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Atkins is helping China future proof its cities

Mark Harrison | 18 Sep 2014 | Comments

It’s now close to a cliché to observe that the rural to urban shift of the Chinese population over the past three decades has been the largest sustained human migration in history.

As Mark Harrison, Atkins’ director of urban planning and consultancy in Asia Pacific who has been based in Beijing for over a decade, puts it, “In the over 30 years since China’s “Opening Up”, the policy changes and achievements have been huge, but the most fundamental has been the massive movement of the population from rural to urban living”.

As a result, hundreds of millions of people have had to be housed, employed, fed and provided with services in entirely new or dramatically expanded urban environments. Cities have mushroomed from small, manageable urban areas to vast metropolises virtually overnight.

This unprecedented economic and social transformation has been accompanied by dramatic growth in energy and other resource use. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation has also given rise to increasingly severe environmental problems.

In terms of scale, it’s utterly unprecedented. These hundreds of millions of new urbanites have presented the authorities with immense challenges, raising a multitude of issues in supplying them with housing, food, water, transport, employment, sanitation and energy.

Plus, it’s only just beginning. It’s expected that a further 200-300 million people will move to or be born in China’s cities over the next 10 years.

Avoiding environmental and economic disaster over the coming decades will doubtless require very careful urban planning in the present. Planning that takes China’s complicated future needs and rapidly changing society into account. In short, China’s cities need to be “Future Proofed”.

So, what is Future Proofing? It’s an Atkins approach to urban planning that spans multiple disciplines and attempts to simultaneously tackle all of the major issues facing modern cities. It combines:

  • Responsible economic development to create a strong foundation for the urban economy and viable livelihoods for its new citizens.
  • A focus on connecting people both physically via efficient transport and people-friendly streetscapes and also virtually through high-bandwidth digital communications.
  • Sustainability as a paramount goal, maximising environmental quality while minimising resource use.
  • Destinations & Lifestyle – ensuring a city is more than just a place to live and work, propagating culture, sports and entertainment for the enjoyment of residents and tourists alike.

The key to the Future Proofing process lies in the careful combination of all the above concerns from the very start. Finding a balance between these sometimes contradictory concerns very early in the planning process will ensure that life in the city of the future needn’t be excessively work-focused, solitary, polluted or boring.

After all, what good is it to have a high-paying job if you can’t breathe the air? Or access to a fast Metro system if there’s nowhere in the city you really want to go?

In a way, it’s all about the intersections. No, we’re not referring to the places where streets physically meet (although those crossroads do, indeed play their part).

What we’re talking about is the intersections and interactions of the major planning concerns that go to make a great city – divining how the economic development, sustainability, “people connection” and travel & leisure aspects of an urban area will interconnect for decades to come.

We believe careful consideration of exactly how all these aspects fit together – at as early a stage of the planning as possible – is crucial to “Future Proofing” a city. There’s a measure of vindication in the way our cross-discipline approach is fast becoming THE way to plan urban environments.

“We’re seeing more acceptance of the multi-disciplinary approaches that have proved successful around the world,” says Mark Harrison, whose team has been increasingly engaged in such projects in Beijing and beyond in recent years. “The authorities here are looking at how to apply them in ways that will work in China.”

The Future Proofing process also combines a number of more specific Atkins methods, such as Transport Oriented Development, Industrial Planning, Place Making, Destinations Planning and Eco-Low Carbon Planning.

The last of these is currently in the spotlight due to the recent release of a set of Eco-Low Carbon Planning guidelines for China that have been developed by Atkins in partnership with China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the China Society for Urban Studies (CSUS).

When combined with early integration of the other planning parameters, ELC urban planning promises to be a great aid in developing truly sustainable, future proofed cities in China.

Future proofing cities in China
Future proofing cities in China