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Monday, May 21, 2007

Urban planning for the 21st Century

The May issue of Wired magazine has a very interesting article about the design of a new eco-friendly city just outside Shanghai. Dongtan will be built from scratch on a marshy alluvial island in the mouth of the Yangtze river. It is scheduled to be up and running by 2010 and will support 500,000 residents. (The picture at left is a map of the city that appears with the Wired story.)

It's a new approach to urban planning — one that uses the natural features of the area to influence the character of the design, rather than the traditional human propensity to try to impose our will on the environment. The city is being planned as an integrated whole, with rules put in place that tightly regulate what can be built and how (that's certainly an alien concept to the folks here in my neighborhood where demolition and new construction take place with very little consideration for the impacts on the larger community).

Dogestan is a refereshing break from previous development in China, which has been accompanied by rampant pollution and environmental neglect. It could prove to be a model community that shows other developing countries there are tremendous economic benefits in building efficient, sustainable communities. Considering the current fragile state of the Earth and the threat that poses to our ability to feed a population of 6 billion and growing, there's not much more margin for error.

Let's hope it's not too late to change course for we westerners with cities built for the old industrial economy. Unfortunately, we are hampered by outdated infrastructure and over a century of bad habits.

Here are a few passages from the Wired Article, followed by a link to the full text:

Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis
by Douglas McGray

Dongtan's master plan — hundreds of pages of maps, schematics, and data — has almost nothing to say about architectural style. Instead, it outlines the world's first green city, every block engineered in response to China's environmental crisis. It's like the source code for an urban operating system. "We're not focused on the form," Gutierrez explains. "We're focused on the performance of the form." He and his team imagine a city powered by local, renewable energy, with superefficient buildings clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods; a recycling scheme that repurposes 90 percent of all waste; a network of high tech organic farms; and a ban on any vehicle that emits CO2. ...

These new megacities could evolve into sprawling, polluting megaslums. Or they could define a new species of world city. Unlike New York or London, they are blank slates — less affluent, perhaps, but also free from legacy designs and technologies tailored to the world of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is a huge advantage. ... "Shanghai today is making 90 percent of the mistakes that American cities made," Burdett argues — spreading out, building up single-family homes, replacing naturally mixed-use neighborhoods with isolated zones for living, shopping, and working, and connecting it all with car travel. But fixing these problems is still possible.

If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world — cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress, a relationship Gutierrez calls "the nightmare of the 20th century."

Read the full article

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