Are Made-From-Scratch Cities the Answer to Asia’s Urban Overpopulation?

Departures
Stories from Departures.
Nov. 26 2011 2:38 AM

City-in-a-Box

Are made-from-scratch metropolises the answer to Asia’s urban overpopulation?

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The goal with both Eco-City and its nascent cousin, Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, the planned home of 500,000 due to open in southern China in 2014, is to write an instruction manual for green cities that any bureaucrat can follow. In Knowledge City’s case, this translates into an obsession with a city’s “software”—not the digital code humming beneath its screens, but the policies, practices, ways and means of building and managing one.

The most ambitious instant city of all remains Songdo. Originally commissioned by the Korean government to lure multinationals from Singapore and Hong Kong, Songdo is less a Korean city than a Western one floating just offshore from Seoul. Eschewing the sci-fi trappings of Tianjin or Mentougou, Songdo’s architects at the international firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates chose to use the signatures of beloved cities—Savannah’s gardens, Venice’s canals—as building blocks. (The golf course is courtesy of Jack Nicklaus.) This model has proved wildly popular with middle- and upper-middle-class Koreans, who bought the first 1,600 apartments in a weekend scramble in May 2005. More than half of Songdo’s 65,000 envisioned residents already live there; the rest are expected to move in by 2016.

Songdo, too, is touted as one of the world’s greenest, most energy-efficient cities. Buildings will boast solar panels and sod on their roofs, and 75 percent of all water and waste will be recycled. Most of the city will be wired with digital synapses—from the trunk lines running beneath the streets to the filaments branching through the walls and fixtures. To what end? Stan Gale and his partners at Cisco Systems aren’t sure, but imagine if a city operated like an iPhone—and they could sell apps for everyday life.

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Whether out of greed, desire for prestige, or sheer necessity, instant-city builders of all stripes seem to believe new cities should conform to Moore’s law: faster, better, cheaper. Just as this mentality produced the high-speed rail crash that has shaken China’s faith in progress to its core, it has also produced a municipal debt bubble running into the trillions of dollars. Will the effort to build the perfect city produce the perfect economic storm instead? Even Songdo, which is widely perceived as the most successful example, has struggled under the weight of its financial burdens. “The third owner typically makes the profit on these projects,” says Gale. “I’m trying to buck that trend.”

Whether any of these cities will be as smart or as green as they promise remains to be seen, but their creators are convinced that the world needs a better model than the urban free-for-all of Shenzhen. “Less land, less energy, more recycling and more reuse,” says Ko Kheng Hwa, CEO of Singbridge, the Singaporean developer of Guangzhou Knowledge City. Building an instant city may be problematic, but it’s far better than the alternative.

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Greg Lindsay writes for Departures magazine.

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