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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.


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.

shanghai-traffic management voting booth

I think one of the things that make it difficult (and dangerous) in Shenzhen for pedestrians and makes things harder for urban planners in in Shenzhen is the lack of enforcement of both traffic and parking rules. A foreigner in Shanghai, who thinks Shanghai is starting to get better about traffic enforcement has seen a ‘voting booth’ at a street corner.

The “Satisfaction Post” (满意柱) allows citizens to vote on whether they are satisfied or not with the local police’s ability to control traffic.  Placing a red ring on a small plastic pillar means “satisfied,” while a blue ring means “unsatisfied.” Below the ringed voting system is a slit to submit any feedback.

The voting booth is also a suggestion booth.

I know that part of the enforcement problem is the small number of police in Shenzhen and that a larger % of the total police in China work in offices, rather than patrol the streets–which is why Shenzhen relies so much on cameras to catch traffic violations. But only a few types of traffic violations can be caught be cameras–and even those can be avoided by drivers who know where the lights are. Traffic enforcement needs to be done by humans on the street–constantly.

But in the United States, traffic enforcement and fines actually make a lot of money for city governments. New York City made more than US$ 400 million from parking fines in 2004–that was five years ago. That was parking fines, and does not include traffic fines. Traffic enforcement is not a cost for cities, it is a money earner.

More photos at the link, from And there is a link to the Shanghai Traffic Police web page. 上海交通安全信息网which might have more information.

UPDATE: according to a news article from yesterday, the city of New York is expecting US$ 686 million in parking fines this year. Some are saying teh city is being too strict on parking. Others feel that, while it is nice the city is collecting aprking  fines, it also needs to be better about traffic violations.

The article is here. The American Society of Landscape Architects, has a blog that links to the article and comments from some of the  landscape architects:

“Think about trying to create a scaled, interesting park space underneath a 30 foot  high elevated 10-lane highway. It will take an extremely creative design team to pull this off.

Additionally, will roads be allowed to cut underneath the building? With the footprint being so linear, are the developers setting up a “superblock” or “radiant city” scenerio, where streetscapes and human scaled elements dominate rather than vast expanses of park land?”


2009年5月22日 至 2009年5月23日

In English :






09:30 – 17:30
地点: 香港马湾挪亚渡假酒店

生态游1 – 火山岩之旅
08:45 – 15:30
西贡东郊野公园 (万宜水库东坝)

生态游2 – 沉积岩之旅
11:15 – 17:00

语言: 英文或普通话 (并提供英文及普通话的实时传译服务)



In this article from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental studies, the author talk about why some of the plans for eco-cities in China, such as Dongtan near Shanghai have been stopped. Some quotes from the article:

Dongtan and other highly touted eco-cities across China were meant to be models of sustainable design for the future. Instead they’ve become models of bold visions that mostly stayed on the drawing boards — or collapsed from shoddy implementation. More often than not, these vaunted eco-cities have been designed by big-name foreign architectural and engineering firms who plunged into the projects with little understanding of Chinese politics, culture, and economics — and with little feel for the needs of local residents whom the utopian communities were designed to serve. “What I have always found amazing about these eco-towns is how seemingly easy it is for people to, first, tout these as a sign of China’s commitment to the environment and then, second, be surprised when things fail,” writes Richard Brubaker, founder and managing director of China Strategic Development Partners.

….Some of the problems are common to high-profile, visionary projects across China. Richard “Tad” Ferris, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for the firm Holland & Knight, explains that there exists in China, especially in Chinese law, an “aspirational culture” rather than a “compliance culture” — meaning that implementation and oversight of regulations and plans frequently fall short of reality. Anyone who has ever walked down the streets of Beijing, where sidewalks slabs with raised bumps for blind pedestrians suddenly veer into open manhole covers, knows that paths paved with progressive intentions can be strewn with peril. But there’s another side of the story. The most highly publicized eco-cities, including Dongtan and Huangbaiyu, drew upon expertise from some of the most vaunted international architectural and design firms….This international spotlight helps explain both the high hopes — and, in this case, great disappointment — connected with these eco-cities. As Wen tellingly notes, these particular projects were always much better known outside China than inside.

…In order for a green community to succeed, it not only has to limit carbon emissions but actually be livable — and adapted to local circumstances. Without extensive consultation with local people, it’s a challenge for foreign planners, even with the best of intentions, to understand what is required to transplant a farmer who grew up plowing fields into a city dweller…. Brubaker stresses the need for more community consultation and a “locally guided process.”

….Other, less-publicized approaches to building eco-cities are now underway in China that so far seem to be making more progress. A partnership between the Singapore government and the local government to build an eco-city near Tianjin looks more promising, in part because money is coming from both sources and the project is expected to earn not only global kudos but money, making a greater level of supervision and follow-through more likely.

On the whole, within China, there has lately been more enthusiasm for expanding green building codes than building new cities from scratch. “Enforceable green building codes, with the designers’ and planners’ willingness to follow them, is very important,” says Wen Bo. “Such grand eco-city plans themselves are not eco-friendly.”

Read the comment to the story as well.