From BusinessInsider, overhead photos of what they say are large, new developments in China that lay empty. If they are satellite photos, though, don’t know when they were taken. Some of them may have filled up by now. What I noticed was the bad urban design among them. Overly wide boulevards with extra large curb radii. The university campus strikes me as automobile oriented, even though a university campus is one of the last places you want to be automobile oriented.

CHENGGONG has two new universities. Both of them look empty

The spaces between buildings are quite large, roads wide, and there is no sense of enclosed outdoor space. All the buildings are smack dab in the middle of each block. The Central Green space is designed like many new CBDs in China (usually the government center at the end of a symmetrical green axis), too large to be perceived as a space by someone walking it.

The Zhengzhou New Districts Civic Center is almost hilariously auto-centric–built for speed in fact.

Like Ordos, Zhengzhou New District has glamorous public buildings

The circular off ramps to the center mean you won’t even have to slow your car down. Look how much space is wasted, though, for the ramps. This is all ‘paper architecture’. Paper architecture is when people design buildings on paper so that is makes a design that looks nice from above, from the plan. However there is no conception of how the space will be perceived at ground level and no definition of space. The buildings are meant to impress, not meant to accommodate. (The most egregious example is the Wuxi government building. It is absolutely huge and well detailed with expensive materials. You need a car to walk from one end of the 700 meter long building to the other. It is government away from the people, not for the people.)

Another photo essay by the same website: this time on the British inspired Thames Town near Shanghai that was completed quite a while ago. The urban design is actually quite a bit better than a lot of what passes for urban design here.


Shenzhen has one of the highest taxi rates in China. Flagfall is 10 yuan for the first 3 kilometers, and 2.4 yuan for each additional kilometer. In response to the rise in gas prices they did not raise the fare per kilometer, but rather added a surcharge. The meter still says 10 yuan when you get in the taxi, but when you leave the taxi you have to pay three yuan more than what is on the meter. You get a receipt with the meter price and a surcharge receipt. A short ride that uses little gas has the same gas surcharge as a ride across the whole city.

I suppose i can understand. It is easier just to have taxi drivers slap a sticker on the dashboard announcing the surcharge and giving them a bunch of surcharge receipts to hand out when needed rather than having a technician adjust and seal each taxi meter.  But it seems to me that here they often attack a variable cost with a fixed cost.

Shenzhen has recently had controversy over a floating structure, the so called Sea Palace. I am drawn to floating buildings for some reason. Maybe it is that nothing puts you in touch with the water like actually being directly on top of the water (OK, you could be swimming in the water, but it is a bit hard to live the  day like that.) In China I think floating structures have some resonance too. Hong Kong, of course, has the world’s largest floating restaurant–Jumbo in Aberdeen. There too in Aberdeen also were the neighborhoods of junks. (Many pages of photos on junks and sampans in Hong Kong in the early 1970s)


So many that it housed a good portion of the population. In mainland China, families live on the river/canal barges that transport many of the goods in China.

More after the jump

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Related to the earlier post about the High Speed rail mistake–where the rail stations are designed like airports and located away from city centers. They are also isolated from the neighborhoods that they are located in. Unfortunately large structures isolating themselves from the neighborhood–and thus hurting and not helping the neighborhood–are commonplace in the  US.

Below is an aerial view of the United Center, the stadium where the Chicago Bulls play basketball. The stadium sits amidst the void of parking lots, it divides the neighborhoods rather than links it. And people who attend the games drive right in and drive right out, patronizing no neighborhood companies.

See this link for a collection of aerial photos of stadiums. The United Center is not unique. Wrigley Field is the unique one.

Wrigley Field well integrated into the community.

Admittedly sometimes you want a buffer zone between uses, but the buffer zone can consist of many things that knit together, rather than separate. Smaller scale office buildings and then apartments can buffer down to the single family residential.

The point is that usually a building should try and be a part of the neighborhood, rather than separate from it. Too often in China they seek to impress, and the architectural strategies to impress often are the ones that separate, not bring together.


In architectural renderings of new buildings going up, they have nice plazas. In reality, they are car parks

Parking in the middle of Fuhua Road. At an intersection! No they won’t get a ticket.

Outside Book City.

The mindset of an urban planner in a big city here is quite different than in the US. In the US, planners are often advocates (be that good or bad) for a more car-free city. However, here in Shenzhen I get asked by planning colleagues why I do not own a car. I have been asked that question a lot.

In a city and country where most people do not own cars, urban planning decisions are made by people who own and drive cars. Traffic and parking are enforced by people who own cars.

You know they are right. maybe I should buy a car. In the city as it is now, it is rational to buy and use a car.



What advantages does High Speed Rail (HSR) have over the airplane in China?

  • There is more leg room and the seats and aisles are a bit wider. (Just a bit wider, less than you would think)
  • Flights have more delays than the HSR.
  • Often easier and faster to go through baggage check and other security procedures at the train station than at the airport.
  • The ability to locate in a downtown area so that passengers have quick and easy access to the core of the city.

However, as currently priced,  HSR in China does not offer much, if any, price advantage over the airplane. Tickets are not cheap and definitely not affordable by the great number of migrant workers. They will be taking hard seats on the slow rail (which nonetheless is of adequate speed and generally on time).

And most importantly, despite its name, HSR is slower than the airplane. From take-off to landing, a flight between Guangzhou and Changsha takes half the time as the 2.5 hour train ride.

Here is where China is making the mistake. Airports in China and most countries are located outside the city center, usually 30 -45 minutes away (maybe longer if traffic is bad). So while HSR can’t be faster than plane on the flight/rail time it has the potential to close the gap with the airplane in total travel time: (time of transportation to and from the airport or rail station) + (time of the flight or train ride) + (time spent checking in and going through security) + delays.That is why HSR is said to work best at distances of 800 km or less. At those distances the conveniences and total travel can outweigh the flight speed advantage of the plane. The problem is that China is locating these HSR rail stations outside the CBD, and in many case quite outside the CBD–increasing the total travel time for taking HSR. The HSR station is just as far way from the CBD as the airport is. Just off the top of my head:

  • Guangzhou’s HSR station is at the end of a long subway line–at the edge of town.
  • Changsha’s station is surrounded by farmland and is a twenty minute taxi ride from the CBD.
  • Urumqi’s is twenty minutes from the CBD.
  • Shenzhen is closer in than the other cities, but still outside the original Special Economic Zone area. (However, there also will be a more local HSR station connecting to Guangzhou and Hong Kong that is right in the middle of the Futian CBD.)
  • Beijing’s HSR station, Beijing West Station, is at least fairly close in (but see below).

I understand that land assembly is cheaper and easier with parcels of land outside the CBD. Engineering is much easier among greenfields rather than in built up areas. Good reasons. But the long term health and success of HSR depends on every advantage it can get over the plane. People are rational. They weigh the benefits and the costs, and if it is just as much of a hassle to get to the HSR station as it is to the plane, might as well fly.

One reason they are locating outside of the CBD of cities, way outside of the CBD, is to spur development in other parts of the city. That is an understandable objective, but one that minimizes the efficiency of HSR. There are other methods to spur development of city neighborhoods. Plugging the HSR station into an area of the city that doesn’t have the  density of links as the central core detracts from the very type of people who are most likely to use long-distance rail–those who use rail within the city.

Another way that planners and designers are treating HSR like the plane–and thus destroying the advantages of HSR over the plane–is in the design of the stations. HSR is not the plane. Trains stations are not airports. There is actually the potential to walk to places outside the train station, not so with airports. However designers are treating the new train stations as if they are airports–devoting excessive amounts of land to them and then letting highway engineers design the approaches to the stations. Trains’ convenience advantage disappears.

File:Beijing South Station.jpg

Beijing West Station: Trust me, no one will be walking or bicycling to this train station.

See an article by Frank Fuller at The Next American City on some High Speed Rail station designs that fit in with the surrounding community, ‘Designing the High-Speed Future’:

Although  the new Berlin Central Station is being created in a formerly undeveloped area, the station literally gets enveloped by the surrounding development. People from the surrounding flow through it. Offices encroach upon even the interior space.

In Liege, Belgium, the masterplan for the area surrounding a station design by Santiago Calatrava. The plaza in front is human scaled. They aren’t afraid to bring buildings up close to the station.

Masterplan and station perspective in San Jose , California, USA. Again, integrated into the community.

Admittedly, many Chinese cities will have to deal with greater traffic due to greater number of passengers, and will certainly have better local transit options than the American HSR stations. However the stakes are higher for creating a HSR station accessible to the pedestrian because the walk shed for a HSR is likely to be a half mile rather than the usual quarter mile. Put the density where the infrastructure is. Or put the infrastructure where the density is. Every single meter counts.

The equivalent in the US of the shortsighted planning was when Chicago constructed a line of its subway system in between the lanes of a highway. In taking the land needed for the highway and for the aboveground subway (they decided underground was too expensive, another shortsighted move) they found it would be easier to combine the two projects in one process. But really what it showed was that funding for highways was lager than the funding for transit at that times–and still is. But what is left are transit stations in the middle of the highway. Even to walk to the nearest building takes a walk of at least 100 meters, and even then the nearest building is not a commercial center, but most likely a house. There is not much of a walk shed when you put the subway between the highway lanes. Also, the transit rider has to walk across a bridge across the highway–not the most fun in the windy and cold Chicago winter. And then when you are on the train, you have a view of cars on the highway going by faster than the train–disheartening.

A line of the Chicago subway (‘El’) runs between lanes of the highway.

If you don’t spend the money now, you end up needing to subsidize transit in the future because of low ridership levels, and you also push people into cars.

A view of one station.


Lastly, I don’t even understand why there is the decision to extend HSR to Urumqi. The closest big city will be ten hours away by HSR, or about 3.5 hours by plane. Even if you were to live above the train station, taking the plane is going to be much quicker and thus rational choice unless there is a major difference in ticket price. But, then again, what is one rail line when China will be building 45 new airports?

This should be the first of many. Many. The theme is simple: parking is hardly enforced in Shenzhen (and i most Chinese cities). Traffic regulations are only enforced during periods of crackdowns and through methods that do not involve the police actually being on the street watching out for traffic violations. That is, if a red light camera or speed radar/camera can’t capture the violation, it does not get enforced. This means that the city does not capture valuable revenue. (New York city had US$ 600 million in parking fines alone and it was the only type of city fine that was cost effective for the city to collect.) And it means that the variable cost of driving is way, way underpriced in Shenzhen. Driving is then subsidized at the expense of biking and walking–actually to the danger of the biker and pedestrian as many of the photos will make evident.

Some photos show the sidewalk along a the Exhibition Center becomes a parking lot–notice that the cars get the shade. The Mangrove preserve Hongshulin gets destroyed with cars a parking on the grass, not to mention cars parking along the highway–a road not safe for street side park. Other photos show fairly typical neighborhoods with cars parking on the sidewalk forcing pedestrians onto the street or parking at the corners of sidewalks. The second to last photo shows that it is not enough to park illegally, they must also double park.

The last photo shows a car basically blocking a small street in Blocks 22-23 of the new CBD. SOM created the urban design for Blocks 22-23 and did a fairly good job. Unfortunately the design was compromised at construction time with many concessions to the car.

The New York Times put out a good interactive map on New York’s 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for the city. You can adjust the slider to move between the current map and the 1811 map.

The article recounts the 200th birthday of the plan–“the single most important document in New York City’s development.”.

The Plan basically overlaid a 200 ft x 600 ft. grid over Manhattan island–regardless of topography of the island. It in fact was a reason that many of the hills of New York City were leveled. The basic parcel size in each block is 25×100. 2,000 blocks total.  With the plan, the merchant leaders of New York wanted predictability and they wanted a block that was conducive to commerce and development. What resulted isn’t one of beautiful vistas, some even call it monotonous, but it has worked well and efficiently. The grid takes a back seat to the people and the buildings of the city.

“The 200-foot-long block is short enough to provide continuous diversity for the pedestrian, and the tradition of framing out the grid by building to the street-wall makes New York streets walkable and vibrant,” said Amanda M. Burden, the director of city planning.

But some have reservations. Tony Hiss, author of “In Motion: The Experience of Travel,” said that while the grid contributes orderliness, “I still think it distances us from our natural surroundings, and it has given us a slightly spurious and diminished mental geometry.We think more in terms of linear blocks than neighborhoods.”

In its recently published Making Room for a Planet of Cities, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy complimented the plan, along with Cerda’s plan for Barcelona, for being farsighted. The 1811 Plan expanded the city by five times. Making Room says that cities should at least consider that more growth will occur than expected; it doesn’t hurt to plan for the possibility when the consequences for under planning are quite worse. Both the 1811 plan and the Barcelona plan are grids and the grid is easily extend-able, making it easy to accommodate future growth. The Lincoln land Institute’s point is that you do not need to commit to building infrastructure and streets now, just say that if the city does expand, this is where the streets would go, so don’t put buildings on what may in the future be streets.

I think lessons can be learned here in China, where some cities are underestimating population growth, or being told to underestimate population growth. The result is a constant reworking of the plan to catch up.

See the Wall Street Journal Blog entry for many other fun maps relating to Manhattan:

Xinyang masterplan by Word with SWA Group

Masterplan for a district of Doha, Qatar by mossessian and partners.

This is the centerpiece of Phase 1B of developer Dohaland’s $5.5 billion  ‘Musheireb’ development. mossessian & partners is one of four practices working on Phase 1B of the Musheireb scheme, a 35 hectare project that aims to revive, regenerate and conserve the historical downtown of ’s capital city. Due for completion in 2016, the mixed-use scheme will offer residential, commercial, retail and leisure facilities through creation of over 100 buildings. The judges of the MIPIM Architectural Review Future Projects Awards applauded the scheme for the significant attempt to create “a contemporary vernacular architecture in the Gulf. Public space is combined with extensive shading and its scale relates to everyday life”.

and their design for Al Barahat Square in within that masterplan

As shade is the first priority in comfort cooling, the design incorporates sheer density with tall narrow streets.  The street scape is very much part of the mossessian scheme: sculpting the void – carving the space between buildings – is as important as designing the buildings themselves.  Deep roof overhangs and decorative screens layer the buildings and create shade throughout the year.  The thermal mass of the building envelope is used as a heat sink to balance the region’s severe temperature fluctuations. This combination of strategies works together to create an ecosystem that offers a high level of thermal comfort in an energy efficient and therefore sustainable way.

It is a fairly nice design and human scaled. Although the chandeliers in the shaded arcades are a little odd.

Central Toronto Waterfront by West 8 and DTAH


The Toronto waterfront did not have consistent elements linking the various parts of the waterfront together, so the objective of the project is to address that fact by creating a consistent and legible image for the Central Waterfront, in both architectural and functional terms.

Also from Arch Daily that I liked

Lantern Pavilion by AWP/Atelier Oslo

An interesting public space in Norway. A god sense of enclosure and openness at the same time.

Lantern Pavilion / AWP/Atelier Oslo © Jonas Adolfsen

Built to showcase innovative wood architecture.

intent was to design a new square and a sculptural object in  in pedestrian districtaiming at revitalizing the area, and creating a place where many different activities could take place: a meeting point, markets, informal music concerts and other happenings. Since the site is visible from afar, and from the railway separating two distinct areas of the city it was essential to create an object that could be experienced from distance and reveal the square.

“Living Landscape” d3 Housing Tomorrow Competition by STUDIOMARCOVERMEULEN

This design did not win the competition.

Living Landscape 1.0 is the first design in a series. Its roots lay within traditional Dutch housing which has a back-to-back orientation with a density of approximately 36 dwellings per hectare. What sets Living Landscape 1.0 apart is the that the dwelling are situated front to back. The density of the Dutch housing is maintained. The orientation was shifted to provide optimal orientation towards the sun for all of the dwellings in the proposal.

"Living Landscape" d3 Housing Tomorrow Competition / STUDIOMARCOVERMEULEN diagram 01

A new Tower in Shenzhen

Guosen Securities Tower / Massimiliano + Doriana Fuksas

From Italian architects, Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas, who designed Shenzhen’s new airport terminal under construction.

The proposal was awarded first prized for the competition to design’s  , and, typical of the  pair, the schematic design carries a strong presence with the shear mass of the volume broken down into a more manageable scale thanks to the three-dimensional voids.  The  tower will be the first ecological tall building to be built in .

2011 Skyscraper Competition Winners

The winning design

The award seeks to discover young talent, whose ideas will change the way we understand architecture and its relationship with the natural and built environments. The first place was awarded to Atelier CMJN (Julien Combes, Gaël Brulé) from France for their ‘LO2P Recycling Skyscraper’ in New Delhi, India. The project is designed as a large-scale wind turbine that filters polluted air with a series of particle collector membranes, elevated greenhouses, and mineralization baths. More images and descriptions of winning entries after the break

Among the honorable mentions there are “waterscrapers” that clean oil spills and desalinate sea water, inverted skyscrapers for a floating Olympic villa, recycling towers, research skyscrapers that harvest lightning power, vertical cemeteries and amusement parks, sports skyscrapers, fish farms, and “living mountains” for desert climates. Other proposals use the latest building technologies and parametric design to configure environmentally conscious self-sufficient buildings.