The Shape of Things to Come

Dominic Bettison

The key features of urban design shaping the profiles of Chinese cities in the next decade. In 1980, only about a fifth of China's population lived in cities but by 2010 this had risen to about 45 percent, or roughly 600 million people, out of a total of 1.3 billion people.

The demand for city planners and designers to deliver instant cities in order to meet the influx of new migrant workers and the increasing middle classes has been immense in China. Local governments expect planning departments to deliver complete new towns in two to three years. In the West, with our convoluted and over-democratised planning process, producing even one building in this timescale would be a challenge.

In Guangzhou, China's third biggest city and manufacturing heart, the local planning authority has delivered a brand new extension to the city, built in less than five years on farmland to the east of the urban core. Zhujiang New Town was conceived to replace the overcrowded, gridlocked and polluted city centre. It was also designed to form the centrepiece of Guangzhou's hosting of the Asia Games in October 2010.

Landmark buildings have been designed by international architects, including Wilkinson Eyre's own Guangzhou International Finance Centre. At 440 meters, it is China's second-tallest building, the tallest worldwide designed by a UK architect, and a symbol of Guangzhou's new economic might.


Guangzhou International Finance Centre, 2010

The new town contains many other high-rise commercial and residential buildings, an extension to the city's metro system, public parkland and, for good measure, a handful of cultural buildings, including an opera house and a museum.

A recent trip to the new city revealed sparkling new buildings but congested roads, a packed metro system and most of the residential apartments occupied. The new city will soon be full to capacity and smog persists overhead, a by-product of the factories which encircle the city and heavy car use.

So while planners and architects frantically build to keep up with the pace of urbanism, city officials and designers must work together to tackle the root causes of pollution, encourage motorists away from their cars by building high capacity infrastructure and public transport systems, and deliver a balance of social as well as market housing to ensure that China's cities of tomorrow are places that people actually want to live.

Distributed cities

The government's current strategy for providing for this huge increase in urbanism is to develop new cities from scratch, away from more established centres of population. This policy of distributed growth could see the creation of possibly 100 new cities of up to a million people and over 50 cities with populations of between 1 and 5 million. If China is to build new cities from scratch, or extend existing cities, then it will need to consider and embrace new approaches to urban design and integrate advanced technologies.

Sustainable design

China is now acknowledging and embracing the importance of sustainability for its future security and well-being. Its insatiable hunger for resources, materials and power will only be exacerbated by the increase in number and scale of its cities and it must adopt sustainable approaches to design. Buildings and cities must be efficiently designed and built using minimal materials, consume less water and energy, and generate fewer greenhouse gases. At the end of their lives they must also be recyclable.

Eco-cities

A series of entirely new carbon-neutral cities are being planned, which could be a good indication of a more sustainable future. The best known is at Dongtan, near Shanghai. Dongtan will have a population of 500,000 people and is planned to be ecologically friendly, with a zero-greenhouse-emission transit system and complete self-sufficiency in water and energy, together with the use of zero carbon principles for its buildings. Energy demand will be substantially lower than comparable conventional cities. Most of the city's waste will also be recycled. Original plans suggested that only electric or hydrogen powered vehicles would be allowed within the city.

Green space

Chinese cities of the future will integrate more green space for public amenities, both at a city-wide level and within individual sites. Chinese cities are already taking inspiration from public green space provision in some of the world's greatest cities, including Central Park in New York and the Royal Parks in London. Increased green space within cities will also help reduce the urban heat island effect, which brings with it additional energy requirements for cooling.

Building tall

According to a recent report by McKinsey, China is predicted to build 50,000 skyscrapers in the next 20 years. The major east coast cities of China are already well known for their proliferation of tall buildings; indeed, Shanghai is believed to have more skyscrapers than Manhattan. Originally designed as symbols of progress and status, tall buildings will become ever more widespread across Chinese cities as a means of achieving higher density of living and to maximise efficiency of land use. However, the skyscrapers of tomorrow will need to integrate the best environmental design and green technologies if the land use benefits are not to be outweighed by their energy consumption.

Public transport

Chinese cities are now highly dependent on the car and the impact of this is now becoming clear. New government strategies look to put in place modern, efficient, high capacity public transport infrastructure as the first component of any new urban masterplan. These transport systems will in the future connect directly with developments which sit either directly above the transport system or in close proximity to it.

In Beijing, where traffic jams are legendary, Wilkinson Eyre are designing a series of metro stations which form part of the wider expansion of its metro system. This expansion will push out new lines to satellite cities such as Tongzhou, 15 km east of central Beijing. These metro stations will form multi-mode transport interchange hubs from which underground connections to adjacent major developments have been planned.

Bicycle use

In China, the car has replaced the bicycle as a major mode of transport. This is a situation which in many Western cities is now being reversed with the creation of dedicated city-wide cycle routes and cycle hire schemes. Hopefully it won't be too long before China rediscovers the benefits of the bicycle.

Mega-cities

Some view the most efficient way to urbanise China's millions of people is to encourage them to move into ever more dense urban areas and concentrate on expanding established major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing to form "mega-cities". Shanghai already has a population of nearly 18 million people but this is set to rise by around a third to 25 million by 2020. Five years ago, construction began on the creation of nine new satellite cities in order to allow for this predicted expansion. Some criticism has been raised toward these new cities, each planned to be the same size as Atlanta, for the lack of employment opportunities and the inadequacy of the transport systems. Most debate, however, surrounds the decision to theme each around a European city. The first satellite city to be built is called "Thames Town" and is designed as a replica English city complete with a Gothic church and cobbled streets.

Could this be a sign of a lack of confidence in a distinctly Chinese approach to urban design, or the manifestation of a real need to provide fast "instant" cities, which try to extract the best, or sometimes unwittingly, the worse, from other more mature cities?

Hub and spoke

The future perhaps lies in the mega-city designed along the "hub and spoke" principle. Wuhan, a city of 5 million people located on the Yangtze River, plans to implement such a planning strategy to allow for its anticipated expansion to 12 million people by 2020. It has already put in place a vast network of bridges, road and rail projects and is planning a new airport to handle up to 70 million passengers a year, equal to Heathrow Airport in London. Most of the urban population will live in zones resembling large "spokes" radiating from the center of the city, which connect back by expressways and modern rail infrastructure. Residents will be encouraged to work and enjoy their leisure time in their local area, surrounded by natural landscape and water and without the need to commute to the city centre.

Technology

The future design of cities will become ever more closely interwoven with advances in technology. China may only need to look to South Korea to see the fusion of urban design and technology now taking place. At Songdo, near Seoul, a city of 300,000 is being developed as the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Touted as the world's first fully networked city it will provide state of the art technological infrastructure to residents and businesses. The city will run on information, allowing virtual meetings to be convened anywhere and making the need to travel to work almost a thing of the past. The city incorporates a park modeled on Central Park in Manhattan and a series of waterways and canals inspired by Venice. The development partners behind Songdo, including Cisco Systems, intend to offer the design of "instant" cities as a service and to offer city necessities such as water, power, telephony and traffic management as a single internet enabled utility. Cisco and its partners have now announced their intention to role out 20 such new cities across China and India. The future of cities worldwide may well be about to change direction once again.

This article was first written for the China Daily European Weekly in June 2010.