Retrospective Planning

Gongbei District, Zhuhai City

Master Plan

View to Conference Centre

Extremely rapid development is not generally compatible with far-sighted urban planning, but it does offer surprising advantages when it comes to retro-planning. The city of Zhuhai was one of China’s first Special Economic Zones, called into being by Deng Xiao Ping in the 1980’s. These were areas strategically chosen for accelerated development, Zhuhai because of its proximity to the economic hothouses of Hong Kong and Macau.

The result of these economically wildly successful areas has been an enormous urban mass, devoid of nodes, points of focus and green networks. There are now moves afoot to address these deficiencies by revisiting those areas of light industry, warehousing and mass housing that, instead of being outside of the city centre where they would normally and sensibly be sited, now find themselves disfunctionally marooned in the inner city, which has simply grown around them. A combination of selective demolition, change of function and new construction can create not only the missing urban nodes, but also public parks and the beginnings of green networks. Thus can the seeds of a Chinese urban planning renaissance be sown in the context of the economic renaissance that is required to finance these changes to the urban fabric.

The images show the Gongbei District of Zhuhai, how it looks now and how it might look within the next 10 to 20 years.

21 thoughts on “Retrospective Planning

  1. Jerry

    The third illustration looks wonderful, but I suspect that how the trees could grow to mature like they are shown in the picture in 10 and 20 years. In winter, all the grass will ‘sleep’ and the whole landscape visual quality can maintain like this?

    For public open space construction, consider about ecology is right, which leads to have more trees, more grass… but only that can not make the space busy and popular, for example, the riverside in this photograph might not be able to make the space busy, because not many space for human activity.

    But, we must realize that landscape design in China is ‘ drawing works’. I can believe that client love this picture very much.

  2. Lawrence Post author

    The insistence of Chinese clients on rendered perspectives is a problem, the culture of “seeing is believing” is unshakeably entrenched. In order to meet delivery schedules that are always too short, one is forced at a very early stage to proceed into the CAD drawings that the renderer needs to base his model on, instead of further exploration with pencils and pens.

    What projects like this really need are zoning plans and development control statements, but the government agencies cannot it seems attract developers without a lot of glossy images, and this is the framework that one must learn to work in. The images are only an indication of what is possible, and will never, ever be built, what is important is the land use layout. The authors of this plan believe that the Chinese people are becoming frustrated with their concrete jungles, dominated by the automobile, and are offering alternatives, and I remain optimistic that economic imperatives are also beginning to align themselves with this way of thinking. China is a very adaptable country, and change is always possible.

  3. Christine

    A good way to start to get more realistic representations would perhaps to have a type of time lapse presentation rendering that could demonstrate 1) a current scene 2) the proposal on completion of the construction phase 3) a two year representation 4) a five year representation 5) a five year representation and a 6) fifty year future view.

    It this way various other scenerios could be demonstrated visually including climate change scenerios, maintenance regimes, differing rates of redevelopment surrounding the site, alternative staging of the development etc.

  4. Lawrence Post author

    I think that realistic representations are often a distraction (for the client and for the general public) from what one is trying to do, and they are usually a vanity anyway. In planning cultures where the plan form is the design centrepiece, I have found that the intellectual content, the idea, – the “why” – of the work receives much more of the attention that it deserves. In planning cultures where the 3D image takes precedence, the reverse is true. Clients and the general public will always require pictures of “how it will look”, and we must address this need if we want our work to receive an audience, but the communication of ideas is far more important, ideas and not designs develop and change the world.

    1. Tom Turner

      No harm in illustrating dreams! But there may be a lesson to learn from Buddhist mandalas, which show principles rather than quotidian images. Aiming for an intermediate position between ‘pure principles’ and ‘pure realism’ I think landscape architects should show ‘images of principles’. I suspect this what Lawrence has in mind with ‘land use layout’ but the term ‘land use’ makes me think of 1960s classifications of land for ‘housing’, ‘industry’, ‘central business district’, ‘transport’ etc. And this reminds me of travelling round in the 1970s and 1980s making comparison between what were called ‘architect’s impressions’ and what had been built on the ground. The contrast was absurd: the designers had produced lovely drawings with zippitone and leteraset. The realities, not unlike the top photo in this blog post, were, in one word, GRIM.
      If I had been shown the top photo, perhaps as one of Christine’s guessing games, I think I might have said ‘Tripoli’. The architecture could be anywhere but the dust storm looks Saharan.

  5. Lawrence Post author

    Not a dust storm but air pollution, caused by solid particles conglomerating around water molecules under certain conditions of high humidity. Common in many Chinese conurbations, but apparently less common than it used to be…

  6. Tom Turner

    Wiki reports that only 1 percent of China’s 560 million city inhabitants (2007) ‘breathe air deemed safe by the European Union’ but one wonders about the extent to which this is a consequence of higher humidity and less wind.

  7. Zoe

    First of all, the real project will never 100% achieve what the master plan shows now. Secondly, the third image shows the Gongbei District of Zhuhai within the next 10 to 20 years, it would be a dream. However, the plan shouldn’t be judged without knowing the analysis of funtion and space. The relationship between project and city context will give the definition of value of this individual patch work. As far as it satifies the new needs of human activities, it may complete it’s existing purpose as a new development. This is current situation all over China. As a socialism country, it has never stopped political influnce, it will never stop it either. But this is not a reason to excuse why all the projects happening and happened in China look exactly same according to the design theory and struture. I believe the project or a city should have a soul, exactly like a human. The projects in China have no soul at the moment. This is not only because of control of government, but also depending on the level of environmental designers, which including urban designer, landscape architecs, and architects. Many foreign companies brought their old fashion of design to China in order to build up their “proud” which they can not even encourage to build in their own countries anymore. But this situation has not been recognized by Chinese people, at least the most of Chinese people. They are keeping duplicate this kind of developments which have already happened 2 or 3 decades before outside China. And those projects in China are also mainly judged by foreign desiners outside China right now. It is a real sadness and pain for Chinese people.

  8. Jerry

    Thinking about landscape/urban design problems in China can always bring ‘big headache’ before sleeping. Sometimes, I even think that if all landscape designs could followed Beihai Park style, it could be much better than what have been built recently in China.

  9. Zoe

    I agree with Jerry. Beihai Park style is unique, it is purely traditional Chinese “yuan LIn”. I call it a garden with a soul. This kind of “yuan lin” dominated a few centuries in China,it shows the culture and history. It is telling a story even by its existing form. They are the best and unbeatable comparing to the projects which have been built recently in China.
    But unfortunately it could not be repeated for any longer, because the purpose of built the Beihai Park was for Royal family. And at present, all the purpose of building a park is for citizens. China has to find a new way to develop itself not only considering the success of “yuan lin”, but also by using modern ecological and sustainable design theory, for instance, permaculture.

  10. Lawrence Post author

    Zoe, thank you for your interesting comments. I have not heard of people blaming foreign consultants for China’s urban planning problems before, and I must say I personally have seen no evidence to support this opinion. There are of course many foreign and many Chinese offices working in the planning field, as well as many mixtures of both. There is some very bad work being produced and some very good work, but it’s certainly not (I think) just the foreign consultants who are responsible for the bad. The problem with China’s urban planning (in my view) is, that no new concept and no new means of execution has arisen to replace Deng Xiao Ping’s rush for growth. There is no new flag to gather around. The undoubted economic successes of Deng’s policies have perhaps made today’s politicians nervous of suggesting replacements to them, on the principle “never change a running system”. I personally think that the first leg of the “race for growth” has been run in China, the finishing line is long passed, the race has been won, but the competitors are still running further, because they have been given no new goal. And, as we in Europe know only too well at our own cost, it is easier to develop a green field site than it is to redevelop a built one. And so China’s faceless conurbations are growing and growing further, despite so many people sharing Jerry’s “big headache” before sleeping. I was very interested in the example of Gongbei, that is so throttling itself that it is becoming economic to address solutions, and this post was made in a spirit of optimism because of that. Like watching a biological, self-healing process kick into action.

  11. Christine

    Perhaps I watch too many Chinese films…most recently ‘Red Cliffs’ (sorry not sure of its Chinese name). The world depicted in these historical films is always so beautiful – the gardens and the architecture and the natural environment – that it is impossible to wonder where did this world go? [ ] You can watch the trailer. This scene is a bit militaristic but there is still the general impression in the other shots of the Chinese aesthetic.
    [ ] and

  12. Lawrence Post author

    China’s urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time at the beginning of this year. There are now 680 million urban dwellers, 51.27 percent of the nearly 1.35 billion population. This trend is predicted to speed up. However, there are still very many rural communities who live in “old” China, living from the land with the strength of their own bodies and where very often my Chinese colleagues cannot communicate easily with the villagers because of the dialect they speak. So, that world is still there.

    I wonder what will happen to the villages as they empty? In Europe they would most likely become holiday homes, but I am not sure if the Chinese middle class is ready to view the rural life as romantic enough to want to do this, I suspect not.

    1. Tom Turner

      I have asked several Chinese people about the emptying villages – and received several replies (1) Chinese people don’t like the countryside (2) but they do like gardens (3) at present, regulations do not allow the purchase of houses in villages as second homes. My guess is that, as in most countries at most points in history, the taste for summer homes will develop in China

  13. Zoe

    Lawrence, thanks for your opinion. It is good to know how the other people think about the current projects in China. As I said before, a project can not be judged without knowing the functionality,land-use, and relationship with city context. My intention was not to give a positive or negative comment for Gongbei project. To be honest, the form of this project seems too familiar just like other projects happened everywhere in China. With more than 3years working experience at a foreign company in China, I see how they produce Chinese projects. There is no a single project they made which has urban sustainable thoughts through the whole design process at that time. And the company where I had worked before is very well-known foreign company in China(I don’t want to mention the name here). I have worked very close with an American guy who was a main role for those porjects. As I know, there are many foreign companies were doing the exactly same thing at that time. But I didn’t say all foreign companies are responsible for the bad. My point is not to blame foreign consultants for China’s urban planning problems even though the misleading projects happened in China all the time. If I didn’t study here, I would not realize what is wrong with those projects happened in China. I think Chinese environmental designers have to improve their ability and knowledge to recongnize what is good design for environment, and what is the rubbish for the cities in China. Unconscious copying the foreign projects is not a solution for China.

  14. Christine

    Zoe, some comfort can be derived from the fact that the West often does the very same thing in unconsciously copying the work of good designers. The work is not as good because they are only copying the appearance not understanding the theory that has informed the work. Some good comes of this, as other designers produce more or less thoughtful copies. But usually the end result is not so good. An example of this in the West were the social housing projects that were produced in many western countries during the 1960s (the first of which was demolished in the 1970s).

    It wasn’t always the design that was inappropriate, but often the politics or the way the project was funded placed great restrictions on how it was implemented, often resulting in a bad outcome.

    Clean air, as the Beijing Olympics demonstrated, required many of the cars to be taken off the road and most of the factories to be temporarily closed down.

    The solution to the air quality problem in China therefore could be solar, electric and hybrid cars for private travel, a sophisticated public transport network and promotion of the Chinese tradition of cycling for fitness benefits.

    All of these measures are essential in the West too, so in many ways it is a case of us working together to solve this problem that we share for the world. Chinese thinkers will undoubtably come up with their own unique solutions which hopefully they will also share with the West.

    A tip to ask of the people working in the foreign company: are they the A team (or the B or C team?) The A team are usually the people who work most closely with the designer of world renown.

    Another fundamental issue is that the idea of the ‘international style’ still has currency (perhaps more currency than it should have) so cultural influences on aesthetics are not considered valuable. So hopefully there is a middle way between an international style and tradition.

  15. Christine

    ps. Tom, there are some trees in the photograph and even a square, although it is very hard to see them! How many trees and green surfaces would be needed in an urban design solution to filter that air? Or is it a larger scale problem of deforrestation in peri-urban and rural areas also?

  16. Tom Turner

    Thank you all for a very interesting discussion of urban design in China. I would like to contribute a comment and a recommendation.
    The comment is the one I made to some Dutch landscape architects after touring their country c2000: ‘The changes you have made to your country in the past 50 years are amazing. Some of the work is excellent. But most of it looks as though it was done far too quickly’.
    My recommendation for Chinese landscape architects and urban designers to prepare for what is likely to happen next: I think the world’s biggest property bubble will end, sooner or later, with the world’s biggest property bust. Just when China has prepared a vast technical and professional built environemnt workforce, there will be an almighty POP. The cranes will disappear, the scaffolding will go into neat stacks, the earthmoving equipment will be put up for sale. And the professional workforce will need to find other things to do. So now is the time for the landscape profession to gear up for the next phase. It should be thinking about how to re-work all those rushed projects, about how to make them more beautiful, about how to make them more sustainable, about how to involve local communities in their design and management – and about how to ‘give them a soul’. The souls they need are the souls of the people. But what is a soul? Hard to say, but material goods are easy to define: they are consumer goods. ‘Spiritual goods’ can then be given a negative definition: they are the ‘flip side’ of ‘material goods’. See the wisdom of the Ancient Sages.
    PS Trees do not do as much for air quality as one would like them to. They take in C02 by day and they give it out at night. And some dust accumulates on leaves, which then fall off and can be taken away. BUT a tree-filled city makes one FEEL better.


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