Every cloud has a silver lining in Karamay

Atkins | 02 Sep 2014 | Comments

How do you take an oil-rich city in the far west of China, where temperatures range from freezing in winter to sweltering in summer, and turn it into a hotbed of diverse economic activity?

The concept of the “company town” is nothing new. Indeed, many great cities began life as mono-industrial sites. The British Industrial Revolution was born in “monotowns” in the north-west and midlands, dominated by a single industry – either textiles or coal. For most towns, however, other sectors and activities develop alongside (and in support of) the foundation industry. Many modern cities can trace their roots in such a history.

For Karamay in China’s far north west Xinjiang province, that process has taken 60 years. Karamay (meaning “black oil” in the local language) sits on one of China’s biggest oilfields, and as such since its birth in the 1950s has had little need or incentive to diversify away from its one industry.

Now, however, that has changed. While oil remains a vital part of the economic mix, local authorities have taken the far sighted decision to pursue a policy of diversification, to lessen the grip of oil, which up until recently accounted for around 90-92 per cent of GDP.

Karamay, it was decided, needed to take the next, belated step in its development: to become a vibrant, varied place to live, attracting new immigrants and offering a much broader range of social, economic and cultural resources.

Achieving that in a city like Karamay, however, wouldn’t be easy. In addition to its reliance on oil, it is the largest city the furthest distance from any ocean in the world, and has a climate that would frighten many people: the average temperatures range from minus 17°C in the winter to over 27°C in the summer. Bordered by mountains to the north and a vast expanse of desert to the south and east, its situation on China’s frontier had given it a particular feel: a working town for tough people.

John Barber, director for economic consultancy at Atkins in Beijing, explains that, faced with those various challenges, work began with local authorities in 2011 to introduce new economic activities in the city and to develop Karamay into a place where people – and not just oil workers – might want to put down roots, pursue a career and raise a family.

“It was a concern that perhaps there were not the economic opportunities for some of the younger people to stay there, because of the one dimensional nature of the economy as a whole, but also because it wasn’t very well served by a wider range of service sectors or by a full range of recreation/leisure opportunities to make it a more attractive place to live,” he says.

“The economic side of the plan involved identifying a wide range of new opportunities that could provide a more balanced economy; so we looked at providing the basis for the economy to have a greater service component that would attract more people to the area; and at creating a more balanced community that would make it more of a liveable place.”

The most visible illustration of the city’s new direction will be the construction of the Karamay Cloud Computing Industry Park, designed by Atkins and Faithful+Gould. Envisaged as a way to attract not only new businesses to the city but also help develop an indigenous IT sector, the park will cover approximately 48,000m² (above ground). But designing and building a modern, high quality park from scratch in such a tough environment is far from straightforward: the city has no experience in this type of project, especially where construction periods for building are limited by the climatic conditions.

The planning, architectural concept and detailed design phases of the project were led by Steven Smit, Atkins’ architecture design director in Shanghai, with Phil Clarke, senior associate, and Sienna Guo, architect.

Smit explains that, given the extreme climate, simply copying the generic business park approach typical elsewhere in China would not work.

“Designing a business park can be straightforward – and we’ve done quite a few – but in this unique, remote location, the design had to be more modular, which would potentially allow prefabrication.”

The client in Karamay suggested that the park buildings be lightweight – like pods. There was also the suggestion that offices spaces be linked so that people could move between them without exposure to the extreme elements, especially in winter. This resulted in an innovative design solution: a network of pods connected to a building via social hubs.

The wind presented an additional challenge: it makes the desert city colder in winter and brings hot sandstorms in the summer. The Atkins team realised that tackling this would require modifying the landscape around the park. As a result, the team designed extensive landscaped buffer zones and windbreaks in harmony with the Cloud Computing Industry Park behind.

As for the building design, the team’s remit was to focus on both utility and aesthetics, according to Clarke: “We wanted the design concept to express the idea of ‘cloud computing’, which is increasingly driving a connected world. The ‘cloud’ is becoming key to modern life and, increasingly, our phones and tablets depend on the connectivity it offers.”

“We were inspired by binary data – zeroes and ones – floating through space from our mobile phone devices to our wifi-enabled laptops and tablets,” adds Guo. Using this principle of floating data, we generated our architectural concept of limited forms that, while repetitive, can be combined in different ways like binary data.”

In many ways the work happening at the park and elsewhere in Karamay is reflective of a wider trend in China: the country has been through a stratospheric economic growth cycle over the last two decades. During that period, growth was measured in thousands of miles of track, or millions of square feet: raw growth, where quantity and scale are the basic measures of progress.

Now, though, Chinese authorities and planners are focusing on the quality of growth: is the new park built to last? Does it meet international standards? Is it sustainable? Will it attract people to work there, from within China and beyond? These more nuanced metrics have, to a large extent, driven the work in Karamay.

“The trend to focus more on quality will benefit international design consultants like Atkins, if we can truly deliver on the vision of quality and innovation,” says Smit. “Local planners have been necessarily concentrating on quantitative targets for the past 20 years. The current shift up the value chain means designing and constructing buildings better and more efficiently, using fewer materials but preserving growth at the same time. This brings with it both challenges and opportunities.”

Indeed, focusing on developing IT and R&D capabilities, masterplanners in Karamay are hoping to turn its unique geographic location to their advantage. From its base in the far north west, the city is actually more oriented outwards, towards China’s central Asian neighbours. As China’s most north-westerly province, Xinjiang is bordered by seven different countries.

Barber says that the early stages of the planning revealed that neighbouring states had just as much interest in Karamay’s development as did the Chinese: “When we were discussing this with some of the trade and investment promotion agencies in neighbouring countries, we found them very open to engagement.”

For many of these countries, access to the latest technological infrastructure, like cloud computing, as well as financial and professional services that weren’t readily accessible, was especially attractive.

According to Barber, it’s a great opportunity for the whole region, and the Cloud Computing Industry Park is just the start: further software companies are expected to relocate, with major investment in developing Karamay’s exhibition and R&D sector, while improved transport links are also part of the mix. In doing so, Barber says, Karamay’s local planners – with Atkins’ help – are building a brave new world out there in the desert.

“These guys are breaking down a number of barriers in terms of doing business, attracting people to the area and providing sustainable lifestyles to the people that live there – it’s not easy to do, but it’s a great opportunity.”

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