AT THE 2010 Shanghai World Expo, audience members strapped themselves into moving seats to watch a 360-degree screen. The scene on display was a quixotic vision of the city in 2030. “Congestion, pollution, accidents have all been eliminated,” writes Anna Greenspan in the preface to her new book Shanghai Future. “Instead, future citizens float through a vast sci-fi cityscape of spectacular skyscrapers and highway overpasses in intelligent, battery-powered pods. […] Outside the view is of green parks, blue skies, clean beaches and giant wind farms.”

The Expo, modeled on the American and European World Fairs of the 1850s through the 1930s, generated frenzied excitement in China and cost billions of yuan. In fact, it was the most expensive and widely attended planned event in human history, and it was intended, Greenspan writes, to establish Shanghai as the great metropolis of the 21st century. The irony was that to the few Western observers who bothered to notice, the event instead signaled China’s latecomer status to industrial modernity. Not only do we in the West now see World Fairs as objects of kitschy nostalgia; “it is the spirit of futurism itself,” Greenspan notes, “that seems so remarkably out of date.”

Greenspan, a Canadian philosopher who has been based in Shanghai for most of this century, begins her book with a compelling examination of this episode. She is right to note that we in the West have lost our optimistic futurism. If we think of the future at all, we probably imagine a world like our own, but more so: more disasters, more spectacular violence; more technological innovation, certainly, but of the kind that seems to estrange us from each other and from nature. The giddy optimism of our past — of the GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair — is it alive in the city once known as the “Whore of the Orient”? If so, is this because China hasn’t caught up yet to our cynicism? Do we know something they don’t? Or is it the other way around?

Greenspan argues that China is not simply repeating the trajectory of the West, eighty years later. Instead, she believes something more interesting is going on, and she ties it to a distinctive relationship with time. The traditional Chinese conception of time is less linear than the West’s, she writes, resembling a “spiral” more than a line. Shanghai’s peculiar history also plays a role. After a florescence of modernity in the 1920s and 1930s, this heyday was ended abruptly by the Japanese invasion, followed by the Maoist Revolution. The city then went through a long period of neglect, until the 1990s, when it returned to a kind of modernity on steroids. (Greenspan says little about Shanghai’s 19th-century division into a patchwork of Western concessions, in which foreigners enjoyed immunity from Chinese law, to China’s enduring humiliation — a period that seems relevant as it points to profound Western influence on the city from the start of its modern era. This period, which has been the subject of a great deal of scholarship, gets considerable attention in A History of Future Cities, a 2013 Norton book by Daniel Brook that also covers modernity and urban transformation.)

When Shanghai returned to the international stage late in the 20th century, Greenspan writes, it “embraced a futurism that the city felt had passed it by.” The city is steeped in nostalgia for a lost “golden age,” an attitude that sometimes conflates building the future with reviving the past. “China’s great city is not only influencing what will take place in the future,” Greenspan concludes, “it is also transforming the very idea of the future itself.”

Greenspan then turns to other aspects of 21st-century Shanghai. She explores the relationship between the city’s hypermodern facade and the hidden “micro-commercial” activity happening in the shadows of the glassy skyscrapers. We take a look at the efforts underway to foster a more creative culture — from “made in China” to “created in China” — and the ways the Communist government both fosters and thwarts such efforts. We visit suburbs such as “Thames Town” that attempt to clone European villages. The book weaves together the author’s own observations of Shanghai with discussions of urbanist figures such as Le Corbusier, Haussmann, and Robert Moses, as well as quotes from contemporary theorists.

Shanghai Future is strongest when integrating the more theoretical insights with colorful details that bring the city to life. Greenspan describes the tacit accommodations between the chengguan (city inspectors) and street vendors. When the inspectors are on duty, the vendors disappear. “Their ‘face’ preserved and their duty done, the inspectors happily go off to eat or rest. As soon as they leave, the vendors return to their spots.” Thames Town features British phone booths and statues of Florence Nightingale and Harry Potter; busloads of brides arrive in white dresses with their grooms to be photographed against this backdrop. Far from inauthentic, the flair for inspired mimicry is, Greenspan argues, an element of Chinese culture in its own right. The book is an illuminating primer on Shanghai.

That said, the book loses momentum in places. In part, the intriguing points Greenspan raises at the outset — about the future and temporality — are not satisfyingly elaborated or resolved. How does this sense of time play out in everyday lived experience in the city? How will Shanghai shape the future or the idea of the future? More Chinese voices might have helped answer these questions. There is scarcely a quote from an ordinary Shanghai citizen.

The book is also symptomatic of a larger issue: it’s surprisingly difficult to make writing about cities engaging. (I say this as someone who writes about cities, and I fully implicate myself.) The reason, I think, is that such writing tends to be analytical rather than narrative, and to be about systems rather than characters. The best way to get readers to turn pages is to make them wonder: what happens next? Especially, what happens next to this person who has captured my interest? (It’s not an accident that one of the most popular books about urbanism of all time is a biography: Robert Caro’s life of Robert Moses.) Of course, plenty of other writing also lacks narrative and characters: policy analysis, biology textbooks. But the difference is that cities are inherently interesting and accessible. We know cities and love cities, and they are full of people and stories. So the disjunction can be jarring. Greenspan is by no means uniquely guilty, then, but nor is she immune from this problem.

And recent years have brought an explosion of writing about cities, much of it valuable even if it isn’t compulsively readable. Which brings me back to the question of attitudes toward the future. While we muddle through our “end-of-history torpor,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently dubbed our malaise, a growing consensus seems to hold that if there is any hope for us, it lies in cities. An upbeat urbanism is flourishing in the US.

The movement is based on several premises: our national government is broken, and we must turn to local government for problem-solving; since more and more people are urban-dwellers, cities must be the locus of addressing major issues, notably climate change; and cities, properly designed and planned, have the potential to offer the most sustainable way of living. Finally, there are murmurs that notwithstanding the enormous investments needed to transform our own cities, the directions taken by the megalopolises of Asia and the Global South will prove decisive in shaping the future of the planet.

With all this in mind, the world of 2030 depicted at the Shanghai Expo — the blue skies, the giant wind farms — is a vital ideal, very much in tune with the goals of American urbanism. The difference is that in the US we are more likely to see blog posts on individual small-bore innovations than a utopian vision on a wraparound screen. But there’s something to be said for that wraparound screen — or at least for the big-picture thinking it represents.


Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s writing has appeared in SlateThe NationThe New York Times Book ReviewBoston Review, and Dissent, among other publications.