Can China create better cities?

Research Project Name

Curating the Right Mix

What We Did

We conducted an investigation into an overlooked aspect of China’s current mixed-use development paradigm that is also a key part of the soul of its cities: the spaces in between. From outdoor cafés to pocket parks, these are spaces with elements whose value is not easily measured, yet their inclusion can generate projects with positive returns while building a sense of community. In order to quantify these elements, our Shanghai-based team combined personal interviews from citizens, developers, the government, and designers to investigate how urban spaces have evolved over China’s history and to analyze existing mixed-use centers to develop measures for success. Our investigation explored multiple factors, such as programming and curation, user demographics, program mix, and rental rates, among others. Our goal was to arrive at key spatial traits and quantify them to aid in our design work of activating China’s evolving cities.

The Context

In the past 30 years, 600 million of China’s citizens have been lifted above the poverty line as large-scale urbanization has occurred at a rate unprecedented in human history. According to a 2013 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, China increased its urban residential population by nearly half a billion in that time, creating a total of 700 million, which represents over half of the Chinese population. By the 2030s, more than two-thirds of China is expected to live in urban areas. This represents an expected migration of over 300 million people from rural to urban areas over a 20-year period. Shanghai, China’s most populous city, has created an entirely new skyline to accommodate this growth and rapid change.

The opportunity to build resilient and livable urban spaces for this growing population may only occur once in this century. Along with its population, China’s heart and soul will increasingly be found in its cities. The responsibilities of managing this growth are great and the potential impact even greater. We believe that a key aspect of this opportunity is addressing the design of mixed-use spaces—particularly the urban spaces in which people gather and commune. As designers, we have a mandate to activate these spaces to strengthen the connective fabric that unifies China’s cities. As players in China’s multifaceted world, we embrace the responsibility of working with the government and developers to make this a reality.

The Results

The evolution of China’s urban planning strategy is dramatic, often paralleling broader cultural and political shifts. Walled cities dominated development through the mid-20th century, giving way to “unit style” courtyards and central plazas after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During and following the Cultural Revolution, large-scale open squares were created in city centers, later leading to the development of parks and new public spaces at an even larger scale which served to break the restrictive bounds of earlier systems. In the late 20th century, formal development programs gave way to rapid, unconnected development including disparate building and open space typologies characterized by superblocks, skyscrapers, and elevated highways.

We believe that recent development paradigms often neglect the spaces in between, and that these spaces can be reinvigorated with intelligent design intervention and strategy. Through our investigation, a suite of previously unmeasured elements emerged that began to define success—from the preservation and integration of history, culture, and art, to strategies that ensure seamless connections to nature and human scale. The need for such spaces will increase as urbanization continues at a rapid pace. The result is a win-win-win, improving the developer’s bottom line, providing a necessary amenity for Chinese urban communities, and supporting government planning policies.

What This Means

Approach urban space holistically. Our research reveals that the spaces in between are best realized when implemented as part of development strategies in which elements come together in synergy instead of being added piecemeal.

Preserve China’s built history. Rapid urbanization and increases in density need to be balanced by the continual integration of green space within mixed-use programs.

Create connections to nature. A homogenized approach to urban development not only challenges the preservation of China’s historic buildings but overlooks the existing and vibrant spirit of places.

Integrate cultural activities. Rapid urbanization and increases in density need to be balanced by the continual integration of green space within mixed-use programs.

Design at the human scale. Skyscrapers, superblocks, and elevated highways challenge the experience of China’s cities at the scale of the individual. To keep urban spaces seamlessly accessible, the spaces in between must be designed to create engaging, multilevel experiences with easy connectivity for those on foot.

What’s Next?

This investigation represents the first part of an ongoing research effort aimed at improving the quality of China’s cities and built form. In our first stage, we identified fundamental spatial elements in the spaces in between that we believe lead to more successful urban community space. We have begun to present these findings at conferences, via one-on-one conversations with key stakeholders, and through our ongoing China-based projects.

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Shamim Ahmadzadegan, Lin Jia, Ray Shick

Year Completed