AECOM’s master plan for Dalian in northeast China integrates the development with the mountainous topography

11 August 2010 – FAVOURITES: In the six years since Melbourne-based LAB Architecture Studio started working in China the sustainability landscape has changed dramatically. Other Australians too have found the country moving fast on its sustainability agenda- especially once the authorities get behind an initiative. Nanjing,  for instance, is almost a forest of solar panels from the air.

With politicians on all sides in the lead up to the federal election throwing around terms like “sustainable population growth” and “responsible immigration policy” it is sobering to take a look at how countries like China tackle the challenge of burgeoning urbanisation and urban renewal.

By 2025, China will have more than 200 cities with over one million inhabitants and more than 20 cities with over five million inhabitants with all the accompanying problems of traffic congestion, land contamination and air and water pollution.

But the will of Chinese authorities to find urban planning and low carbon solutions is equally enormous say Australians involved in urban renewal and green design projects in China. So much so, they are fast becoming leaders in sustainability.

Romilly Madew, CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia, recently returned from Nanjing in China, where she spoke at the Expo 2010 Shanghai China Forum “Towards a Low carbon city – Environmental protection and urban responsibilities”. She told The Fifth Estate Australia has a lot to learn from China.

“One thing is clear – China has huge environmental protection problems, the smog is constant, children think the sky is grey not blue and they don’t see the stars anymore, traffic congestion is overwhelming and water pollution is causing a variety of problems – all evidence of the growing urbanisation of China.  What is apparent is that China fully accepts it has challenges and is stepping up to meet those challenges on a scale Australians could not fathom,” Madew says.

Madew presented alongside speakers such as the Chief Architect of the China Pavilion of World Expo 2010, He Jingtang; China’s largest residential developer, Chairman of the Vanke Company, Wang Shi; and Chief, Sustainable Consumption and Production, United Nations Environment Programme, Arab Hoballah.

According to Madew, Chinese government speakers one after another outlined the many challenges China is facing. Liang Bohua, Secretary of CPC Jiangsu Provincial Committee, told the audience: “We need to change the way cities develop, we have to shift from resource driven to technology and innovation. This requires a structural adjustment to achieve a low carbon economy, attain green growth and harmonious development.”

The Minister, Ministry of Environmental Protection, PRC, Zhou Shengxian, spoke on environmental protection and urban future: “Urban development must be sustainable otherwise even abundant wealth will be depleted.  We need new ideas, new approaches and new models – developed through innovation.  The Chinese government has been emphasising the importance of environmental protection, sustainable development is a national strategy.

AECOM’s development in Dalian, northeast China

“We have been experiencing urbanisation problems over the past 30 years whereas other global developed cities had over 300 years to develop. This has caused massive issues in China.  We have 1.3 billion people and are under a lot of pressure to develop our economy and balance this with environmental protection.

“Developed countries developed their economy first then focused on the environment. We have to achieve this at the same time, therefore we are learning from the experiences and lessons from other countries, but we know we cannot develop our economy at the expense of the environment.”

Australians developing new skills

Because of the size of the projects and scale of the challenges Australians who work in China on urban renewal projects are acquiring skills they would be unlikely to develop domestically.

Melbourne-based LAB Architecture Studio has been working on architectural and urban renewal projects in China since 2004. Peter Davidson, LAB’s design director, told The Fifth Estate Australia can learn much from China about creating sustainable cities.

“In many ways China’s cities are already much more sustainable than ours – they are more densely populated and compact, have very good transport networks and are building infrastructure as they grow.

“When you look at Nanjing from the air, for example, just about all the roofs are covered with solar panels. This has been built into the development regulations with incentives offered for installation. It introduces solar power on a huge scale when you think of the many thousands of roofs,” says Davidson.

The knowledge transfer is very much two-way for Australian firms working in Australia, says Davidson. Planning or sustainability initiatives, once taken up by authorities, are decreed and change is fast and far reaching.

“From our point of view our experience of working in China has given us exposure to a scale and complexity that doesn’t occur in Australia but gives us skills that are very useful for our work here.”

Change has happened fast – six years ago when LAB first worked in China green was pretty much an unknown word, says Davidson: “They thought it was an extravagance. Even with quite enlightened clients it was very difficult to get them to buy into sustainability. We had to incorporate things more by stealth by doing things like facades that responded to orientation by minimising heat gain through reducing the amount of glass in south and western facades. People thought they were aesthetic rather than environmental.”

The take-up of sustainable building is developing quickly in China, says Davidson, particularly with the recent introduction of the MOHURD (Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development) green star system, which for the first time establishes a benchmarking system responding to Chinese conditions.  This should be put in perspective, he says, considering Australian rating systems are barely a decade old.

LAB is one of the founders of the Australian Urban Systems initiative, together with Urbis and DesignInc. The three companies worked together to develop a cluster organisation that would have the combined expertise to work on a broad range of projects in China. AUS was supported by the Victorian government in 2006 to promote Victoria’s skills in the sustainable urban development field into the urbanisation market of China and is supported and managed through the Department of Innovation Industry and Regional Development.

“One of the things in the Chinese system is that there is not a strong holistic approach to design and engineering – these areas are often separated. The AUS initiative helps bring a more integrated approach to projects so that sustainable engineering systems can be built into a design rather than trying to be added on later,” says Davidson.

LAB also formed a team with economics and planning consultants, SGS, and landscape architecture firm, Oculus, to work on an urban renewal plan for Qilin for the Nanjing Urban Planning Bureau. This involved developing an urban framework for an 18 square kilometre area on the outskirts of Nanjing, which is part of the larger 100 square kilometre Xianlin University New Town development. The new quarter of Qilin is based on industries that are driven by knowledge, creativity and entrepreneurship.

The plan has now been adopted as part of the planning code for the area and will begin implementation in 12 to 18 months. It takes into account existing topography as well as water and ecology systems and uses this to determine the road networks and building development plots. Through traffic is diverted away from the main built areas and retail and commercial development are dispersed throughout the area to create a more integrated, walkable and liveable place.

The area was originally meant to have a large convention centre but because of a government decision the centre was moved, along with many associated businesses. There were already a number of universities in the area but, says Davidson, there was no real engagement between them and other activities or businesses.

“The function of this whole area changed and so we had to ensure the economic basis of the area remained viable. We developed a small scale mixed land use matrix to encourage small start ups and smaller scale industry to provide links with the universities. We also looked at locating some of the university campuses in other commercial and central residential areas to encourage more interaction,” says Davidson.

The Qilin project led to other projects for LAB including an renewal plan for the historic Nanjing Yangtze River waterfront. Covering a three kilometre stretch of the river, the area is historically and culturally significant and contains a number of 400 to 500 year old buildings as well as industrial buildings from the 1960s and 70s.

“This was the city’s original port area but the port was moved in the 1980s and this area has never been redeveloped. Cities like Nanjing are discovering that their rivers are part of their heritage and they are looking for ways to engage and develop the waterfront. The plan we develop is going to involve a sustainability framework for reusing existing industrial buildings and housing and integrating new office buildings with these,” says Davidson.

“The AUS initiative is really important in this work – it is providing different development models for the Chinese to use. And because AUS is engaging at a government level it really is having an impact on changing the development and urban planning networks. It is sustainable urban development of a very different kind to previously proposed.”

AECOM’s Dalian development

Information flow between the two countries

Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province, sister province with Victoria, and as a result of the relationship information about planning is flowing between the two. Nanjing is looking at different ways of applying models from the Melbourne 2030 Plan and the MCC’s Future Melbourne planning initiative including open community consultation.

“They really liked this idea of consultation with the main stakeholders and using a Wiki for communication– something that genuinely surprised us,” Davidson says.

“But because planning is done in a closed loop there is little chance to engage with stakeholders. By using something like a Wiki for feedback planning authorities can talk to residents, developers and institutions about their views. What they’ve found is that when people aren’t given a chance to give their views they can work against decisions after they’ve been implemented.”

Jason Marriott, managing director architecture for AECOM in Beijing, agrees that China will be a leader in sustainability not too far down the track, particularly in regard to carbon emissions.

“In China the future is about survival emissions whereas in developed countries it’s really about luxury emissions. China is dealing with infrastructure development and the processes to deal with emissions simultaneously and their approach to sustainability is very different – they are building new environments from scratch. In Sydney, for example, reducing emissions is really about changing lifestyles,” says Marriott.

The issues that China is dealing with are also on a scale beyond what Australians can imagine.

“Just the raw infrastructure needed as a result of urbanisation in China is massive. They are also faced with remediating land and water that has had hundreds of years of use and re-use for industry. There are significant areas of damaged land parcels and even cleaning the waterways is a massive undertaking,” says Marriott.

AECOM has a large presence in China with more than 1300 people working in a broad range of projects including engineering, urban design and landscape and architecture. Air, water and land remediation, and transport solutions are a large part of all projects.

“In our architecture we are trying to embody all projects with sustainable solutions and also to provide benchmarking. Local government authorities and mayors are very interested in this – they are given incentives by the government for sustainable development and there is definitely a sense of responsibility about it,” Marriott says.

Balancing growth with sustainability

While developers were driven by the need to make a profit, an increase in incentives and regulations were encouraging a much greater awareness of sustainable practices. But the Chinese government was trying to balance the need for sustainability with a policy of urban growth.

“They’ve got to keep the engine ticking so they don’t want to get too strict with regulations and retard growth,” says Marriott.

One of the biggest problems in China’s urban renewal process is the brain drain from the west to the east. Knowledge workers are migrating at a rapid rate from western China to eastern China as well as overseas.

“The challenge is to create better environments in west China to keep knowledge workers there and to help renewal. Consequently we are working with Tier Two, Three and Four cities and looking at the total district planning as well as individual projects.

AECOM uses an integrated approach in its planning. On one project in Dalian, in northeast China, a large development engages and blends with the mountainous landscape, the mountain bleeding down into a podium roof garden. This substantially eliminates the heat island effect of the development and reduces overall energy loading due the insulation effect of the landscape.

Energy infrastructure is a major growth area and the government is embracing renewable technology on a large scale, including smart grid networks.

“We have just created a new energy division as this is a big thing for China – developing smart grids for cities. It is one of our areas of interest,” says Marriott.

The beauty of working in China for sustainability experts of any kind is the chance to create new cities and renew old ones from the ground up. For Jason Marriott it provides the scale that is really needed if we are to have an impact on climate change and carbon emissions:

“People get caught up in putting in new technology in one building. It’s not the changes to individual buildings here and there that change things. But if you apply changes to 500 buildings and implement systems to work holistically that is when we’re going to see a difference.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au