whose interests span the city of Shanghai and beyond, to share their research in this field.


An ever-changing environment

Yifei Li, assistant professor of Environmental Studies at NYU Shanghai, has been fascinated with the changing nature of cities since the transformation of his own childhood landscape to what is now Shanghai’s famous East Nanjing Road.

“My neighborhood was full of friendly, local business owners, and as a kid, I’d spend nights on the rooftop stargazing and watching fireworks from the Bund,” Li reminisced. Now, the expansion of Shanghai’s metro and new construction has restructured the atmosphere of his old home.

“There’s an enormous amount of potential for Urban Studies in Shanghai because of the sheer size and diversity of this city. You can compare [Shanghai’s] Century Avenue to Hong Kong or Singapore or compare the former French concession here to the German concession in Tianjin or Qingdao,” he said.

Li works with other scholars to better understand urban sustainability, ecotourism, and participatory planning. He is also currently working with professor Lena Scheen, assistant professor of Global China Studies at NYU Shanghai, and with Shanghai’s Tongji University to cross-fertilize different perspectives on the city between the two universities.

“We want our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to better understand urban problems around us. Collaboration with Tongji became a natural step to take, because of their world-class research in planning, architecture, and design,” he said. “We also thought it’d be beneficial for Tongji’s students to come to NYU Shanghai and take our urban classes, as they’ve expressed interest in global perspectives on urban change.”

Li is also working to take full advantage of the NYU Global Network, through platforms such as the Environmental Humanities Initiative at NYU Abu Dhabi. Li also hopes to develop a course with colleagues from Abu Dhabi and New York, so students can learn about global problems in a truly global classroom setting. “Through a combination of live interaction and recorded content, the class will bring students beyond the perspectives of just one professor in one location,” he said.  

“We’ve got a large enough critical mass for Urban Studies in this building. It makes sense to want something like an urban studies cluster that can mature into its own major over the long run. In the short run, we already have people collaborate in both teaching and research on topics of shared interest.”  


Stories of a transforming city

After living in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, and witnessing the demolition and reconstruction of her former residence building into a skyscraper— Professor Lena Scheen became fascinated by the mental, social and cultural impact of rapid urbanization in China.

She began studying fiction writers from Shanghai who were prolific during the 1990s to early 2000s when the city was undergoing its most extreme transformation. Scheen found that through their writing, the authors revealed their internal responses to changes in Shanghai’s environment, politics, society and economy.

“When you look at fiction, you actually see a mental impact that people are not aware of themselves,” Scheen said. “There is a sense of homelessness, rootlessness, nostalgia — a yearning for a home but an uncertainty about what that home is.”



As well as examining fiction, Scheen’s research includes recording and transcribing oral stories of local residents who are processing the demolition of parts of the city they had had a connection with, such as their homes, neighbourhoods and temples.

“The people I interview say with a genuine feeling, that moving forward is in the interest of the country and that making compromises is expected,” said Scheen, but there are signs that people are unsettled by the transition. Scheen cites continued visits to demolition sites of former temples and homes that speak beyond the often forward-looking public sentimentality.

“One decade in this city experiences the changes of 100 years,” said Scheen. “I look at how the imagination of the future and the memory of the past are helping people cope with a very disruptive speed and scale of change.”

It is this rapid transformation propelling Shanghai into an envisioned future that also fuels Professor Anna Greenspan’s research.


Building the future

“I’m interested in how the future is produced in the world,” says Greenspan, assistant director of NYU Shanghai’s Interactive Media Arts Program. “I came to Shanghai in 2002 because I already had the sense that the future was being built here. The whole universe is in this city.”

Greenspan takes a multidisciplinary approach to studying the city—from critical cartography, street markets and the informal economy, wireless media, Chinese modernity and the philosophy of technology.

“China’s urban infrastructure is completely tied up with technology,” she says, citing the world’s first ever ‘cell-phone only’ walking lanes painted on the sidewalks of Chongqing.  “Even in just the last year, now if my phone runs out of battery, I can’t ride a shared bike, I can’t pay for anything, I can’t order a taxi.”

She is currently working on a project with Francesca Tarocco, visiting associate professor of Buddhist cultures at NYU Shanghai, called The Cultivated City — an exploration of the concept of cultivation found in Chinese philosophy and Chinese religions manifested in cities of the 21st century.

Among these, Greenspan and Tarocco co-founded Shanghai Studies Society, an innovative and multidisciplinary platform that amalgamates the study of urbanization, migration, historiography, cinema, literature, visual arts and more manifested in a series of workshops, publications, conferences, exhibitions, public lectures, film screenings and guided urban walks.  And Greenspan is a founding member of research hub Hacked Matter, rooted in a long-term engagement with grassroots creativity in urban China.


Beyond the docks of Shanghai

“I am interested in how cities work in India and China,” said Tansen Sen, director of the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai.

Sen’s recent book, India, China and the World: A Connected History, inclusively examines India-China interactions while connecting the histories of both regions beyond the Asian continent.

“For example, Bombay and Shanghai, both which are colonial port cities with common historical relations, can be compared on issues from city planning to the migrant population, among others,” Sen said.

One of Sen’s aims is to establish a common research agenda with NYU’s three global campuses focused on port cities as hubs of innovation.

“We want to look at the internal and external connections between port cities and the various ways in which they have historically manifested and are still part of international politics,” he said, citing contemporary disputes about the building of military bases in ports across the Indian Ocean.

“NYU’s three global campuses all have a connection as port cities—our home base is located in New York, the other global campus in Abu Dhabi—and it makes sense for NYU as a whole to not only look at urban centers, but urban centers located on ports.”

“Political scientists, historians, public policy experts and sociologists would all be important contributors to port cities research as an urban issue—it would be great to spark that kind of collaboration across disciplines and among different faculty.”



Find out more about The Cultural and Social Worlds of Global Cities Lecture Series and upcoming talks at You can read about the inaugural lecture by cultural historian Chris Wilson from University of New Mexico here.



Shanghai By The Numbers

  • 28 million - Projected population by 2025 *projected by China's State Council

  • 2.5 million - The number of cars in Shanghai by 2020 *according to a report by Tongji University.

  • 6 million+ senior citizens (60 yrs old +) living in the city after 2025  * according to The Shanghai Research Center for Ageing Population

  • 506 metro stations with a network of 804km will be built by 2020