Gary Lawrence: 'You can't dump Western models on Chinese soil'

July 09, 2008 |

BD+C: In China, it’s predicted that 600 million people will migrate from the countryside to cities by 2050. That’s more than the current population of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K., France, Australia, and all of Scandinavia combined. Why is this happening?

Gary Lawrence: It’s part push, part pull. The primary push from the rural areas is water scarcity and drought, which have made agriculture impossible in many parts of the interior. The pull to the cities is jobs, but the government is going to have to find some way to keep this huge population employed. China currently has a labor shortage in some of the more highly educated fields, so as the agrarian society becomes urban, it will be critical for the government to keep close to full employment within a learning-based economy to avoid social upheaval. That’s why, within the context of China’s rising expectations, sustainability is politically and economically strategic.

BD+C: Arup is doing several “eco-cities” in China, notably Dongtan. Could you tell us about it?

GL: Our client is Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp., the development arm of the Shanghai municipality. We did the master plan for ecological city design. The national government was sending signals that it would not release the land if the plan didn’t focus on sustainability. But this just can’t be an ecological Disneyland. It has to make sense ecologically and in business terms.

It’s on Chongming, an alluvial island in the Yangtze River. The site is 86 square kilometers, about one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan, and immediately adjacent to one of the most sensitive avian habitats in the world.

BD+C: What are the ecological challenges?

GL: We were told that if we could not guarantee that the avian habitat would be protected and even improved, then the project could not go forward. So whatever happens in Dongtan has to enhance the quality of the wetlands, rather than diminish it—improving water quality to the marshes, creating buffers from the urban area to the mudflats, tuning urban lighting patterns to make them unattractive as landing sites to birds.

BD+C: What technical innovations are you working on?

GL: There will be many canals, with electric-powered boats. Only cars with zero tail pipe emissions will be allowed into the city. Conventional transport will be held on the perimeter.

We anticipate having highly intense urban agriculture—at least one multistory factory greenhouse—to replace the agricultural capacity that will have been lost through development. One idea in beta form is to tune light diodes in order to optimize the growing conditions for fruits and vegetables.

The majority of the energy will not come from wind or solar, but from a combined heat/power system from rice husks—it’s a big rice-growing area, and now the husks are just burned. This will produce a second line of income for the farmers, and the by-product is a silicate that can be used to make roof tiles.

All waste will be collected underground. Human waste will be used for organic farming and burned for energy, and the rest will be recycled back into the economy. Anything with BTU potential will go back into the heat-generation system.

Other than the agriculture, a lot of the technology is leading edge but not bleeding edge. What’s different is how you put it together and put the control systems together to make it unnoticeable by the user.

BD+C: What have you learned about working in China?

GL: We’ve learned that it’s not going to work to just import Western models of development and dump them on Chinese soil. We have to make sure we’re doing this from a Chinese perspective. Even if we think we have the best idea, if it doesn’t fit the emotional climate of where it’s going to be applied, it’s not going to happen. At Arup, we’re in the business of creating Chinese cities for the Chinese people. We’re not creating sustainable cities and hoping the Chinese people like them.BD+C

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