The undercover operation is reclaiming the city’s ‘dead spaces’

A newly unveiled sports park under Yan’an Elevated Road in Changning District.

Underneath the rumbling traffic on Shanghai’s elevated roads and bridges are places once forgotten and long neglected. American-Canadian journalist and urban studies activist Jane Jacobs (1916–2006) called them “dead spaces.”

Dead no longer. Shanghai urban planners are now converting these underbellies into parks, sports areas, children’s playgrounds, cafés, and art galleries.

One example is the Fantasy Mushroom Forest in Yangpu District, which features a playground for children, exercise facilities for the elderly, and sports courts for young people.

Awan Ahmed Zamir, a Tongji University student majoring in industrial design, said the area, which recently opened beneath the Inner Ring Road, reminds him of his boyhood playing football in Pakistan.

“The viaduct creates a special architectural style over the park, while the greenery makes me feel peaceful,” he said.

For his studies, Zamir has visited or studied renovation plans for multiple sites underneath bridges.

“I believe this can add magnificence and satisfaction to local neighborhoods,” he told Shanghai Daily. “The rest of the world, including my home country, have a lot to learn from Shanghai’s efforts.”

Children play basketball at the New Hongqiao Central Garden adjacent to an elevated section of Yan’an Elevated Road.

Since New York City built the world’s first elevated roadway – the Miller Highway – in the 1930s, this style of concrete infrastructure has proliferated as a solution to traffic congestion in tight urban settings.

But overhead structures also became eyesores that divided communities, blocked pedestrian walkways, spoiled skylines, and left a gloomy, noisy rift in the urban fabric.

Other cities have undertaken to reclaim “dead space.” Success stories include Tokyo’s Nakameguro Koukashita, a 700-meter-long commercial street beneath two elevated subway lines, and the One Green Mile Park below Mumbai’s Senapati Bapat Marg flyover.

Shanghai has a large landscape to work with. Elevated expressways within Shanghai’s Inner Ring Road stretch for 58 kilometers, creating about 3,500 underneath spaces. The 37 bridges spanning over the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek add another 300 sites, according to the Shanghai Housing and Urban-Rural Development Commission.

“Most of these places lack general planning or artistic design, and were left undeveloped,” said Liang Jian’an, a senior official with the commission.

The commission has launched a three-year action plan to reclaim these forsaken pieces of city acreage and include them in the city’s urban renewal campaign. The plans also dovetail nicely with the city’s efforts to build “15-minute community life circles.” The goal is to provide access to a variety of lifestyle amenities within a 15-minute walking radius of the home.

A basketball court beneath the Yan’an Elevated Road.

The New Hongqiao Central Garden, tucked beneath an elevated section of Yan’an Elevated Road, is the latest example of how Shanghai is implementing the plan.

Four basketball courts and two football pitches have been built within a greenbelt covering of 20,000 square meters, the equivalent of about three standard football pitches.

“There used to be just lackluster parking slots beneath the highway,” said Zhou Jing, vice director of the construction management commission of Changning District. “Residents and nearly office workers complained about the shortage of outdoor sports facilities in that area of the Hongqiao business district.”

The underbelly of viaducts turns out to be ideal for sports areas. There is natural shelter from rain and excessive sunshine, and the facilities can operate around the clock with no complaints about noise or light from nearby residential communities. The proximity to office buildings means white-collar workers have somewhere to get some exercise.

Rucker Park, the operator of the courts and pitches, said the Hongqiao garden has been popular among residents and office workers. The facilities are free from 6 am to 9 am on workdays. Customers can book and pay on a WeChat account for use in other time slots.

Lively colors and animal patterns reactivated dull concrete space beneath the Middle Ring Road.

“I used to go to indoor gyms in malls, which were expensive and crowded with people,” said Vincent He, a senior accountant working in the nearby Arch Shanghai office building. “Now, I can play basketball with my colleagues during breaks or after work, which strengthens teamwork.

A similar project was earlier unveiled under the city’s Middle Ring Road near Beidi Road, where four separate basketball courts and football pitches were decorated with lively colors and animal patterns, such as a flamingo, zebra, and cheetah.

“We’ve gained experiences in building sports facilities beneath elevated roads, avoiding any distraction to drivers above and using protecting netting to prevent stray balls from landing on highways,” Dai Fuqi, the founder and chairman of Rucker Park, told Shanghai Daily.

He called the reclaimed spaces “unexploited rich ore” for urban sports.

A coffee house under the Wuning Road Bridge crossing Suzhou Creek.

SKF Café opened last year beneath the Wuning Road Bridge on its approach to Suzhou Creek. It’s become a popular place with locals.

In the downtown area, the city has opened 42 kilometers of creekside paths that pass under 33 bridges spanning the waterway.

Architect Zhang Bin decorated the tight space under the bridge in Putuo District – a site that now stands out for its European-style décor.

Apart from the café, the space also provides a public toilet, wooden benches and a vending machine.

“My goal was to activate ‘negative space,’ while attracting businesses to ensure its continuing maintenance,” Zhang said.

A boy plays on a swing in a playground below Kaixuan Road Bridge in Changning District.

The Shanghai native spent most of his childhood on the bridge, often watching a production at the nearby iron-steel workshop. He jogged beneath the bridge approach for physical education exercises at school.

Such an emotional bond motivated his effort to revitalize the site. And the payoff is heavy community use.

“I was surprised to find such an ambient atmosphere,” said an African drum coach who calls himself Prince and teaches people to play drums on the benches near the café on weekends.

The owner of the café, surnamed Ge, said the site attracts nearby office workers, local residents, shutterbugs, and joggers. She voluntarily takes charge of the cleaning and maintenance of the space.

Children play in the Fantasy Mushroom Forest in Yangpu District.

Elsewhere in Shanghai, a sports park for skateboarding, rock climbing, and football is planned beneath the South-North Elevated Road, which stretches for 30 kilometers across the city’s downtown.

Northern Baoshan District is converting a site beneath a bridge crossing the Wenzaobang River, a major tributary of Huangpu, into an art gallery and exhibition space.

“The purpose of these micro urban renewal projects is not only to beautify neglected urban spaces but also to provide more conveniences or services to residents,” said Wu Jiang, a famous architect and former vice president of Tongji University.

Wu has championed the concept of treating overlooked urban spaces as “living organisms,” advocating their renewal over massive dismantling and rebuilding.

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