Last year, Australian architect Robin Edmond took his colleagues from Melbourne on a tour through Shanghai. Instead of visiting the usual tourist hot spots along the Bund, however, the group headed straight for Pudong, Shanghai's gleaming new business district built on former farmland. And rather than doing as most tourists do - gazing up at the colossal Jin Mao, one of the tallest buildings in the world, or visiting the bulbous Pearl Tower, the visitors took in the sights with a critical eye. The purpose behind the trip was not to marvel at Shanghai's towering achievements, after all, or even to absorb lessons in large-scale building design. In fact, Mr Edmond and his colleagues from the Hassell firm were at that time finalising plans for the design of a new central business district in the city of Ningbo, some 150km away from Shanghai. What he had in mind was an object lesson in 'precisely what we would not do'. The former treaty port of Ningbo has a long-standing rivalry with Shanghai, embodied most recently in spats between the local governments over their respective market share of incoming port traffic. But according to Peter Duncan, principal architect in Hassell's Shanghai office, the Ningbo government is loath to follow the same development trajectory as its neighbour despite the ongoing competition. 'Although Ningbo wants to establish a strong identity like Shanghai, Ningbo remains very modest in its appearance and size,' Mr Duncan said. The modesty cloaks the city's growing financial clout, as it boasts a per capita monthly income of 1,160 yuan - one of the highest in mainland China. The city is planning on even more growth after the 2008 completion of the world's longest sea-spanning bridge, a 30km link that will connect Ningbo to Shanghai. In anticipation of a population and economic boom, and increasing strain on the city's existing central business district, the Ningbo Planning Authority held an international consultation in the winter of 2002 for the design of a second business district. In total four firms - from Japan, Germany, China and Australia - presented development schemes to the authority. Hassell, in conjunction with Australian engineering firm Hyder, won the contest with plans for sustainable development and people-friendly buildings. The international competition builds on growing national attention Ningbo has received in recent years for its dedication to environmental protection and its penchant for cutting-edge architecture. The city won the 2001 Model Green City Award for its efforts to increase industrial efficiency and lower emissions at more than 500 industrial enterprises surrounding Ningbo. And by more than doubling the amount of city space dedicated to green areas, Ningbo now finds itself in the running for the title of China's National Garden City. The progressive planning is earning the city a reputation outside the country as well. Ningbo was the centerpiece of an exhibition at the AEDES Architecture Institute in Berlin. 'Visitors to the exhibit are impressed [and surprised] by the quality of design in Ningbo,' said architect Bu Bing, the exhibit's curator. 'The exhibit reflects the increasing interest the world has with Chinese cities and architecture.' At Hassell's China headquarters in Pudong - an airy glass box in a low-rise building that contrasts starkly with the weighty, grey architecture of the neighbouring high-rises - Mr Duncan explains that 'sustainable urban design' means the city will make a minimal impact on the environment while ensuring that water, energy and clean air will be available for future generations. Although only a few cities on the mainland take sustainable development seriously, according to Mr Duncan, the Ningbo government has embraced the approach wholeheartedly. 'We found the local government and the people to be very supportive and very accepting of new ideas. It is not just lip service. The ideas have been adopted in their totality.' The plan calls for a host of water-recycling and energy-saving schemes. The new Ningbo centre, 3km east of the old centre, lies in a flood plain that offers a tremendous opportunity to store water and weave canals throughout the city, thereby reflecting the hallmark canals of old Ningbo. 'The canal system is modelled after traditional water-collecting methods in older cities like Suzhou that allow for flooding,' said Mr Edmond, adding that implementation of the new water-collection system will mean that despite the population doubling to three million by 2020, 'Ningbo will use only 50 per cent of the water used by other cities its size'. To meet Ningbo's mounting energy needs, the Hassell-Hyder team designed an energy system that harnesses solar energy from solar panels and wind energy from turbines shaped like prayer wheels. According to Mr Edmond, these prayer wheels are much less obtrusive than traditional windmills and can therefore be placed on top of buildings and in the city centre, rather than on remote and pristine greenfield sites. Even sewage offers a ready source of energy, because egg-shaped constructions scattered around the city will collect, compress and convert methane gas released from sewage into usable energy. Beyond mere environmental concerns, the plan aims to retain what many Chinese cities have lost: a human scale. 'The new Ningbo [central business district] will be a pedestrian-scaled city unlike Shanghai's Pudong,' said Mr Duncan, explaining that a public transport system that includes subway and light-rail services will do away with the need for cars, a particularly important concern given the upward mobility of Ningbo residents and their increasing thirst for foreign vehicles. Buildings in the new centre will also be 'low rise and human scale', meaning a maximum height of 120 metres for commercial buildings, compared to those in Shanghai, which top 420 metres. Residential blocks will rise only three or four storeys, as opposed to six to eight in cities of a similar size. The pedestrian scale is established further through 'the inclusion of a central cultural open space linked to the old city, and additional open-space corridors aligning waterways', said Mr Duncan. The team created a set of detailed urban-design guidelines that ensure 'the grand plan cannot be diluted as a result of individual development allotments taking on a different appearance to what was originally intended', said Mr Duncan. This does not mean absolute rigidity in the form and look of the city, but rather a specification that buildings should relate to and develop in context with a particular urban form. What that means is Christmas lights will not hang outside store fronts in mid-July and strangely formed towers will not 'compete for attention as they do in Pudong', said Mr Edmond. Ningbo's development also reflects the aspirations of its citizens and their unwillingness to compromise quality of life for financial gain. 'Ningbo residents don't want to build at the density of Shanghai,' said Mr Duncan. 'They are focused on top-quality spaces and quality of life.' As one fledgling international trade liaison and native of Ningbo aptly states, 'I know there is more money to be made in Shanghai, but there is also more polluted air to breathe and more dirty streets to circumnavigate. I won't give up the life I have in Ningbo.' This uncompromising spirit also resonates in the city's existing architecture. In the past year, Ningbo architecture has garnered both national and international attention thanks to the design of two mixed-used developments by Shanghai-based architecture firm MADA s.p.a.m. The company's Y-Town project, situated on China's oldest Bund - founded in 1846 and predating by four years the waterside promenade in Shanghai - offers residential and commercial areas, as well as a mixture of styles, from historically preserved courtyard buildings to an avant-garde museum featuring the latest in building materials and technologies. MADA s.p.a.m. founder and principal architect Ma Qingyun defines the firm's approach as establishing a 'proper tech' that 'challenges contemporary obsessions with the hi-tech, the fashionable, the new' by focusing on what is appropriate to the specific project, its time and place. International observers believe the designs of this vanguard Chinese firm are helping blaze a path for their own work. As Mr Duncan observed, 'When you look at the centres that have been built recently in Ningbo, like [MADA s.p.a.m.'s] new Bund, you see a level of design quality that is truly outstanding; outstanding not only within China but on an international level as well.' Indeed, MADA s.p.a.m.'s projects open the city to new ideas and ways of thinking about the built environment that allow international firms to come in with similarly smart designs aimed at sustainable development. For Mr Edmond, winning the new city centre design competition was 'doubly flattering because Ningbo already features such sophistication in design and architecture'. Both Hassell and MADA s.p.a.m. are already building upon their successes in Ningbo and taking advantage of China's building boom by accepting commissions from local governments and private developers across the mainland. It is anyone's guess whether the interest they are seeing stems from legitimate concerns for design and the environment or from a desire to cash in on a bit of avant-garde cachet. However, what is known, Mr Duncan said, is that 'other cities in China now refer to Ningbo as a model example', including cities such as Wuxi and Cixi in Zhejiang province, which are also in the process of redesigning their central business districts.