Mark Harrison

Asia Pacific

Mark Harrison is director for urban planning and consultancy at Atkins Asia Pacific, overseeing a team of 200 planners working across China and the region. He is currently based in Beijing and has thirty years consultancy experience in Asia in urban planning and development. His experience includes large-scale master planning (new towns, CBD expansion, airport support communities), regional planning (regional plans, sub-regional plans), tourism and leisure (waterfront development, resort development, sports and leisure), urban policy (urbanisation, sustainable development, development intensity), infrastructure (ports, airports, roads, rail) and renewal (urban renewal, revitalisation, pedestrianisation).

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President Xi’s vision for Xiongan is to create a 2000 km2 national level new area with the same significance as Pudong and Shenzhen. The aim is also to create a model city with a clean environment, convenient transport links and high-tech industries to attract millions of people to work and live.

Pudong, the financial district of Shanghai, and Shenzhen, a former fishing village that has turned into a metropolis of Southern China, have obviously been very successful in many aspects. Naturally people will question whether the Xiongan New Area will be able to replicate the success of its peers.

Let’s bear in mind that the announcement is only a few weeks old. For a development of this scale, we are looking at 30 to 50 years before we can make a judgement if the development has succeeded or not.

Nonetheless, there are some fundamental considerations to bear in mind as the area moves forward.

Economic development

The success of an urban area of this scale is based primarily on its economic fundamentals. The coastal areas of Shenzhen and Pudong were well-located to access external markets at a time when China’s focus was on export-led economic development. As the focus is now changing to that of stimulating domestic demand, it may well be that a more inland location is more appropriate. However, as Hebei Province, where Xiongan New Area is located, has been relatively slow in terms of economic development, careful economic strategies to stimulate growth will be critical to the success of Xiongan New Area. While a leading role will obviously be played by State-owned Enterprises at least in the early stages, room for growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises will be essential for real job creation in the medium and long term.

Smart and green

Xiongan presents a significant opportunity to coalesce the latest thinking around ‘smart’ and ‘green’ approaches to urban development. To be successful, such aspects should be integrated fundamentally into the planning of the city whether it be in infrastructure, transport, city management and operations, education, security, healthcare, e-government services, or using the smart city and eco city ideas to promote economic development itself. With Hebei as one of China’s most polluted areas, an approach to sustainable, future-proofed development will obviously be critical to the success of the new area.


While jobs, a clean environment and a technologically advanced development will all play their role in attracting future residents, so too will be the creation of a livable city with a distinctive sense of place. As Xiongan eases the pressure on the capital city that is struggling to cope with a population of more than 20 million people, the Xiongan new area can also showcase approaches to livability exemplifying the highest standards of urban development in the 21st century.

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Beijing has a number of factors that further complicate its ambitions for managing effective growth, and improving quality of life for its residents. Its geographical location is one of them. Surrounded by hills, in summer it’s at the mercy of a sandstorm effect as winds whip up across the Gobi desert. Add to that its increasing problem of very poor air quality due to industrial and traffic pollution, and it’s easy to see why there has been a succession of recent public health scares.

As with London, the concentration of jobs in Beijing’s central hub is putting the city at risk, and it’s becoming a victim of its own success. As it attracts young, highly-skilled, and high-earning professionals – particularly around the downtown Guomao area – the density of employment is only adding to the city’s existing problems. Lack of available housing space, increased air pollution, a scarcity of green space for recreation or leisure – the list goes on.

So what’s the solution for building a sustainable Beijing?

Beijing’s authorities have already taken a number of innovative steps to improve air quality, such as alternating access for cars coming into its city centre according to number plates, and planting extensively around the city to create a green wall that has quite successfully alleviated the ferocity of the sandstorm effect. But Beijing needs to broaden its scope if it wants to cultivate a sustainable, pleasant city for its inhabitants to live and work in.

That’s why its authorities are looking at a ‘multi-core’ approach to planning for the city’s growth, similar to the ‘curated clusters’ model Atkins advises in our Future Proofing London report. By moving some government departments out to peripheral new towns, this model reduces the need for thousands of workers to drive into central Beijing. Simultaneously, in my view, Beijing must also keep up the momentum in making improvements to its developing public transport system for those who do have to commute, and it must continue to strengthen its traffic management controls. A good move could be in replicating London’s model of taxing city drivers with a congestion charge.

Where Beijing could really enhance life for its population, especially in the decentralised clusters, is to focus on mixed-use, energy efficient clusters planned around public transport hubs and with a high-quality public realm. Because areas that have space for offices and homes, must also have space for parks, trees and leisure activity. Why should Beijing let the car be king, when it has the opportunity now of designing the city differently?

Beijing’s streets have an important role to play. Look again at London: in 2003 £25 million was spent pedestrianising Trafalgar Square, transforming its fume-filled roundabout status to a new European-style piazza that now offers a safe, pleasant area away from the perils of traffic.

China is still a developing nation, but in my view that’s to its advantage. It has a golden opportunity now to design-in all those factors that will enhance quality of life for its residents for many years to come.

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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

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