Exploring Shanghai’s recent geographic history

As a new arrival in Shanghai, I am keen to explore the cityscape, and have just spent a glorious spring weekend doing precisely that on my bike. But what newcomers like me lack is an institutional memory, a grasp of the geographic history of the city.

Growing up in New York, I had a child’s keen interest in skyscrapers, and can tell you even now in what approximate order the skyscrapers of the upper east side mushroomed, and how the neighborhoods evolved in response. But in Shanghai, I don’t have such context — and in a city where the pace of change is this rapid, that can feel like a handicap. How did a particular area look just 5 or 10 years ago? Everybody knows, except me.

Until now! Currently, I’m staying in an apartment building that I was told is just three years old. So, what came before? Google Earth’s historical archive proves to be the perfect tool to find out:

You can try this yourself at home: Here’s the location as KML; then turn on the historical imagery function and explore.

Shanghai is full of areas like in the video above, which have transitioned from old low-rise popular neighborhoods to skyscraper compounds. (This has been happening in Beijing too, where the practice has attracted criticism for its disregard of historical patrimony.)

Luckily, imaging satellites have been around long enough that such an archive can extend back over a decade for Shanghai. The historical imagery isn’t just usable for something as mundane as verifying real-estate agents’ claims; it lets you explore places that are now permanently inaccessible, because they exist only in the past — and on Google Earth.

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