Our man in Shanghai: Vancouver shows 2 faces to sell itself to China

Expos are about the world, but also remaking cities. Shanghai's fair showcases urbanism, which includes a Northwest pavilion that promotes density but will sell sprawl too, if that's what China wants.
Crosscut archive image.

The Vancouver Pavilion in Shanghai emphasized density and urban life.

Expos are about the world, but also remaking cities. Shanghai's fair showcases urbanism, which includes a Northwest pavilion that promotes density but will sell sprawl too, if that's what China wants.

"Harmonious growth can make life a very nice thing to do."

— Sign in "Pavilion of the Future," Shanghai, China

Seattle's 1962 world's fair, the Century 21 Exposition, was called a "jewel box" fair. That term came to mind as I saw the city itself upon return from Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The Emerald City is a tidy gem compared to the sprawling, smoggy, populous Shanghai and its vast exposition. If we're a jewel box, Shanghai and its fair make a whole messy treasure chest.

The modern Northwest fairs after Seattle were also jewel-like: small, specialized, and well-respected. Spokane in '74 and Vancouver in '86 are bookends to the North American expo era. Spokane, the smallest city to have hosted a major fair, was a success and unfortunately convinced civic boosters that anyone could do it. It helped launched a series of U.S. fairs (Knoxville '82, New Orleans '84) that saw the U.S. expo era end not with a bang but a whimper. These world's fairs seemed more like county fairs and failed to pay off for their cities. New Orleans, which actually had to declare bankruptcy during the fair and receive a financial bailout, marked the last expo in the U.S.

Vancouver was the last fair in North America, but it was a success and launched the city on a new course of urban development. The Vancouver story is being told in Shanghai today as a lesson for civic improvement.

Much of the focus of world's fairs has to do with the nations that host and exhibit at them, and much of the press is often about the clash of opposing political and economic systems. Seattle was the U.S. response to the Soviet's Sputnik; communism and fascism faced off with dueling pavilions at the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Stalin and Hitler each claimed ideological triumphalism. But the real impact of fairs is at the level of the cities and regions that host them.

Paris has been remade time again by a series of expos (the Eiffel Tower was built for one); parks, offices, high-tech incubators, museums, transportation systems are often the result. Expos are urban transformation projects.

The Bureau of International Expositions has helped foster a group called AVE, an association of former expo host cities, that talks about how to leverage a fair's legacy and to pass on the hard-won lessons of fair hosting. Seattle doesn't belong to the group, but it should because Seattle Center is commonly cited as one of the best examples of turning a fair site into an ongoing civic amenity: our jewel box still contains gems, including the Pacific Science Center, the Space Needle, the Monorail, Key Arena, the Opera House, the fountain, and open space. With the current raging debate over the Center's funding and future (whether to Chihuly or not), and with a dedicated urbanist in the mayor's office, we could undoubtedly learn from other cities how to shape and evolve the Center to fit our ongoing needs as others have done. We might be able to teach others a thing or two, too.

While Seattle's fair legacy has been about preserving and enriching a former expo site, Vancouver has used its expo to transform the city. Immediately after Expo '86 shut down, the bulldozers rolled and Vancouver was off on a tear to build a new kind of dense, high-rise, lifestyle-oriented city, a town whose downtown was no longer defined by the presence of a large Hudson's Bay department store.

Fast forward to Shanghai, whose theme, "Better Cities, Better Life," is focused on urban development and improvement. How can we build greener, more socially just and habitable cities? Why not ask the cities themselves? The fair features a large quarter, the "Urban Best Practices Area," which hosts exhibits from select cities across the globe telling their stories, from Düsseldorf to Sao Paulo, from Madrid to Vancouver, Bologna to Seoul. Vancouver showed up in force with its own separate pavilion.

The pavilion is a wood and glass structure featuring a kind of greenhouse dome. It portrays Vancouver as an "urban sanctuary," a place with amazing natural beauty that has also embraced density, public transit, planning, and new urbanism. Central to the transformation: hosting an expo and the Olympics in order to turn "industrial land into beautiful modern neighbourhoods."

The focus is False Creek and adjacent areas where the fair was situated in '86, and Olympics housing was built for the Winter games in 2010. The Olympic Village, now named Millennium Water, is a new, 1,100-home nabe where an 815 square-foot unit sells for about $840,000, a rate higher than Manhattan's. Vancouver's real-estate market has so far defied the real-estate bust elsewhere, and some fear a bubble that simply has yet to burst, but others say that the influx of immigrants into an amenity-rich area that can't sprawl too far will keep prices and demand high.

One estimate is that Vancouver expects 40,000 immigrants this year, and most of those will come into the downtown core, where the population is growing at four times the rate of the city overall. Many are from overseas, including China. According to information in the pavilion, English is not the native language of over 50 percent of Vancouver residents, a pretty stunning stat for those of us who remember the city as a kind of little slice of Britain in the old days. The expo and Olympics, the story goes, brought the world and world attention to Vancouver, and guess who decided to move in?

The Vancouver Pavilion is not just about showcasing the city to the world, but also about opening China further to Canada's wood products industry, a market that might be less sensitive to the country's timber practices than, say, the Europeans. The pavilion is also designed to turn the Chinese on to building with wood, and the environmental advantages of wood construction (better insulation for one thing) and, this is timely for the Chinese, the pluses of wood for earthquake construction. A model house has been built in Shanghai called "Dream Home Canada," which potential buyers can tour, and 10,000 have done so in the last few years.

In Shanghai terms, or in Expo terms, those are hardly booming numbers, but Canada is pinning its wooden hopes on China's insatiable need to grow its cities, and making wood a bigger part of the mix for things like townhouse construction seems like an opportunity. The pavilion sales pitch also acknowledges that another opportunity is the growing affluent class in China that wants single-family homes outside the urban core. So you see an internal contradiction in what the Vancouver Pavilion is selling: a vision of urban high-rise density on the one hand (called the "Vancouver model"), and a recipe for sprawl on the other, fueled by what the Canadian timber folks call SPF (spruce, pine and fir).

"Better City, Better Life," is a theme addressed throughout the fair in innumerable ways. Some pavilions are high-minded and utopian, like the Pavilion of the Future, which runs footage of various urban utopias conceived in film (starting with Fritz Lang's Metropolis), but also offers the views of utopian planners ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright to Charles Fourier to Thomas More to Ebenezer Howard. It examines the struggle of finding the "better" in urban visions. But there is a core belief that growth and utopia can and must be reconciled, "harmonious growth" the Chinese call it, finding the perfect balance of "sustainability, opportunity, nature and beauty." With Shanghai's march of high-rises, they've at least figured out the opportunity part.

Many cities and urban groups at expo make modest claims for themselves, showing very specific examples of urban undertakings. Düsseldorf, Germany tells how it put its waterfront Rhine Bank Road underground in order to reclaim its Old City district (pay attention, Seattle); Porto Alegre, Brazil is tackling the housing, transportation, and social needs of a poor district called Vila Chocolatao, which involves enrolling poor kids in schools to learn the Samba for the annual carnival (a kind of sexy dance version of the Boys & Girls Club); in Mexico City, a group is creating a manual for so-called "self-building" communities, in other words, shanty towns and squatter settlements, with a project called "The Barefoot Urbanist."

But the Vancouver Pavilion makes a broader kind of claim: Look at us, we've got the formula figured out. Come to Vancouver and buy a condo; and if you don't, we'll help you build a wood split-level in suburban Shanghai with some of our Canadian forests. That's the recipe for "harmonious growth," economic growth, anyhow.

More to come on Shanghai Expo 2010: The USA Pavilion and a look at North Korea's people's "paradise." The first part in Knute Berger's series from Shanghai ran Tuesday (July 6).


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.