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Urban planning

Futuristic urban solutions will take bold vision

Barry Wilson says learning from the past in terms of urban design is outdated in today’s fast-changing world, and calls for devising low-cost but hi-tech and future-proof cities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 July, 2017, 7:26pm

Our cities and lifestyles have been shaped by what’s gone before. In the midst of what is now the fourth industrial revolution, as the impossible becomes possible, we urgently need to relinquish outdated planning models, envision the world in which we want to live, and urgently take steps to change and shape it for the better. Time is against us.

I am looking out of the window of my home. What do I see? Not so much into the distance, as the air is thick with smog. Down on the street someone has thrown their trash into the small stream. It smells a bit and there are no fish; it’s a dead river, so people continue dumping their waste. Some of my neighbours grow vegetables on the river bank, but I wonder whether they are safe to eat. I don’t trust the tap water.

[The UK] had all the same problems 40 years ago as we have today in China

This is a memory I have. It’s of growing up in the UK in the 1970s. Frequently, I get asked what it is like overseas, is it better there, how do they solve things? How can we make our cities in China better? They have the solutions overseas, don’t they?

I remember we had dirty streets, polluted rivers, acid rain and choking chimneys. Accidents were common. We had all the problems 40 years ago that we have today in China. I remember all the old, industrial buildings, where we used to play, being demolished, whole city ­centres being torn up under the planner’s hand, those tight, twisting streets of ancient memories disappearing forever and being replaced with huge, modern, impersonal blocks of car parking, barriers and highways. Long-standing, friendly communities were torn apart and scattered far out of town; all in the name of supposed progress.

Megalopolis: the future of urban planning in China

We all want to live in a greener, cleaner, safer world. This common vision is shared in the UN Sustainable Development Goals; it’s shared by our governments, shared by all peoples, shared by you. We want to live in cities that put health and wellness first; in lively, safe environments; in caring communities, where stress is minimised. What might those cities look like?

Would they have cars clogging the streets? Could you walk your kids safely? Could you see into the distance from the top of a tower block? Would you know your neighbours? Could you drink clean water straight from the tap? Could the buildings be creating energy rather than consuming it? Would they have green streets, clean streets, clean air, soil and water? Back in 1973, I ­remember planting a tree with all my school friends. There was a ­national promotion: “plant a tree in ’73”. Then we got to “plant one more in ’74”. It was the start of a new awareness for me.

I remember litter bins arriving everywhere, plus the signs reminding you of fines for littering. I ­remember school education programmes telling us: don’t dump rubbish in rivers and streams; don’t throw garbage on the streets for someone else to pick up; don’t smoke cigarettes which foul the air and harm others.

Education was the key to a new generation of thinking about the environment we wanted to live in. Change in behaviour was essential. Slowly the rivers cleaned up; the fish came back. Slowly the trees were planted; the birds and wildlife came back. Slowly buildings smelt clean and old industry was replaced; the sky came back. Slowly old buildings were saved and transformed to new uses, communities were reinvigorated and new jobs created.

Lots of these problems seemed insurmountable at the time, but they were surmounted.

Today we have new and bigger problems than ever in maintaining the huge and ageing populations moving into cities through urbanisation. We have the ever-increasing risk of major and repeated catastrophes caused by climate change; we have the loss of cultural heritage and diversity from globalisation; we have environmental degradation from developing in the wrong place.

In China, we have repeatedly looked overseas for ideas and tried to replicate them. Today, this ­appears to be an unacceptable solution

On top of all this, the rapid pace of change in our lives makes us busier than ever and just trying to keep up becomes overwhelming.

Technology, business and social structures are rapidly evolving to meet new challenges. But cities are slow to respond. They take time to plan, finance and construct. And by the time they are built, they are ­already out of date.

Typically, we have used past examples to plan future development. In China, we have repeatedly looked overseas for ideas and tried to replicate them. Today, this ­appears to be an unacceptable solution for a rapidly changing world. We are already at the very forefront of change right here, today, in China, and we need to plan and ­design by anticipating tomorrow’s world. By expecting the unexpected. By envisioning our own futures.

A year ago, I had no idea I was going to be regularly collecting a shared bike from the street to go to work. Just three years ago, I couldn’t anticipate calling a ride-hailing ­service like Uber or Didi on my cellphone. I can now, however, foresee that, three years from now, when I call a vehicle it will arrive without a driver. But will it be a car or a drone? Will I use my phone or just “think it” to arrive? We need to urgently adjust the planning of our cities to an unknown, but very different future, to provide shock absorbers for change and to then flexibly align our development thinking to that future.

Spectacular views of Hong Kong would be visible to more in this HK$959 million green building

We keep developing based on a past that we already know is obsolete. Why do we do that?

So, what should cities be ­doing to equip themselves sufficiently for the unknowns resulting from the rapid urban transformations in progress, and how should they future-proof ­today’s investments so that they are relevant for tomorrow?

There are simple, low-cost and effective methods, based on up-to-the-moment international urban design thinking. They include new ways of thinking, and require behavioural change. They also include suspending existing costly and wasteful planning and development practices, and anticipating new lifestyles based on three key areas: future transport and technology needs; minimised environmental, social and cultural impact; and, reduced disaster risk.

Cheap Hong Kong-designed ‘container homes’ the way of the future

It’s important that we have a vision of much better living places and use the fantastic new technology available to help us get there.

We must throw out the business-as-usual planning approaches that have brought us to this rather desperate point. We must be bold, visionary and create new urban ­solutions.

How China’s rush to urbanise has created a slew of ghost towns

I’m looking out of the window of my home. It used to be an old glass factory but has been converted into a mixed hi-tech park development, with affordable housing, elderly ­accommodation, as well as converted loft space. It’s friendly and has lots of activities where I meet others. As well as a kindergarten, there is a health-care centre where staff check on residents remotely, using IT, as well as with personal visits. It has a business incubator where I run my new “city planning” start-up, so I don’t have to travel to work.

Outside the window, I am ­surrounded by trees and can see a stream. I can see far into the ­distance and the sky is bright blue. There are no roads and I see people arriving for work on the rooftop ­aerial taxi station, and others on the ground in electric pods, mingling with bikes and pedestrians on their way from the metro station.

There is a “ring, ring” and a hologram of my daughter pops up in front of me. She tells me it’s a beautiful day and suggests I join her at our local ­community farm on the roof, where we can do some gardening and then head to the canteen for lunch, eating vegetables ­we have grown. What kind of future do you want to build for your children?

Barry Wilson is an urbanist, lecturer and professional consultant (www.initiatives.com.hk). This is an edited version of his recent keynote speech at the Promotion Conference of High-tech Park in Shenzhen, Heyuan, Shanwei and Guang’an