New Cities Offering Solutions for Growing Urban Populations

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Across the global South, new cities are being dreamed up by architects, city planners and governments, or are already under construction. Two new urban areas being built offer lessons for others in the global South. They both deploy intelligent solutions to the combined demands of urbanization, growing populations and rising expectations.

An eco city in China and a smart city in the Republic of Korea are tackling today’s – and tomorrow’s – challenges.

A joint initiative between China and Singapore, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City project (tianjinecocity.gov.sg) – located on reclaimed land some 45 kilometres from the booming Chinese city of Tianjin and 150 kilometres from Beijing – is an attempt to create a replicable model for other cities in China and the global South. Already well underway, with the first phase of construction nearly complete, the Eco-City’s hallmarks include encouraging walking, reducing reliance on private vehicles and aiming to generate 20 per cent of the city’s energy from renewable sources. It is run from the Chinese end by Tianjin TEDA Investment Holding Co., Ltd and in Singapore by the Keppel Group.

It is located 10 kilometres from the Tianjin Economic Technological Development Area (TEDA), a fast-growing high-tech business hub in its own right.

Called an “integrated work, live, play and learn environment,” it is a mix of public and private housing based on the highly successful model developed in Singapore.

The concept of an “eco city” was first raised by Richard Register in his 1987 book Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future. It was to be a place that minimizes inputs of energy, water, and food and outputs of waste heat, air pollution, carbon dioxide, methane and water pollution. Like smart cities, eco cities are taking shape in various forms around the world. Some are applying the concept and principles of an eco city to an existing place, while others are being built from scratch.

The Tianjin Eco-City is a mix of elements designed to make it sustainable in the long-term. It includes an “EcoValley” running through the development as its centrepiece green space to encourage walking and cycling between the major centres of the city. It has the usual urban services – from schools to shops and restaurants – but also, critically, a growing range of business parks to support employment.

Unlike green initiatives in wealthy, developed countries, it is hoped the Tianjin Eco-City will prove a more relevant model for the global South. It has factored in the need to make an eco city pay its way and generate new business and innovations. It is trying to address the pressing urgency of China’s growing population and rapid urbanization, while balancing people’s expectations of rising living standards. As in other countries in the global South, people aspire to a higher standard of living and this needs to be taken into consideration when planning eco cities.

Ho Tong Yen, Chief Executive Officer of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, says its aim is “sustainable development packaged in a way that is uniquely Asian.”

He says the project is intended to be “practical, replicable and scalable.”

“Practical at its core is building something that the market can support, something that is affordable given the economic development of the region,” he said. “The idea is that this model must be one that is replicable and scalable in other parts of China. Now, strictly speaking, there is no reason it needs to be just for China – it really might be replicable in other developing countries as well. Our starting point, however, is to find a model that might work for China.

“I think it is still a work in progress – a bold experiment – and it is a long-term experiment. The idea is to create an eco city that can support a population of 350,000 over a 10 to 15 year horizon.

“In some ways it is a city that does not look all that much different from other Chinese cities. But if you look at the subtleties – the building orientation, the renewable energy, the transit oriented developments, the walkability concepts – these are all the elements we built into this project.

“An eco city is not necessarily a science-fiction-like concept; it is something that is very real, very do-able. It looks a lot like a normal city – it is not a special city in a glass dome.”

The explosion in information technologies in the past decade has re-shaped the way cities can be planned, run and developed. The connectivity brought about by now-ubiquitous electronic devices such as mobile phones and the ever-expanding information networks connected by fibre optic cables is giving rise to so-called “smart cities.” These urban areas draw on information technologies to use resources more efficiently and reduce waste, while – it is hoped – better serving the needs of residents. Real-time information can be gleaned to monitor energy use, or traffic congestion, or crime, while constant online connectivity enables the efficient delivery of a multitude of services to residents.

Smart cities vary in their scope and ambition. Some are existing urban areas given a modern upgrade, while others, such as the Songdo International Business District (IBD) (songdoibd.com) smart city in the Republic of Korea, are planned and built from scratch.

Built on 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea in Incheon, Songdo International Business District is being built by Gale International and POSCO E&C of Korea. It is considered one of the largest public/private real estate ventures in the world. Due to be completed in 2017, it will be home to 65,000 people (22,000 currently live there), while 300,000 people will commute in daily to work. Fifteen years in the making and costing over US $35 billion, it is called a “synergistic city” because it contains all the elements necessary for people to live a high-quality life.

Currently 50 percent complete, Songdo IBD is considered one of Asia’s largest green developments and a world leader in meeting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) (https://new.usgbc.org/leed) standards for green buildings. For example, it has the first LEED-certified hotel in Korea, the Sheraton Incheon. These high green standards have led to the United Nations Green Climate Fund Secretariat establishing its headquarters in Songdo, with a slated opening in 2013.

Songdo is “smart” because information technology connects all its systems – residences, buildings, offices, schools, hospitals, hospitality and retail outlets. This includes more than 10,000 Cisco TelePresence units (http://www.cisco.com/en/US/products/ps7060/index.html) – menu-driven video screens – being installed in the residences to connect them to all the services available in Songdo.

It also benefits from proximity to IncheonInternationalAirport – consistently voted one of the best in the world – giving residents quick access to other Asian cities such as Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. This connection between urban development and a highly connected airport is being called an “aerotropolis.”

Songdo smart city is just one part of a massive regional development plan, using reclaimed land from the sea and marshlands. The residential and business developments are all being linked to IncheonInternationalAirport, which is being positioned as a transport hub and gateway to Northeast Asia – it boasts of being a three-and-a-half hour flight to one-third of the world’s population. The idea is to create a thriving international business hub that is a short flight away from Asia’s booming and fast-growing economic centres.

“The beauty is you are doing everything from scratch – you are using newer building technology, newer systems,” said Scott Summers, Vice President of Foreign Investment for developers Gale International Korea LLC.

“You are not going into a city and ripping up old things and then put in new systems. You have a greater opportunity to install this technology, the backbone (information technology from Cisco), to allow these services and connectivity to work properly because you are laying wires in buildings from the get-go rather than going in afterwards.”

Summers believes it is the high-tech component of Songdo that will set it apart from other cities in the future. Songdo is being built with a combination of innovative sustainable development technologies and the latest in information technologies provided by Cisco.

“That is one of the reasons we are pushing this technology, because it is how a city operates that is important,” Summers said.

“The operation of a city, to do it well, is going to improve the success of it. (To) embed into the development of the city some of the technologies of sustainable development – to put in the pneumatic waste system, grey water system, the co-generation – all of those things are much easier to do on raw land.”

Sojeong Sylvia Sohn, owner of Songdo’s Kyu, a Korean fusion cuisine restaurant, was attracted to Songdo and is banking on its future growth.

Sohn said Seoul’s “existing commercial area was just saturated.”

“SongdoInternationalCity in Incheon is the future for the region and early business tenants are coming here for investment purposes. It has uncluttered streets and modern buildings, being an international city – this makes it attractive.”

Resources

1) Eco Cities World Summit: The International Ecocity Conference Series brings together the key innovators, decision makers, technologists, businesses and organizations shaping the conversation around ecological and sustainable city, town and village design, planning and development. Website: http://www.ecocityworldsummit.org/

2) Richard Florida: The Creative Class Group is a boutique advisory services firm composed of leading next-generation researchers, academics, and strategists. Website: http://www.creativeclass.com/richard_florida

3) Global Urbanist: The Global Urbanist is an online magazine reviewing urban affairs and urban development issues in cities throughout the developed and developing world. Website: http://globalurbanist.com/

4) UN-Habitat: The United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, is the United Nations agency for human settlements. It is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all. Website: http://www.unhabitat.org

5) Eco-Cities: A Planning Guide by Zhifeng Yang. Website: http://tinyurl.com/d26rxdx

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