A New Chinese Eco-City
Designs by USF architecture students focus on sustainability with an eye on impending environmental and food crises.
TAMPA, Fla. (June 15, 2011) – How about designing a new city from the ground up?
That’s a dream project for anyone working in the field of architecture. For University of South Florida architecture and urban design students in Shannon Bassett’s class, it’s that and much more. And it’s not just any city, but one with sustainability at its very core – in China.
“Some of the most exciting building projects are going up or in the planning stages in China,” said Bassett, assistant professor of architecture and urbanism.
She developed and has taught the seminar, “Architecture and Urbanism in Modern China,” both in Tampa and in Beijing.
“This new city has the potential to become a showcase for responsible sustainable development. China, to some extent, is an incredible test bed for architects and urban designers, with its incredible rate of urbanization and openness to new ways of design,” she said.
As Bassett points out, this is not without its challenges.
“Massive pressure is being put on the existing natural landscapes, ecologies and cultural landscapes," she said. "Cities are virtually popping up out of the landscape at this special moment in China’s history as the country shifts from being 80 percent rural to 80 percent urban, predicted by some to happen by the year 2050. With a population of over 1.3 billion, the implications are enough to blow your mind.”
Her urban design class had an ideal beginning. Students confronted an empty map to virtually roam around in – imagining, creating and using new concepts and skills gained in class. Then came the shock of seeing the actual site and experiencing Chinese culture – in China. A whole new set of concepts had to be integrated into their thinking. When they arrived at the site they had gotten to know in their minds’ eye, they were surprised to see so much construction in progress and some parts already completed.
“It felt like Disney in some places,” graduate student Daniel Hall observed. “It all had a less distinct Chinese style and was kind of resort-like.”
Hall was struck by the contrasts between ancient sections of the city and the newer, more modern parts. “I think they’re too ready to get rid of the ancient parts of the city,” he said. “They’re all about modernity.”
All were struck by the sheer volume of people.
“The way they manage to walk around in crowded streets without bumping into each other, that’s the way they drive. It’s scary and beautiful at the same time,” Dominic Furlano, another graduate student, said.
“It’s impossible to imagine the cultural differences, the density and the magnitude and scale of development in China,” Bassett said. “But once there it was really nice to see how quickly all of the students began to grasp the situation and the context.”
Particularly striking to Bassett was the way the Chinese students from the Tianjin School of Architecture and Urban Design, one of the top three design schools in China, interacted with her students and “how the USF and Chinese students instantly bonded and it was quite emotional when they left.
“We worked in collaboration with students and professors,” Bassett said. “The Chinese students were really receptive to my students’ ideas and they were somewhat surprised to see the results of thinking outside the box since they are more used to working within strict guidelines and regulations. At the same time, the Chinese students asked good questions and were extremely talented in working very productively and at a surprisingly large scale, one we rarely, if ever, get to work at here in the U.S.”
The USF students noticed the contrast as well.
“Things are moving so quickly there that there isn’t much time for the kind of forethought we engage in,” Hall said.
THE NEW “ECO-CITY”
The students from the College of The Arts School of Architecture + Community Design are designing what is essentially a new town on one of the parcels of the new Tianjin-Singapore Eco-City. While they won’t actually see their designs built, this long-distance project became a little less far-fetched last semester when the students headed to China to join their counterparts, Chinese students working simultaneously on the same project. They even began learning how to speak Mandarin Chinese in preparation for their trip.
“The USF students presented their designs and concepts to the Chinese students and then worked together on further developing the scheme during a five-day workshop and charette,” Bassett said. “This project presented the students with the task of designing an alternative development to the current design plan for an area that uses landscape and ecology as well as urbanism and landscape infrastructure as a model.”
Many fears about China’s contribution to the planet’s environmental woes are being addressed in various ways in Tianjin. The city will feature energy efficiency and use of clean renewable energy. All of the buildings will conform to green building standards. The goal of the transportation systems is to reduce the level of carbon emission with light rail. Planners envision a center where environment-related technologies will be developed and taught and where tertiary and service industries will flourish.
“While the existing proposal for the new Tianjin eco-city has a number of aspects of sustainability in it, solar power, wind power, geothermal energy, the current proposed scheme is completely destroying the existing natural landscape systems in order to build it,” Bassett said.
The framework of Bassett’s urban design studio, the last in a sequence of six studios before the final culminating thesis year, focuses on developing an alternative design to the one which is currently proposed.
“My students are questioning the current scheme which wipes out the existing ecological and cultural landscape, vernacular villages, economies and ecologies, and which elevates the entire city 12 feet above the ground level on a platform with an artificial eco-corridor running down it,” she said. “The studio explores landscape infrastructure as a natural asset and develops a dynamic model that integrates flooding into the design of its open space systems.”
In Bassett’s class, three teams of three have divided the town into sections with differing levels of densities and strategies. Using their prior training, new ideas and knowledge gained in class – and their imaginations – they have moved from two-dimensional drawings to three-dimensional models that have the potential to be used as a new model for urban development.
“We’re working on a lot of different scales at the same time,” said Dimitar Dimitrov, a masters of architecture graduate student taking his first urban design class. “The problems are much more complex and we have to use a high degree of analyzing to find how to integrate all of it.”
After seeing the actual site, and having their ideas questioned and critiqued by the Chinese students, they took away valuable lessons.
“They were critical but receptive,” Dimitrov said. “We found out that they don’t use green spaces the way we do – like just sitting around in the grass, so we made our designs more useful with more practical uses, for example with small ponds for gray water. We showed them we are always thinking about how to make things better.”
BETWEEN TODAY AND TOMORROW
Tianjin serves as Beijing’s port city – a little under 100 miles from the capital city itself and the site of a developing shipping container industry, a deep-water harbor and a massive land reclamation project. Along with many of the major existing and new cities, it is connected by a high-speed rail, which clocks at almost 210 mph (over 330 kph), to become part of strategic corridors in new mega-regions and territories. The more than 11.5 square mile area along the Bohai Sea, in the Yellow River Delta, is being positioned to rival the Yangtze River area of Shanghai and the Pearl River delta of Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
The site is not an easy place to build anything. It started out as two-thirds deserted beach and salt and mineral deposits and the rest under water. Full development is a good decade away in the 2020s, and it will be home to some 350,000 inhabitants.
“Tianjin has a coastal location similar to Florida though with a climate more like New York City’s and is facing the same issues concerning the impact of coastal sea level rise, needing climate-ready estuaries as buffers between land and sea, in addition to designing open-space conditions which are more flexible and dynamic and which can change over time,” Bassett said. “Food security is also a massive issue China is encountering, in addition to an impending environmental crisis due to its rapid rate of unprecedented urbanization.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT WATER AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Bassett is teaching her class that, “Landscape infrastructure as open space systems can at once mitigate storm water run-off, clean water, provide areas for urban agriculture and local economies, while at the same time providing health and wellness and recreation in civic spaces as well as place-making.”
And with everything that must be taken into account, water is the starting point.
“It’s all about living with water and letting it flow naturally, taking its natural course,” said Juan Felipe Sanchez, also a first-year grad student. “Our goal is a city in touch with nature.”
Sanchez’s “Pathological-Geomorphology” team decided to have a “green finger” running along the high-speed rail line they all had to work around, with perpendicular avenues and waterways intersecting it where water markets and open spaces invite people to mix and mingle. The waterways are integral parts of the transportation system, and they added additional canals that work with farmlands into the mix.
Furlano’s “Integrated Hydrologies and Ecologies” team drew on some established cities. He, like his classmates, learned how to use layering techniques to describe how different urban and ecological systems overlay onto a design and which address all of the conditions they’re facing – and come up with solutions.
“We’ve been inspired by a number of best case practices from different cities that we have looked at, including Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace (a landscape infrastructural system which runs through Boston), San Antonio’s Riverwalk, as well as water cities in China such as the water city of Suzhou and sister city Venice,” Furlano said. Their design also works with existing fish farming areas, “for agriculture and aquaculture to address China’s impending food crisis,” he said. The scheme links ecologies to local economies.
Bassett is researching and developing a possible alternative approach to development strategies in Tampa and China based on landscape and ecology as urbanism. Her continued research in China is focused on a book she’s working on, which is tentatively titled Contemporary Infrastructural Urbanism and Landscape Works in China. From what she has seen, will the students’ ideas make it to realization? There’s a chance.
“China is one of the most exciting places to be right now as an emerging architect and urban designer. There are a lot of opportunities for large-scale design work that don’t exist in the US, particularly at the urban and landscape scale,” Bassett said. “Due to many factors, including the governmental structure and method of implementation, these kinds of projects haven’t existed in the U.S. since the New Deal period of the 1930s. Many mayors and party officials are also trained as engineers and are very open to hearing about new ideas and designs.”
She hopes to see less reliance on recent Western Modernist paradigms of urban design, as well as allowance for sustainable growth and originality.
Along the way, nine USF architects-in-training have expanded their abilities to see a new city-in-the-making from the ground up – an experience of a lifetime.
Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563