2012 ULI Asia Pacific Summit

Peter Rummell, chairman of the Urban Land Institute (ULI), on Thursday challenged guests at the opening of the global planning group’s first Asia Pacific Summit in Beijing, calling on its 1,000-plus regional members to work together to shape Asian cities into nice places to live.

Success will be measured, Rummell said, in “whether people enjoy their urban lives or merely endure them.”

Urban planning is a priority for ULI and its partners across the region, as 11 of the world’s 21 megacities are now located in Asia, where the teeming urban landscape is expected to add another 450 million people by 2050.

“This area of the world is so crucial to the future of the built environment,” said Rummell. “The more effective we are in Beijing, the more effective we’ll be in Chicago or Mexico City.”

If cities—indeed, if whole national and regional economies—are to continue recovering from the global recession, then livability, flexibility, mobility, and choice should remain strongly in focus as planners do their work in the years to come, Rummell said.

“A high quality of urban life is the most powerful engine for economic growth,” he said.

Asia Pacific Summit May 17 in Beijing

Nie Meisheng, president of CRECC, the China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce, and ULI Chairman Peter Rummell, sign a memorandum of understanding at ULI’s inaugural Asia Pacific Summit May 17 in Beijing. The memorandum outlines ways ULI and the CRECC, which represents approximately 5,000 real estate developers in mainland China can cooperate on conferences, training, advisory services and publications in coming years. Photo: Elizabeth Razzi

Joining Rummell on stage at the opening of the two-day summit to sign a three-year memorandum of understanding to promote the joint organization of events, professional development training, and ULI’s advisory services was Nie Meisheng, president of the ten-year-old China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce (CRECC), a nongovernmental body that helps China’s central government shape real estate development policies.

Formerly a high-ranking official in China’s ministry of construction, Madam Nie said that China, after 30 years of breakneck growth, had reached a “crucial stage of urban development” at which it is “just as important to pursue quality as it is to achieve speed.”

To that end, the CRECC, Nie said, is working to act on the central government’s 12th Five-Year Plan and its vision for low-carbon development that also addresses China’s growing tourism and the needs of its aging population.

“We are happy to build up our work with ULI to promote China’s sustainable development,” Nie said.
There to explore just how to begin to do this were Wu Jiang, a lead architect of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and Cheong Koon Hean, chief executive of Singapore’s Housing & Development Board.

Wu, a vice president and professor of architecture and urban planning at Shanghai’s Tongji University, presented a condensed history of the development of China’s largest city, where a lack of land is now the greatest challenge, now that the population—estimated in April at 23.48 million—has risen from roughly 5.5 million in the 1940s and is expected to keep growing.

“Two hundred years ago, Europeans were lucky to have the ‘three As’ waiting for them when things started to get crowded: America, Australia, and Africa. We don’t have an ‘A,’ or even a ‘B’; we’ve just got a ‘C’—China,” Wu said.

In Shanghai, that translates into 2,610 square miles (6,760 sq km)—roughly the same size as Singapore, where the population is only 5.2 million—with 10 million Shanghai residents living in a city center measuring just 255 square miles (660 sq km).

The controlled chaos that is Shanghai today is the legacy of choices made 60 years ago, Wu said.

“Shanghai’s master plan of the 1940s was never realized because of the revolution. In the 1950s, China followed the Russian model instead, turning the cities into industrial centers rather than livable areas,” he said.

Fourteen years after the founding of modern China, Singapore’s independence from Britain in 1963 set the southeast Asian city-state on an entirely different course, one that Madam Cheong, who oversees the building of 30,000 public housing units each year, said she hopes will prove instructive as China tries to manage growth.

China plans to add 36 million public housing units over the next five years, 10 million of which got underway last year, including 600 units inside the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City, where another 1,000 units are now underway.

“We’ve never seen this scale before in history,” said Cheong.

Singapore and Cheong’s HDB may have much to teach China—about water conservation, green space development, and subsidizing the right things, such as homeownership, rather than the wrong things, such as energy costs, which can promote pollution.

But China’s growing wealth and its people’s and government’s desire to join the ranks of developed nations have fueled a tendency to leapfrog whole cycles of development across entire industries. Take telecommunications, for instance: many Chinese households have skipped installing a land line in favor of iPhones for the whole family.

To that end, Wu said Shanghai’s new master plan, begun in the 1990s, now includes many of the same goals set out by Singapore in the 1970s. In some cases, Shanghai has shown remarkable progress.

Around 1982, Shanghai had but 61.7 acres (0.25 sq km) of urban green space per person, but it now has 9.6 square miles (25 sq km) per person, showing 100-fold growth and helping to offset the carbon emissions of the population.

While Shanghai’s natural birth rate has been flat or shrinking for nearly two decades, its population continues to grow because of inbound migrant labor looking for work—totaling some 500,000 arrivals each year, Wu said.

To move them about the city efficiently, Shanghai’s public transportation system takes a page out of the Singapore book and magnifies it many times over. Shanghai will grow its subway system to 606 miles (976 km) of track on 19 train lines by 2020, up from the 14 lines now in operation on 279 miles (450 km) of track.

Like tiny Singapore, where planners long ago concentrated high-density residential and office developments near transit hubs—moving commercial developments to other areas—Shanghai now is planning a ring of smaller cities around its current city center.

“Shanghai must change its thinking. We are not only one city, but a group of new cities,” said Wu, whose slide presentation to ULI guests showed nine such developments encircling Shanghai’s current core.

Each of these new satellite cities, which are part of the current greater Shanghai metropolitan area, will be responsible for building up transportation and greenery while maintaining and conserving its historic buildings, Wu said.

Whereas much of historic Shanghai architecture was destroyed about 15 years ago, the preservation and restoration of the 1920s-vintage Western-style buildings on the city’s famous riverside Bund were converted into high-end retail and entertainment spaces, and now serve as a model for the city’s future.

Noting his pleasure that much of the space he helped develop for the Shanghai Expo—stripping industry out of the city center to make way for the enormous event—also is now turning into a livable, enjoyable area for culture and tourism, Wu concluded: “It’s never too late to overcome mistakes.”

For additional coverage of the 2012 ULI Asia Pacific Summit see:
Sustainability in Asia: A Conversation
Developers Hone in on Asia Investment Opportunities