Planning China’s megacities
Whether or not we support urbanization, it is happening at an increasing rate. As citizens, governments, developers, planners, designers, environmentalists, and climate and energy experts, we must learn how to manage rural-to-urban migration rather than wring our hands over this unstoppable trend. The fact is, urban agglomerations will provide the best models for efficiency—if we put in place the right planning, design, and development strategies to bring out the best in them. Indeed, nothing about megacities should be organic or left to chance; they must be planned and managed in a careful and innovative way.
Megacities will grow out of the most vibrant urban centers, making it imperative that we learn how to use resources as efficiently as possible. Here’s the good news: we already have workable and optimal approaches for planning, building, and managing megacities. By optimal, I mean that we have ways of creating, enhancing, and sustaining energy- and resource-efficient megacities. By definition, megacities lend themselves to efficiency; the bigger the city, the higher the concentration of people, resources, information, capital, and goods. This means that serving customers, supplying energy, and providing information—as well as the amenities most vital to urban residents, such as transportation, public health, and safety services—can be highly efficient and cost effective. The answer to the question of how big can cities get: as big as we want them to become, as long as we create and manage them correctly.
Not surprisingly, urbanization is happening fastest in developing countries such as China, where I lead a team of designers, architects, engineers, and management-service specialists. China already has seven cities with more than ten million people—Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Tianjin—and Wuhan is quickly hitting the ten million–resident mark. For China, with its high population density and its land and water scarcity, megacity development is probably the most efficient option. Chinese megacities will be hubs for jobs, culture, leisure, and education, a model that will be radically different from the manufacturing-center model that forms the basis of many Chinese cities today. Chinese megacities will also, very likely, be hubs for small and medium-sized satellite cities that will spring up around them.
As an architect and urban designer, I believe that the right approach to both retrofitting an existing megacity or building a new one from scratch is holistic planning, with commitment flowing from both the public and private sectors. For Chinese megacities to function properly, there must be clear state policies on how to build and run them, as well as strict audits to ensure that the laws are followed. Rules and guidelines on how to build a “green” infrastructure—from buildings, bridges, transport networks, and sanitation systems to power grids, incentives for consuming power efficiently, and disincentives for energy abuse and malpractice must be mandated and put into practice. Continuous investments are required from both the government and the private sector.
For this reason, the planning, design, and development of megacities should be multidisciplinary. The work should be left in the hands of planners and builders, energy specialists, architects, economists, environmentalists, transportation planners, and sustainability consultants, all working in concert. Neither the government nor the private sector by itself can enhance or create a megacity. Both sectors must work together for a project as complicated as this.
In China, not only are new megacities certain to spring up and expand, but legacy megacities (like Beijing and Guangzhou) will get even larger and more complex. They will need “retrofitting” to become more energy efficient for the future. Toward this end, my team and I are conducting a study with Beijing Planning and Design Institute in what we have dubbed the Global Cities Program (GCP) to help the capital expand sustainably. Our approach has been to evaluate the gaps between Beijing’s current planning situation and the performance of other “world cities” in four critical areas: transportation, municipal infrastructure, energy, and watershed development. We’re looking at both big-picture questions (for example, how do other world cities determine the correct level of investment in transportation) and at more granular issues (like how do other world cities provide infrastructure for bicycles, including lanes, parking facilities, and rental facilities). Based on our analysis, we will make recommendations for how Beijing can close these gaps.
In addition to solutions, we’ll be looking at how cities like Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, Singapore, and Tokyo have managed the changes needed to make themselves more livable and more sustainable. We want to know how they decided when to upgrade systems or build new ones and how they implemented those decisions.
China will continue to grow exponentially, and bigger towns and cities will consume energy and resources in potentially terrifying amounts. This is why the Chinese government must ensure that the country’s cities don’t just grow at all costs but truly tap the potential urban agglomerations hold for the productive and efficient provision and use of resources. Efficient megacities need not only sound policies but also innovative management and operations, with collaboration among governments, the private sector, and civil groups.
Megacities will work, but only if we apply holistic and multidisciplinary approaches to planning and building to help them become truly sustainable.