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The new face of the old city

Atkins | 10 Apr 2013 | Comments

By 2050, the largest city in the world will probably be in China – and it hasn’t been built yet. Demographics are altering the shape of the modern landscape from Shanghai to Mumbai. Masterplanners are defining that new environment. From central business districts to mega city regions, rising incomes worldwide are changing the game and planners are looking ahead to the city of tomorrow.

The city is undergoing a renaissance. People who once aspired to live in the widening suburban sprawl on the edge of metropolitan areas now want to be at the heart of city life. In Europe and North America, widespread gentrification and the regeneration of industrial districts such as canals and dockyards is replacing some of the blight and decay of the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in new cityscapes that are a pleasure to live and work in.

Outside the West, exciting new city developments are appearing everywhere from Baku and Nairobi to Abu Dhabi and Seoul, either in the form of huge extensions to existing cities or completely new cities built from scratch. Often working with fewer constraints, city planners are fundamentally re-imagining what the city is all about.

Driving this surge in planning is a wide range of factors – including new national wealth, dramatic population shifts from rural to urban areas, the need to respond to demographic changes and ambitious efforts to create sustainable places with better access to technology, financial centres or culture.

Emerging economies are providing most of the biggest developments, because their needs are often most urgent and they are generally more willing to think big and do away with the old. By contrast, in the West the tendency is to preserve, renew and infill cities – partly because of a lack of space, but also because public opinion tends to be less prepared to embrace new construction.

In the developing world, there is a desire for growth and modernity – though this comes at a price, according to Dr George Martine, co-author of a 2010 study on urbanisation published by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

“Massive urban growth in developing countries looms as some of the most critical determinants of economic, social and ecological wellbeing in the 21st century,” he says.

East Asian tigers

As in so many things, China is leading the way when it comes to big developments. Since 1978, it has added roughly 500 new cities to the landscape and it already has 160 cities of more than a million people (by comparison, Europe has 35). Over the next 20 years, the percentage of Chinese expected to live in cities will grow from roughly 50 per cent today to 70 per cent. By 2040, the urban population is forecast to expand by 400 million – about 15 million people per year.

“What’s happening in China is the rapid urbanisation that we have already seen in Japan and the tiger economies after the Second World War,” says Mark Harrison, senior technical director for Atkins’ urban planning consultancy in Beijing. “Similar processes occurred in Britain and Europe associated with the Industrial Revolution, and in America in the last century. We’re seeing a rapid urbanisation and a mass migration of people to urban areas.”

The tremendous growth in China and elsewhere in East Asia is leading to a new phenomenon: mega city regions, where cities coalesce to form uninterrupted urban stretches. Examples include: the Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou region in China, which is home to 120 million people, according to a recent UN report; the Nagoya-Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe corridor in Japan (60 million people); and the Malaysia-Singapore area.

“Rapid development of these regions does pose many challenges including competing economic activities, co-ordination of large-scale infrastructure provision, environmental protection, social inequalities and liveability,” Harrison says.

Another big challenge in China is planning for a society that is evolving so rapidly. “In addition to mass migration and rising disposable income, China is changing from a socialist to a market-socialist system and this has a fundamental impact on urban development. Under the previous economic model, there was no need to plan for private commodity housing, the development of an extensive services sector, retail as leisure, export-processing zones and so on,” he says.

Changing times

In another 20 years, India will have caught up with China in terms of population. Whereas China’s one-child-per-family rule is resulting in an ageing workforce, India’s burgeoning population is projected to be growing at around 0.6 per cent a year. Thriving urban areas will be key, as the country will have to handle the challenge of accommodating a population growing at a faster rate than China’s within a smaller land area. New McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) projections show India’s urban population soaring to 590 million in 2030.

The country will also become a nation of upwardly mobile middle-class households. By 2025, the Indian middle classes will have expanded dramatically to 583 million people – some 41 per cent of the population. In fact, cities are being built for the emerging middle classes in many areas of the world. In Azerbaijan, for example, a 200-hectare urban centre is being developed on the outskirts of Baku, aiming to reclaim lands that were once polluted with oil pits, rail yards and other industrial facilities.

Other new purpose-built cities include Mussafah on the edge of Abu Dhabi. Mussafah is designed as a designated industrial area and is one of several projects designed to reduce the region’s dependency on oil and build the necessary foundations and infrastructure to support a sustainable society in the future. According to Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council, some $200bn will have been pumped into various infrastructure projects in the Emirate by 2013.

Cities have always been built according to their proximity to basic resources such as water, but it’s now possible to build in all kinds of places, even in previously inhospitable environments such as deserts. In a potential precursor to a futuristic world altered by climate change, it is perhaps comforting to know that purpose-built virtual cities can be situated anywhere.

“Whereas in the past cities were located in places for almost prehistoric reasons, that doesn’t need to be the case any more,” explains Matt Tribe, director at Atkins. “In dealing with climate change, sea-level rises and other natural processes, planners may now go through a process of taking people away from risk areas, by understanding the best place to locate them.”

Future-proofing cities

The advantage of new cities is that sustainability can be built into every aspect of the design.

“The new cities that are being developed in China, India and the rest of Asia are going to be able to draw on the latest thinking, where we design cities that are sustainable at every level. This means thinking fundamentally about urban form, infrastructure and buildings to produce the most sustainable solutions and to future-proof cities in terms of climate change. This is much harder to put in place once you’ve already built your city,” Harrison says. He asserts that sustainability is an increasingly important part of developments he is involved with in China – most recently, a financial district in Chengdu and a new business district in Beijing.

Harrison believes China is likely to be a good learning ground for masterplanners in the future: “I’m sure a lot of the complex urban questions that we’re now facing around the world will have some answers in China, simply because of the numbers of people involved, the scale of the development and the focus on finding new models for urban development.”

Tribe argues that “there will be more transit-oriented, very dense developments, and there will also be clustering. As well as megatropolises such as those being developed by the Chinese, I think there will be compact densities that are highly linked,” he says. “That means either physically with super-fast trains or IT with fast broadband.”

The move to denser urban environments is already evident in Europe and North America, particularly where sprawl is a concern. After the Second World War, the tendency was to build outwards, creating new suburbs and commuter towns. In recent years, however, that sort of construction has become increasingly unacceptable, according to Harrison.

“Politically, it’s quite difficult to plan any kind of new growth in the UK at the moment,” he says. “This is due in part to the recession, of course, but also because the countryside and heritage are valued. So it’s all about infilling particular city sites, and a sustainability agenda of having denser cities that use land more effectively.”

In addition, wonderful architectural assets are to be found in the older hearts of cities, often in buildings that had a previous use, according to Michael Hebbert, Professor of Town Planning in the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester.

“Urban renaissance is partly building renaissance – rediscovering old buildings,” he says.

As well as investing heavily in cities such as Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds and Cardiff, the previous UK government announced plans for up to ten eco-towns around England. It was hoped that these settlements would address the pressing need for affordable housing while being sustainable and carbon neutral. Plans included smart meters for residents to track their energy usage, plug-in points for electric cars and large spaces for parks and playgrounds. However critics doubted the eco-towns’ ability to attract the necessary infrastructure, such as transport and schools, and to meet the ambitious environmental standards. The plans have since been downgraded considerably to four eco-towns. These are now slated for 2016 and still need to make it through the planning approval process.

“The UK has a fairly robust policy on sustainability, but because we are building in much smaller volumes, it is more difficult to affect some of the fundamentals of land-use planning,” says Paul Fraser, a senior urban designer at Atkins. By comparison, Fraser was part of the team working on Mussafah in Abu Dhabi, which is of a sufficient size to support a full range of public services.

“Ideally, you have a hierarchy of public services. Within a typical five-minute walk, you would expect to find a local shop, post box and so on. A bus network would allow you to get to a health clinic and a bigger set of shops. And then regional facilities such as hospitals would be accessible with at least one mode of transport.

“It is essential that you create an effective network that allows you to access as many of these things as possible without using your car,” Fraser explains.

“There is tremendous latent demand for urban buzz,” says Hebbert. “You can see it in the take-up rates of residential opportunities close to city centres. It is about a rediscovery of everything that an urban, as opposed to a suburban, lifestyle can offer.

“So the value of proximity is going to increase and, with that, encouragement for a high-quality, high-density urban residential offer. I believe that’s going to be the trend of the coming century.”

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