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The changing face of China

Atkins | 16 Jan 2010 | Comments

China has enjoyed remarkable economic growth since its open door policy was introduced more than three decades ago. This has been followed by rapid urbanisation and better standards of living in cities. It has also left many asking where sustainability fits into the equation. Gareth Kirkwood, managing director of Atkins for mainland China, offers his views from the frontlines.

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, “urbanisation in China and the high-tech development in the United States will be the two keys to influence the human development in the 21st century deeply…. China’s urbanisation will be a locomotive for regional economic growth and produce the most important economic benefits.’’

As part of the country’s journey from the world’s factory to economic powerhouse, 350 million people – more than the total population of the US – will leave their homes in rural China and become urban dwellers within the next 15 to 20 years.

From 2008 to 2025, it is estimated that China will have to pave five billion square metres of road, lay 28,000km of commuter rail, build or expand more than 100 airports, and erect 20,000 to 50,000 skyscrapers (producing about 40 billion square metres of new floor space).

At the same time, as the level of urbanisation increases, energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will continue to rise if left unchecked. Furthermore, China has seven per cent of the world’s arable land, supporting 22 per cent of its population. It is increasingly dependent on imported natural resources to fuel its fast growth.

Improving resource efficiency and reducing emissions are of vital national interest. Careful and comprehensive considerations must go into the planning, design and construction of all major urban projects. This way, functionality and quality can be maintained, while urban sprawl and any further negative impact on resources and the environment can be avoided.

As a result, going green has become a genuine and long term commitment from China’s central government. For example, China and the US released a joint statement prior to COP15, following talks between President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama. The two countries agreed that “the transition to a green and low carbon economy is essential.”

The statement recognised the importance of the Ten Year Framework on Energy and Environment Co-operation (TYF), which aims to strengthen co-operation in promoting clean water, air, transportation, electricity and resource conservation.

Under a new China-US Energy Efficiency Action Plan, both countries “will work together to achieve cost-effective energy efficiency improvement in industry, buildings and consumer products through technical co-operation, demonstration and policy exchanges.”

For China’s construction sector, this means going beyond traditional urban or land use planning. It requires interdisciplinary perspectives on urban development, with sustainability and carbon critical design at its core.

It requires co-development with industries and the entire economic system, and it also needs to be compatible with the conditions of employment, security, education, public transportation, medical insurance, environmental protection and infrastructure.

Accordingly, urban planning can be a challenge in China, in terms of its scope and complexity. Atkins is often required by clients to help address more fundamental development issues, such as the structure of the local economy and the prioritisation of industrial sectors and business strategy, which not only affect land use and the transportation network, but also have a major impact on the carbon and ecological footprints of local development.

These projects reflect the ongoing efforts of the Chinese government and its people to change the way things have been done in the past, with a view to a more sustainable future.

 Shenyang and Fushun: a sustainable connection

For example, in 2008, Atkins participated in a master planning competition to develop a 605km2 plot of land in the country’s northeast, connecting the heavy industry cities of Shenyang and Fushun. Ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities by the World Bank more than once in the last five years, Shenyang in particular needed to clean up its environment as well as its image.

This was a vital development, as cities in China increasingly need to compete for mobile capital and high-quality labour. The quality of cities and the responsiveness of urban planning represent comparative advantage in urban and economic development.

Atkins’ planning team began the process by posing a fundamental question: “How can this area sustain its development economically, socially and environmentally?”

Analysis was carried out on national and regional economic growth trends, as well as the competitive landscape of other major Chinese cities, the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the city cluster, and carrying capacity between the two cities. Based on this research, Atkins was able to recommend major industries to be developed over the next 20 years, including pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, modern equipment and electronic goods.

Using growth models, total population for the zone was forecast to reach 700,000 people in 2020, ultimately reaching one million. To support the population growth and migration, transport infrastructure, information systems and utilities were also planned. A series of transport and ecological corridors, as well as industrial development clusters formed the basic framework of the future Shenyang-Fushun Connective Area.

Ultimately, the company’s winning master plan proposed to integrate the resources of the two cities in order to strengthen Shenyang’s position as the regional centre. This would facilitate its transition to a more sustainable economic development pattern.

Doing business in Shizimen

The Shizimen Business District in Zhuhai is another example of the challenges facing China’s urban centres. Located next to the former Portuguese colony of Macao, the city of Zhuhai was hoping to define its sustainable development priorities in this area while increasing its attractiveness, as well as finding a unique niche and value proposition in the co-development of city clusters.

Atkins proposed a concept master plan that envisioned a Zhuhai-Macao megalopolis centred on the Shizimen Business District. This would complement Guangzhou-Foshan and Hong Kong-Shenzhen as a third engine for development in the region. And a borderless relationship between Macao and Zhuhai would create a comprehensive and sustainable hub for conferences, business, heritage and tourism along the Shizimen corridor.

The proposed design featured green and public open spaces, landmark buildings and transport systems, all embracing the central principles of Carbon Critical Design. The design created a vibrant, livable central business district on the waterfront, one that was sensitive to the existing environment but robust as the basis for economic growth. Key features of the plan included:

  • a prevalence of high-density, mixed use development around public transport and core service nodes, in order to encourage minimal commutes and highly efficient land use;
  • an interconnected landscape network that provides shelter for pedestrians, enhances microclimate benefits and minimises urban heat island effect;
  • good, natural views that add value to perceived quality of life, workers’ productivity and property value; and
  • a network of pedestrian, cycling, mass transit and water transport routes to minimise the need for cars.

Take to the air in Xi’an

In both Zhuhai and the Shenyang and Fushun corridor, transport plays a major part in the success of their long term sustainability. Increasing economic activity, an ever-expanding population and redefined roles of cities also mean an increased need for travel between cities.

China’s per-capita travel mileage is only a fraction of those in more developed countries but that is changing fast, with a large number of new highway, railway and airport projects being planned and implemented.

For example, the new terminal building of Xi’an Xianyang International Airport is one of the half a dozen airports and airport extensions designed by Atkins in the past five years. Serving the city that once was the starting point of the Silk Road and is one of the largest hubs in western China, Xi’an Xianyang Airport is to undergo dramatic growth over the next 20 years – seeing its current annual capacity of 7.5 million passengers expanded to 26 million by 2020 and 48 million by 2035.

Atkins produced the master plan for the expansion, including the design of a 170,000m2 terminal building, together with a four-star hotel, a convention and exhibition centre, and an entertainment/leisure centre. The total area for the development’s first phase was to be approximately 260,000m2 and would turn the expanded airport into a major gateway to western China, capable of accommodating Airbus A380 aircraft.

Atkins’ concept model offered flexibility at the existing airport, while transferring operations to a regional hub gradually over a period of about 20 years. It also provided commercial opportunities to drive non-aviation profits, while achieving efficient land use.

Adding to the challenge were the local cultural and historic elements, which sit in stark contrast to modern facilities. Xi’an, the ancient capital city of China, has 5,000 years of history and is home to many well known heritage sites, including the Terracotta Warriors and the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

As such, Atkins’ terminal building design emphasises traditional Chinese architectural characteristics. For example, the gentle curved roofs are like waving silk, reflecting Xi’an’s role as the starting point of “The New Silk Road” and expressing the ancient spirits of the city. They emphasise the terminal’s role as the gateway to the vast territory in China’s underdeveloped north-west, and economic and cultural exchange with the rest of the world. It will become the iconic and landmark building for Xi’an in the 21st century.

Reducing GHGs by design

Of course, all of this growth comes at a price. A growing urban population with rising standards of living has far reaching implications for GHG emissions, particularly CO2. In the business-as-usual scenario, GHG emissions from building energy consumption in China could rise from 1.1 gigatons in 2005 to 5.1 gigatons in 2030, according to one report.

Given the scale of development being planned, designed and built in China today, there is only a short window of opportunity to steer this development toward a more sustainable, low carbon scenario. The government in China, at all levels, is designing and implementing regulations and standards that put more stringent requirements on building energy performance. Leading private developers are pioneering sustainable communities and even developing their own sustainability assessment methodology.

Armed with its Carbon Critical Design philosophy and a suite of proprietary assessment and design tools, Atkins is doing its part to support these efforts. The emphasis is on passive design, with priority given to better building orientation and insulation, natural ventilation and more efficient lighting, air conditioning and heating. This not only reduces a building’s carbon footprint but can also reduce lifecycle costs.

A case in point is the CISDI headquarters in Chongqing. This 24-storey building, designed by Atkins and erected in 2009, creates an energy efficient prototype for mid-rise buildings in China. The building contains office facilities plus exhibition, training and recreational spaces for employees, and it will form part of one side of a new urban plaza in Chongqing.

Sustainable design was at the heart of the project. Office areas were restricted to less than 12m wide for optimal day lighting. Ceiling heights were increased to 4.2m, higher than in a standard office building, while all the service and lift cores are located at the outer edges of the block. This allows the typical office space to have windows on both sides, increasing natural light and ventilation.

The façade is also a highly insulated envelope: a glazed (VDF) ventilated double façade and an insulated zinc clad wall, which reduces energy use and waste.

Deeply planted roof gardens formed key parts of the design, not only as part of the insulation of the building, but as an additional shared recreational area for all the staff. Sports, dining and recreational areas are included within the main building, while circulation systems around the central atrium space were included to encourage interaction and meetings between staff. These elements also encourage employees to stay within the space, minimising the need for additional travel.

Developments such as these reflect a wider concern in China for the environmental impact of its ongoing success. By keeping sustainability on the agenda, the country has a chance to maintain its growth while continuing to improve standards of living and doing its part to combat climate change. It’s a long road, but as the last 30 years have made clear, nothing is impossible for this ever changing country.

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