Luodian is Shanghai’s Swedish town, but there is something about it that’s different that this city’s other foreign themed developments: this place is alive.
There were restaurants called things like “Macao Dolar,” there were tables packed full of locals gobbling barbecued pork, tofu, and peppers, there where couples holding hands in the park, there were old folks were strolling by on the lakefront. If you only looked at the people and what they were doing, everything was 100% normal China, but if you dared to glance at the architecture and urban design that surrounded them it would become apparent that there was something very different about this place: it was designed to look exactly like Sigtuna, Sweden.
“If you live in Luodian you don’t need to go abroad,” Liu Jianguo, vice-general manager of Shanghai Golden Luodian Development said.
This is Shanghai’s North Europe Town, it sits 26 km from the city center, and is a part of the One City, Nine Towns project that revitalized the city’s suburbs throughout China’s tenth five year plan (2001–2005). This was the same initiative that created Thames Town, Anting German Town, New Netherlands Town, and a rather strange Italian quarter.
North European Town was designed by the Swedish architectural firm, Sweco, and covers 6,8 square kilometers, and is meant to house 30 – 50,000 people.
Beyond Swedish style houses, shops, and a castle, the duplitecture here in Luodian even went as far as constructing a near-replica of Sigtuna’s Lake Mälaren and Iceland’s House of Parliament — a little geographically off the mark, but hey, close enough.
The interesting thing about Shanghai’s North Europe Town is that, though there are still conspicuously abandoned shopping areas, most of the business district is full of commerce, people, bright lights, and life. The restaurants are packed with diners and the lakefront is covered with strollers and neckers, dog walkers and picnickers.
This is a very different scene than in any of the other One City, Nine Towns developments that I’ve been to. Most of Luodian’s sister projects are virtual ghost towns, hanging on the edge of Shanghai in stagnant limbo.
Luodian demonstrates that China’s Western themed or replica towns can attract businesses and customers. But when they do so they seem to become Chinese. The restaurants and stores that are operating on the lakefront of Luodian are standard Chinese fare, and beyond the fact that they are in big wooden, barn-like buildings there is nothing Scandinavian about them.
When it comes down to it, architectural facades are of little pertinence when weighed against what a city district can offer the people who live, work, and visit there. As I was told in the nearly vacant New Netherlands Town in the north of Pudong: “If they . . . made bars and cafes people would come.” Interesting and fancy architecture is a plus for attracting people to a location, but things to do, buy, drink, and eat are far better lures.
Nightfall always belies the true story of China’s new cities. Though the business district by the lake was kicking into night and packed with people, the surrounding newly developed residential areas were the polar opposite of kinetic. They were completely dark, as though struck by a sudden blackout. I got the full effect as I rode out of Luodian by train: for as far as I could see over the residential area there were little signs of habitation, hardly a single window had a light on, some housing complexes didn’t even have street lights on.
The cost of a European style villa in Luodian tops $730,000, and even apartments costs upwards of $85,000. In a city where the average resident makes roughly $6,000 per year, living in Shanghai’s Swedish themed town is certainly cost prohibitive — not to mention the other issues that come with moving into a newly developed area. Though in a city were 300,000 people are set to move in over the next five years, more and more Shanghainese are going to be pushed out to the suburbs. Those lights will more than likely be flipped on soon.