Shanghai skyline


When we think of “Shanghai”, we imagine one of the most efficient and developed cities in East Asia, the flashy, cosmopolitan skyline, expressing economic dynamism through vertical power. Thinking of “Portland”, we think of a place that draws hipsters and young entrepreneurs, people who compost and enjoy retro-fashion.

Housing issues are central to understanding Shanghai and Portland. Housing is essentially required for living, yet it is highly spatially differentiated—as the real estate saying goes: location, location, location. Additionally, housing is frequently the main source of equity for the middle class. This makes the politics of housing provision central to how residents experience the city regardless of retro-fashion or flashy skylines. On this website, we focus on housing issues in Shanghai and Portland, two cities experiencing a housing boom and metropolitan restructuring through gentrification of the core. We examine the interrelation between Shanghai and Portland’s globally-projected images and housing markets, focusing on how the residents experience the changes created through capital investment and municipal policy.


Shanghai, the most populous city in the People’s Republic of China, boasts a resident population of over 24 million, an emerging economy, and a global city status. A crucial trade port for centuries, Shanghai was a key city in the European colonization of China and East Asia. The modern occupation and colonization of the city took off with the stationing of British soldiers in Shanghai during the first Opium War in the nineteenth century. European colonization of the city continued through the first half of the twentieth century. Colonization left a significant mark on the city, with the historic downtown of Shanghai, the Bund, having been the previous center of colonial control. There, primarily European traders constructed a landscape to facilitate administration and trading, modeled on European architectural and development standards of the time. Chinese residents were excluded from the colonial landscape of central “cosmopolitan” Shanghai by practice and law; the central Bund Garden ruled that “[n]o Chinese are admitted, except servants in attendance upon foreigners” (Bickers and Wasserstrom 1995: 446).

Following the ascendance of the Communist Party, Shanghai’s boundaries expanded and most of the settled foreign financial and trade institutions relocated to Hong Kong out of fear of expropriation. Even after its earlier “Paris of the East” cosmopolitan elements were largely lost, Shanghai remained a top tier Chinese city. Additionally, under Mao, housing in China was largely provided by state-subsidized work-units, with residents living in relatively standardized housing on the same site as their job. Though this system provided for affordable and unsegregated housing, underinvestment was a chronic problem and the state couldn’t recoup the cost of renovation through added rents, so there was little incentive to maintain or upgrade the units.

The city has experienced enormous economic and demographic growth since the 1990s with an addition of 11 million residents and regaining its status as a major national and global center. This growth has occurred in the midst of the rapid marketization and commodification of the urban housing sector (Chen et al. 2010). Over the last two decades, Shanghai has gone from a city in which monthly rents of $1.22 were subsidized by the government (WuDunn 1991) to an expensive financial center, with central rents comparable to the most expensive cities in the world (Chen et al. 2010). In addition to urban economic growth, a significant driver of the Chinese housing market has been the relatively restrictive regulations on other forms of financial investments. Housing is thus one of the only ways in which people can invest their money, especially as China’s economy booms (Barboza 2013).


Portland is far from the global command center envisioned by global city theory; it possesses little in the way of international financial activities, international immigrant populations, or foreign real estate investment. Discourse about Portland emphasizes quirkiness rather than global importance, and compared to Shanghai, Portland is certainly a relatively provincial city on the world stage. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to categorically ignore the global attachments centered in Portland. The Portland metro area is the most export-intensive metropolitan area in the U.S.;  as Katz and Bradley (2013) state, “[t]oday, as Portland demonstrates, notions of globalization recognize that all cities are fueled, to different degrees, by global investment and connected, in distinctive ways, via global commerce and exchange.”

While Portland has not experienced the same intensive housing investment and expansion as Shanghai, it is in the midst of its own affordability crisis. Portland has a long history of displacement, redlining, and gentrification that has shaped and shifted Portland’s spatial demographics. Over the past 25 years, Portland has attracted college-educated migrants into the city at dramatic rates, despite middling employment growth (Jurjevich and Schrock 2012). This migration has been driven largely by a successful, concerted effort by the city to brand Portland as sustainable, hip, and with a high quality of life. The flight into Portland has driven up housing prices and rents, particularly in the desirable inner neighborhoods most emblematic of the “Portlandia” image or most amenable to being reshaped in that image.


  1. Barboza, David. 2013. 2 China Cities Move to Cool Overheated Housing Market. The New York Times. March 31, A4. overheated-housing-market.html, accessed February 25, 2016.
  2. Bickers, Robert A., and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. 1995. Shanghai’s “Dogs and Chinese Not Admitted” Sign: Legend, History and Contemporary Symbol. The China Quarterly(142): 444–466.
  3. Bradley, Jennifer and Bruce Katz. 2013. Weird Is Good: What Portland’s Economy Can Teach Every City in the World. The Atlantic, July 3., accessed April 28, 2016.
  4. Chen, Jie, Qianjin Hao, and Mark Stephens. 2010. Assessing Housing Affordability in Post-Reform China: A Case Study of Shanghai. Housing Studies 25(6): 877–901.
  5. Jurjevich, Jason, and Greg Schrock. 2012. Is Portland Really the Place Where Young People Go To Retire? Migration Patterns of Portland’s Young and College-Educated, 1980-2010. Publications, Reports and Presentations Paper 5. h p://
  6. Wudunn, Sheryl. 1991. Shanghai Journal; Will Houses Blossom Along Capitalist Road? The New York Times, December 3., accessed March 1, 2016.