Thinking caps at the ready

Updated: 2013-06-21 09:01

By Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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 Thinking caps at the ready

An artist's impression of the Shimao Wonderland InterContinental hotel designed by the British engineering consultancy Atkins. Provided to China Daily

Thinking caps at the ready

Urbanization has become the midwife of invention

China's rapidly growing built environment is inspiring urban planners to develop new ways of thinking, says Mark Harrison, head of urban planning in Asia Pacific at the British engineering consultancy Atkins.

"I think there are so many new ideas being developed and tested out in China, because China is urbanizing at such a rapid speed," Harrison says.

Harrison says one example is the incorporation of environmental sustainability considerations into a new city or town at the point of construction, as opposed to introducing measures to reduce environmental damage after it has occurred, which was the case in many European cities.

This is because Europe industrialized early and the environmental impact of the built environment was sometimes not properly considered, whereas China's newly built cities have the advantage of learning from Europe's mistakes, Harrison says.

"As climate change becomes more of a problem, it is increasingly important to consider factors like traffic, energy use, water use and waste in new cities at the beginning," he says.

Harrison's team, which consists of 150 urban planners, has completed more than 800 projects in China, in more than 100 cities.

One project is master planning for Songjiang New City, an area rich in history and culture near Shanghai, which was being turned into a new city under the Shanghai government's One City, Nine Towns plan, passed by the Shanghai Planning Commission in 2001.

"Songjiang has been developed using the garden city concept, which originated from England," Harrison says. "But different from England, Songjiang has higher density, which needed to be taken into account in the master planning process.

"Songjiang also has many aspects of traditional heritage and culture which we have integrated into our overall design."

The garden city concept, first proposed by the British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1898, emphasizes self-contained communities allowing residents to live harmoniously with their surroundings.

In the city plan Harrison's team created, modern leisure and recreational features such as a golf course co-exist with traditional landscape in a coherent manner "through careful consideration", he says.

The traditional landscape features have been incorporated into tourism locations, whereas more modern facilities are mostly used by the city's residents in their everyday lives.

"The key thing is to respect the heritage, and not to destroy it, and also to integrate them with the needs of modern life, transport and facilities," Harrison says.

Another feature in Songjiang in which Atkins helped with the architectural, structural and civil engineering work is Shimao Wonderland InterContinental hotel, being built on the site of a 90-meter-deep abandoned quarry.

The five-star hotel is striking because it uses the existing landscape in an innovative way. As water already existed in the old quarry, Atkins has kept water as a main theme, turning the lowest level of the hotel into a venue for water sports, with a spa and a swimming pool. The underwater level is designed to host an aquarium.

"Because of the location, we couldn't build a tall tower, so we went down into the quarry and built an interesting design."

Apart from new construction projects, Harrison says his team is heavily involved in many regeneration projects to help cities cope with a growing urban population and give them a new look.

"Urban areas often just need a new look and refresh. Maybe they suffer from transport problems as car ownership increases rapidly. There may be other concerns such as water quality or the quality of the urban environment."

Harrison says one of his team's projects is providing guidelines on the regeneration work for Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, a city known for its relaxed lifestyle but which has been transformed in recent years as a result of its fast-growing high-tech industries.

Features of the regeneration included increasing greenery and building more low-speed roads in the city center, adding central islands to pedestrian crossings to ensure safety, adding more leisure facilities such as shops and restaurants around big community parks, and increasing the use of green material for important public sector buildings.

"The key is to identify the real character of the area," Harrison says. "Chengdu has many lively areas, especially its markets. It also has many natural landscape features, like river courses. It is important to make sure they are retained and not destroyed.

"So regeneration is about identifying and building on the character of a city to make them livable."

Harrison says one clear advantage Atkins has in the field of regeneration is its engineering expertise in brownfield development. As the official engineering design services provider to the London Olympics last year, Atkins demonstrated its brownfield site regeneration expertise by turning an old industrial site into a vibrant, safe sports venue.

"That's expertise necessary in China, because many of the areas China is regenerating may previously have been used by factories, which have pollutants," Harrison says. "We have the technology to make them safe for living."

Harrison says China will continue to be an important and interesting market for his team.

"When we think of China, it's such a large and diverse country with all sorts of different developments going on at the same time. We encourage a lot of our Chinese staff to go and work overseas and bring back expertise from all around the world to China."

(China Daily European Weekly 06/21/2013 page16)