Unlocking high speed cities

Atkins | 31 Aug 2015 | Comments

How can China’s lower tier cities make sure they get the most out of high speed rail connections? Celebrating the city’s natural resources and heritage could hold the key.

High speed networks are transforming rail travel. And nowhere is that transformation greater than in China. In less than ten years, China has laid more than 16,000km of new track to create the world’s biggest high speed rail network. And it’s just the start: there are plans to build another 16,000km of lines by 2020.

Quicker journeys provide unprecedented freedom for travellers, making cities become closer in terms of travel time. But for the lower tier cities that find themselves in the path of China’s expanding high speed network, fast trains can be a mixed blessing. Unless newly-connected cities can attract travellers – and give passengers a good reason to get off trains – they run the risk of being left further behind.

The city of Shangrao is a case in point. Situated in Jiangxi Province in the east of China just under 500km south west of Shanghai, this is a landlocked, third tier city with a population of just over six and a half million people.

The opening of the latest section of the Shanghai–Kunming High Speed Railway (HSR) in December last year has put Shangrao firmly on the high speed railway map. What’s more, the city is served by the new Hefei–Fuzhou HSR which opened late in June this year, elevating Shangrao to the status of a major railway intersection.

To ensure the city is able to make the most out of its new role as a regional transport hub, Shangrao’s Urban & Rural Planning Bureau recently commissioned Atkins and the Planning and Design Institute of Nanjing University, Beijing Branch, to create the blueprints for a major new urban development linked to the railway. Our partnership with a quality local design institute enabled the team to combine global ideas with local needs and produce a masterplan that is highly implementation driven. This truly “glocal” approach to designing future cities was key in winning the international competition.

“High speed rail brings opportunities as well as challenges,” says Jessie Yao, project manager, Atkins. “Our job is to use the opportunity provided by high speed rail to enhance the competitiveness of the city through effective economic transformation and city rebranding. We are doing this by creating a high speed rail district.”

The development zone lies just over six kilometres east of Shangrao’s city centre and covers an area of more than 60km2. Atkins’ role is to provide urban design and development framework for the core area which covers an area of 6.7km2. When completed, the core will have a population of about 64,000 people while the population of the wider planning area is expected to reach 130,000.

Showcasing Shangrao

The heart of the new high speed rail district is Shangrao railway station. The existing main line station has been revamped and expanded, with extra platforms added to accommodate high speed trains. The new station building is a landmark in its own right, with a distinctive undulating roofline that mirrors the region’s mountainous topography.

One of the challenges facing Shangrao is that the new high speed lines – and the station – are some way from the city, although this is not unusual in China: even conventional main line stations are sometimes found on the outskirts. This, in part, is because the bulk of the country’s railways were built after 1950 by which time most urban centres were already established.

“It’s about 20 minutes’ travel from Shangrao station to the city,” points out Carmen Lu, assistant urban designer, urban planning & consultancy, Atkins. “This is close by Chinese standards.” However, sometimes major transportation centres are deliberately located afar as it is used to stimulate local growth and respond to the rapidly urbanising China. In time, urban development takes place around these new transport hubs, relieving pressure on the old city centre where infrastructure has reached capacity and the urban fabric is in need of renewal.

For Shangrao, the fact that the station is on the urban fringe is a plus rather than a minus: land for development is relatively easier to assemble than in the city centre and there’s plenty of room for expansion in response to rapid urbanisation.

Yao stresses that the new HSR district is not simply another property development project. “It will include a mixture of cultural and tourist attractions, businesses and modern service industries. It’s also intended to provide local businesses with a platform to showcase their products and services to a wider audience,” she says. In short, it is a shop window for what the city has to offer.

Creating a unique and welcoming environment is a priority. The key to achieving this is capitalising on Shangrao’s natural attractions. These include the Yunbifeng National Forest Park, which is part of the planning area, and the Xinjiang River, which skirts the southern edge of the core site. “When you get outside the station, the first thing you see is mountains,” points out Yao. “Our aim is to make the best use of the landscape of the city.” This goes against the traditional textbook approach to the design of a transport-orientated development (TOD) which is to maximise the development intensity around the station. Arriving in a place of nature rather than a dense vertical city gives travellers a different impression of Shangrao.

To make the most of its natural surroundings, the plan reaches out to these and uses them to define the specific characters of the different functional zones, each of which plays to local strengths and culture. For example, one zone celebrates the city’s rich tea culture through the proposed tea culture town which has a modern agricultural demonstration garden. There is also an ecological recreation area and a series of health club clusters with a mountain sport theme. Furthermore, the new urban forestry zone will showcase the unique native species found within the city.

Designing the new HSR district is not all plain sailing. “Many land parcels in the area have been sold off and the fragmented environment is a challenge for our client,” notes Yao. “In response to this, we’ve optimised the public open space in our landscape design to enable Shangrao city government more flexibility in its subsequent management.” Therefore it was imperative that we prepare a flexible plan to reflect the constant changes that are taking place even during the planning process.

Currently, the site includes a mixture of farmland, industry and settlements. Some settlements and businesses will need to be relocated.The price of rapid urbanisation is often disruption to the city’s social fabric and this is no exception in the case of Shangrao . The challenge for the team was to derive a sensitive implementation plan to minimise the disruption by ensuring that compensation is fair and job displacements are supported by alternative opportunities and retraining programmes.

The railway also creates challenges in city design. Most conventional railways are constructed at ground level, with cuttings and embankments created to form a level alignment. China’s high speed railways are different. To reduce the loss of agricultural land (which represents important employment and food resources) and to minimise the need for resettlement, many new lines are built on viaducts. These are highly visible and they often dissect the place through which they pass.

At Shangrao, the situation is further complicated by the presence of a massive high speed railway junction. Criss-crossing the site over several kilometres, a heart-shaped complex of elevated loops and flyovers allows trains to sweep from the north-south to the east-west lines at speed. As a result, parts of the site are studded with concrete piers, some of them up to 30 metres high.

The shadowy and often unloved spaces beneath railway lines have long been the bane of urban planners. But at Shangrao, the Atkins team is planning to turn this space to advantage – with the help of local artists.

“We want to give people reasons to celebrate the high speed rail and one way we’re doing so is by creating a high speed rail modern art park below the viaduct area, the first of its sort in China,” explains Yao. “This will provide a space to exhibit local art and culture. The viaduct’s support columns will form an integral part of this and these will be used to create works of art.”

A greener city

Getting around the site is designed to be a pleasure rather than a chore. Again, the purpose is to deliberately provide a different arrival experience for this new district in a disadvantaged part of China. Eco-low carbon approaches are being adopted to ensure ample green space, along with sustainable travel around the site.

“A circular green link connects most of the main public spaces and open areas, including the art park, the Educational Cultural Park and public facilities such as museums and galleries,” explains Lu. “The pedestrian and cycle system is one of the main components of the design and this extends right across the planning area.” There are also plans in provide trams to link key points on the site, including the railway station and Xinjiang River waterfront.

As well as being a destination in its own right, the HSR district is also intended to provide a gateway to tourist attractions in the wider region. Tourism is seen as a growth engine by the Shangrao authorities and plans to boost visitor numbers – both domestic and overseas – are a key plank in the city’s five-year plan.

“Shangrao is a natural touring centre for some the country’s most spectacular scenery and the city is now more accessible than ever thanks to fast trains,” says Yao. “Using the new high speed line, it takes just over two-and-a-half hours to get from Shanghai to Shangrao.” The same journey takes more than seven hours on a conventional train.

The region certainly has plenty to offer. Attractions include Mount Sanqingshan National Park, noted for its dramatic granite peaks. This lies to the north of Shangrao. Attractions to the south include Mount Wuyi and the gorges of the Nine-Bend River. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Shangrao is also home to more than 20 national scenic areas.

Not every city can boast the natural treasures on offer at Shangrao. But the design principles underpinning the city’s high speed district – sustainability, using green space and capitalising on local culture – have potential for much wider adoption. Cities beyond Shangrao, and beyond China, will be watching with interest.

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