Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Designing Cities From Scratch

What makes a perfect city? Walkability? Culture? Great restaurants? Density? Architecture? Diversity? If you could make a city from scratch, how would you design it?

Throughout history–from St Petersburg to Brasilia to many, many more–urban planners, architects and despots have attempted to turn clear tracts of land into exemplars of urban ideals…with mixed results. One of the latest editions of this city-making craze is the Tianfu Ecological City going up outside Chengdu, China.

Chicago-based architectural firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill is trying to create a prototype city that is meant to solve many of the present social and environmental pressures that have resulted from China’s explosive population and economic growth. If the prototype is a success, they can plant these cities across the country. Smith and Gill say this about the city:

When completed in about eight years, Tianfu Ecological City will be home to about 30,000 families totaling 80,000 people [within 1.3 sq km, making it one of the densest cities on earth], many of whom will also have opportunities to work within the development. The distance from any location in the city to any other location will be walkable within about 15 minutes, all but eliminating the need for most automobiles. The city will also be connected to Chengdu and surrounding areas via mass transit to be accessed at a regional transit hub at the Tianfu Ecological City center.

And this about the environmental benefits of their ultra-dense plan:

Tianfu Ecological City will use 48% less energy and 58% less water than a conventional development of similar population. It will also produce 89% less landfill waste and generate 60% less carbon dioxide.

This all sounds great and logical: Density + height  = green + walkable + great.

This algorithm comes as no surprise from from a firm that designed the “Kingdom Tower,” which at 1km high is 567 ft higher than the current highest building. But do algorithms make good cities?

A few weeks ago we looked at some not-so-great conditions in Hong Kong–the 2nd densest city in the world, whose skyline is littered with high-rises. In the piece we quoted’s Lloyd Alter as saying:

I am convinced that they are wrong, that there is a “goldilocks density” that is high enough to support a vibrant, walkable community, but not so high that you can’t walk up to your apartment when the power goes out, that needs expensive infrastructure like subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

Unlike Tianfu, other cities-from-scratch are going for the Goldilocks formula–not too high or dense. IKEA’s Strand East in east London (below) opts for meandering streets and medium sized buildings. Las Vegas’ Downtown Project is trying to transform the old Las Vegas strip into one of the world’s greatest innovation hubs, using 100 per people acre as the sweet spot for density.

Strand-EastBut comparing London and Las Vegas to Chengdu is not a fair. Though the former cities have their challenges (insane costs, dwindling water supplies), they pale in comparison to the latter’s (crazy population, industrial pollution).

So the question is: are the roads of utopian cities paved with good intentions? For example, many consider Brasilia’s idyllic center to be a model of Modernist misdirection, and its cohesive design is now surrounded by ring of improvised shanty towns (none designed by Oscar Niemeyer). Or Ordos, China, a utopian city that now sits completely uninhabited.

But there are also successes in master planning: Haussman’s Paris, L’Enfant’s Washington DC.

What do you think of Tianfu in particular, and cities-from-scratch in general? Is it a recipe for a successful city or another great idea whose time will never come?

  • djrr55

    Certainly planning is a good idea — but I guess you have to be a city person to appreciate this idea. Even 100 people per acre is at least 90 people too many for me.

  • Lennart Meijer

    Could planning be worse than, well, not planning? I’m all for planning cities, it could reap huge benefits. More specific on Tianfu: being able to walk around a medium-sized city in 15 minutes or less sounds awesome! The artistic impressions don’t even look that crowded to me, which seems odd seeing the achieved density. But when you think about it, there’s a massive saving on roads, for example, which would end up getting jammed during rush hour anyway. That space can now be used to have more green in the city, which everyone will enjoy.

    @1064831d555f0721db6bfbc24feab0c0:disqus: of course you need to be a city person, it’s a city! It’s impossible to
    design a city that is fully enjoyable for those who prefer rural areas,
    and vice versa.

  • A lot of this is founded on numbers and theories that take the ground perspective out of the picture – especially that of the layman. What does the average person – without catering to specific philosophical ideals of a set of people – want and like?

    I think it best to gather what works first as the inspiration. Look at every densely populated area whether it be a typical urban landscape or ‘unconventional’, or especially traditional (as traditional landscapes are there for a reason, best find what that reason is). Where are people most happy and healthy? Why? A lot of this is already known – i.e. walkability, social hubs, wilderness recreation accessibility, availability of living wage jobs etc. The thing is, what forms do these take? Yes, it’s walkable, but how and why is it walkable? What form do these social hubs take – what makes it a social hub? How are these wilderness recreation areas accessible? Is it right there in the back yard? Surrounding the city or is the city immersed in it?

    A city is no use if there is no way to make a living there – too many of these ‘from the ground up’ cities are gated communities for the rich. It should be designed in a way that anybody walking in from any where can work their way from nothing to a healthy happy life through being willing to work.

    AND a very big thing is seriously missing virtually all the time – basic infrastructure planning for long term use and maintenance. What use is the city 50 years down the road if they can’t access the pipes and power connections to fix them. Most often these are not maintained because of lack of proper information on what is where. And when it comes time to do it is a pain in neck just to find and access it because it is all curvy to accommodate the aesthetics of the city plan. Straight lines and easy access for infrastructure work best, but few take that into consideration when designing.